Friday, May 22, 2009

Why we don’t need to reinvent books for the internet age

ibooks are the very opposite of what publishers need to be thinking about. The very concept of a book as a simple compilation of URLs and bullet points appears quite misleading; perhaps, this model works in tech publishing, where there is a huge demand for “tell me how?” kind of questions. But books that change history rarely answer the “who and where?” type of questions; they are, instead, about the “how and why?” - and this knowledge is hardly searchable, not to mention linkable. Even with such a widely-covered subject as Twitter, there is still a lot to be said about its impact on the information flows, authority, trust, and cognition that may not yet be widely discussed anywhere in the “Twittersphere”. This is why we have traditionally prized original and fresh thinking; what makes it original is precisely the fact that these points haven ‘t yet been addressed before.

This may also explain why sales of serious books haven’t plummeted in the age of free and ubiquitous content. With so many free resource materials available on the Web, it does seem strange that anyone would still want to pay 20 bucks for “a compilation of links” that most non-fiction books are (at least, according to O’Reilly). But the likely explanation here is quite simple: compiling links in meaningful and readable ways is exactly the kind of premium value that we are willing to pay for when we buy a book. It’s becoming obvious that in the age of information abundance the value of curation rises dramatically. As the number of available resources that writers and readers could consult rises, it’s actually quite normal that we would place more and more value on the process of synthesizing rather than simply aggregating information. From this perspective, if I want to read a book on a subject that is slightly more complex than the world of Twitter, I expect that authors would actually read all the available resources (rather than just a sampling of a few hundred 140 “best” Twitter status updates), take a principled stand, and actually try to compress the very boring 30,000 pages they read while researching the book to much more readable 300 pages – precisely “so that I don’t have to”.

Good books – unlike buggy early releases of software – are meant to be finite intellectual products; good books are not supposed to be never-ending and self-updating streams of consciousness. Nor are they supposed to be interrupted by a constant flow of references to other books; if you cannot move to the next page without having to consult a reference work cited in a footnote, the author has probably failed at synthesizing. Granted: everyone is building on someone else’s shoulders. But this is is exactly the point of a talented author: to synthesize by compressing millions of links, facts, and opinions into a readable guide to the subject. The reason why we often turn to the best book in a field that we do not yet know well is exactly to avoid reading twenty books instead. Do not get me wrong: I do have an ereader and I am an avid consumer of ebooks; yes, I do like the ability to navigate from the index page to any page I want. But - and this is a big “but” - I don’t really feel any need to compress the text even further; nor do I feel any need to extend it beyond what it is; most good books I’ve read are good precisely because offer “just enough” information and arguments.