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Oct 28, 2009

Online Books

Following my previous blog on "We-Think", here's an update of the latest news about books online, featured in The Straits Times, Digital Life Section, Wednesday, October 28, 2009.


"Books held hostage - offline"

Putting books online will save the publishing industry, argues CLIVE THOMPSON.

WHEN McKenzie Wark wrote Gamer Theory - an analysis of why people enjoy playing video games - Harvard University Press published it as a conventional hardcover. However, McKensie also put it online using CommentPress. The free blog theme blew the book open into a series of conversations; every paragraph could spawn its own discussion forum for readers.

Sure enough, hundrecds dove in and, pretty soon, Gamer Theory sparked erudite exchanges on everything from Plato's cave to Schopenhaurer's ideas on boredom.

It felt as much like a rangy, excited Twitter conversation as it did a book. "It was all because we opened it up and gave readers a way to interact with each other," McKenzie says. "It changed the way they read the book."

Books are the last bastion of the old business model - the only major medium that still has not embraced the digital age.

Publishers and author advocates have generally refused to put books online for fear that the content will be Napsterised.

You can understand their terror because the publishing industry is in big financial trouble and rife with layoffs and restructuring. Literary pundits are fretting: Can books survive in this Facebooked, attention deficit disorder, multi-channel universe?

To which I reply: Sure they can - but only if publishers adopt McKenzie's perspective and provide new ways for people to encounter the written word.

We need to stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading.

Every other form of media that has gone digital has been transformed by its audience.

Whenever a newspaper story, TV clip, blog post or white paper goes online, readers and viewers begin commenting about it on blogs, snipping their favourite sections and passing them along.

The only reason the same thing does not happen to books is that they are locked into ink on paper.

Release them and you release the crow.

BookGlutton, a site that was launched last year, has put 1,660 books online and created tools that let readers form groups to discuss their favourite titles.

Meanshile, Bob Stein, an e-publishing veteran from the CD-ROM days, put the Doris Lessing book "The Golden Notebook" online with an elegant commenting system and hired seven writers to collaboratively read it.

Neither move should come as a surprise.

Books have a centuries-old tradition of annotation and commentary, ranging from the Talmud and scholarly criticism to book clubs and marginalia.

Bob believes that if books were set free digitally, it could produce a class of "professional readers" - people so insightful that you would pay to download their footnotes.

Worldwide Web of nerds

Sounds unlikely? It already exists in the real world: Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall has found that university students carefully study used textbooks before buying them because they want to acquire the smartest notes.

The technology is here. Book nerds are now working on XML-like markup languages that would allow for really terrific linking and mashups.

Imagine a world where there is a URL for everyd chapter and paragraph - every sentence, even - in a book.

Readers could point to their favourite sections in a MySpace update or instant message or respond to an argument by copiously linking to the smartest passages in a recent bestseller.

This would massively improve what bibliophiles call book discovery. You are far more likely to hear about a book if a friend has highlighted a couple of brilliant sentences in a Facebook update - and if you hear about it, you are far more likely to buy it in print.

Yes, in print. The few authors who have experimented with giving away digital copies (mostly in sci-fi) have found that they end up selling more copies because their books were discovered by more people.
I am not suggesting that books need always be social. One of the chief pleasures of a book is mental solitude, that deep, quiet focus on an auther's thoughts and your own. That is not going away.

However, books have been held hostage offline for far too long. Taking them digital will unlock their real hidden value: the readers.


Clive Thompson is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine




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