An article in Wired last month asked whether Amazon could use its Kindle platform to reinvent books. I thought that was a ridiculous question in and of itself, but the ensuing debate over on The Passive Voice has made me realize that there is also a fundamental flaw in the viewpoint that lead to the question being asked.
It is a flaw exhibited by many articles about ebooks, books, and digital publishing, and it is such a fundamental assumption shared by so many that it is hard to explain.
I think one way to define it is that – even in this digital age – our culture assumes that books matter more than other type of content.
We’ve put books on a pedestal so much so that many articles and commentaries about reading assume that, even though there are many ways to tell a story and many places to read a story, the only reading that matters is reading a book.
We can see this both in the news coverage that “new types of books” get as well as the developers who are trying to invent those new art forms. The coverage is usually framed in terms of “a new type of book” rather than “a new way to tell stories” because books are the only thing that matters.
This is why Visual Editions mislabeled the stories they crafted on websites (Editions at Play) by calling them ebooks; if the works were accurately labeled then no one in the mainstream press would write about them. This is also why so many developers have tried to “reinvent the book” by making it more like a game, app, or what have you.
It is almost as if new creations have to be labeled as books or ebooks or they will simply be disregarded (this is, again, a result of the flaw I mentioned).
I was reminded of this in a discussion over on The Passive Voice. One commenter insisted (falsely) that non-fiction hasn’t seen the same disruption as the Kindle platform has wrought on the trade fiction market.
I am excerpting a couple different comments here, but I swear I am not trying to take what he says out of context.
Agree about the narrative book. We have seen real disruption there. Technology was applied to make a product many consider superior to paper.
But, we haven’t seen the same kind of disruption outside the narrative form. I’d say application of existing technology could offer much more to the non-narrative form that it did to the narrative. (Non-narrative is any form containing something other than narrative.)
Digital readers are still primitive. Fortunately, novels are very well suited to the primitive. Like screw drivers or hammers, it’s just very difficult to improve on some things. An uninterrupted flow of words is hard to beat.
What his comment made me realize was that the real threat to non-fiction was already here, and that some don’t see it because it didn’t come in the form of the exalted book.
The non-fiction market is being disrupted by a tech that has been around for 24 years.
It’s the web browser, only many have overlooked it because it is in no way, shape, or form a book.
Everyone keeps looking for a “Kindle for non-fiction” because they assume that books are the only thing that matter. What they missed was that the Kindle doesn’t deliver books so much as it delivers stories.
A story is a narrative in its most basic form, and one of the more amazing parts of the Kindle platform was that stories were no longer limited to commercial lengths imposed by print runs. Creators can sell anything from a short story to a novella to epic fantasy without worrying about optimal page counts.
But many don’t see that because they are mistakenly focusing on books.
In the same way that the Kindle reduced books to their simplest form (a story), the web browser has broken down non-fiction content to its most basic form: a collection of facts. Freed from the commercial restrictions imposed by print runs, those facts have then been atomized into individual web pages, videos, graphics, and other web content.
But that progression doesn’t matter because those aren’t books.
The simple fact is, folks, that all the amazing new “book” features that pundits love and consumers ignore, all of the “new” ideas, can already be done with existing web technologies. In fact, some of the enhanced ebooks projects consisted of little more than taking existing web tech and then bundling it into an ebook.
The new form of book some are asking about already exists. You can make them in the web browser today (and people are), only pundits overlook this fact because they think only books matter and the new content doesn’t meet their definition of a book.
And that includes Wired, which ended its piece with:
In 2008, Bezos wrote in a note to shareholders that modern technologies have “shifted us more toward information snacking, and I would argue toward shorter attention spans.” Kindle, however, “is purpose-built for long-form reading,” he wrote. “We hope Kindle and its successors may gradually and incrementally move us over years into a world with longer spans of attention, providing a counterbalance to the recent proliferation of info-snacking tools.”
Bezos also wrote in that letter that he was “convinced books are on the verge of being improved upon,” and that there was no guarantee Amazon would be the one to lead that charge. A decade later, books haven’t changed much at all. And only Amazon has the clout to really drive what could and should come next. Not by making pixels just like paper, but by embracing the difference.
Amazon doesn’t have to drive anything; the tools are here, and waiting to be used.
All that remains is to drop the assumption that only books are important.
Once you do that you will see that people are already making those new stories you wanted.
image by pedrosimoes7