NPR’s On the Media recently did an hour-long show devoted to books, bibliophiles, and the future of the printed word. You can cherry-pick segments or stream the whole show over at their website; Unfortunately I can’t embed it here. To give you an idea of the content, here’s an excerpt from segment Books 2.0.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reading a book, losing oneself in the imagination of an author is usually a solitary enterprise. So, too, is writing a book, says author Neil Gaiman.
NEIL GAIMAN: Writing is like death, a very lonely business. You do it on your own. Somebody is always sitting there figuring things out. Somebody is always going to have to take readers somewhere they have never been before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as books move from printed page to networked screen, it grows easier for writers and readers to gather in the virtual margins to discuss the plot and characters and for readers to actually help shape them.
Crowd sourcing artistic expression in this way may seem contrary to the rules of creativity – books by committee? But Bob Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book, sees an inevitable merging of writer and reader.
As someone who for decades has experimented with new forms for books, he’s used to people who grew up with traditional books reflexively rejecting his ideas, as when he explained his vision to a group of biographers.
BOB STEIN: One of the people in the room was one of these writers who gets a two-million-dollar advance, goes away for ten years, literally, writes a book, sells a lot of copies and then does it all over again. So I said to him, instead of getting your two-million-dollar advance and going away for ten years, how about if your publisher announced to the world so-and-so is going to start work on a biography of Barack Obama, who’s interested?
And n-thousands of people say, yes, I’m interested, and they subscribe to your project and they pay two dollars a year, whatever it is. I said, at the end of ten years you’ll have a body of work, and you’ll have the same two million dollars.
The difference will be that you’ve done this in public and you’ve done this with a group of people helping you in various ways.
And he, of course, as I expected, you know, put his fingers up in a cross, saying, oh, my God, that’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard of, that’s the last thing I ever want to do.
And I said to him, I’m willing to bet you that there’s a young woman who’s getting her PhD right now who grew up in MySpace, in Facebook, somebody who is comfortable and excited about working in a public collaborative space. She is a seed of the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how do you make money in your vision, the subscription model?
BOB STEIN: It’s all subscription. The day that the
author is no longer interested, and she doesn’t want to work with the readers any longer, she stops getting royalties.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, there are many authors who talk about a quiet place, a moment of inspiration, alone.
BOB STEIN: It’s very interesting. The very concept of an author, the very idea that somebody owned an idea, is extremely recent. Remix culture, you know, where something is constructed from lots of different parts, remix culture was actually the standard until print came along. Print actually changed everything because suddenly you weren’t relying on –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: An oral tradition.
BOB STEIN: – on the oral tradition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’m simply raising the fact that whether or not the author holding up his hands in a get-thee-from-me-Satan position is a biographer or a philosopher or a novelist, there’s not necessarily a role, at least in the beginning of creation, for the reader.
BOB STEIN: I – we’re, we’re definitely in a space where it’s almost impossible to argue about this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because you’re projecting into a future where that quiet place will no longer be necessary?
BOB STEIN: [SIGHS] Basically, yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the thingness of books?
BOB STEIN: I’ll miss it. I love holding the object in my hand. On the other hand, when I’m online and suddenly my daughter, who lives in London, shows up in the margin of something we’re reading together, chills go up and down my spine. Being able to share an experience of reading with people whose judgment I care about is deeply rewarding.
Here’s a wonderful sort of factoid which may be helpful: The western version of the printing press is invented in 1454. It takes 50 years for page numbers to emerge. It took humans that long to figure out that it might be useful to put numbers onto the pages.
We’re at the very, very beginning of the shift from the book to whatever is going to become more important than it. I realize that there’s a way to see what I’m saying and, and sort of say, there is a truly mad man, and, and in a lot of ways I, I can’t prove it, but – you, you understand the problem.
And something fun that I can embed, here’s the music video for a song they use on the show as a bridge between segments, the classic “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors,” by the band Moxy Fruvous.
Happy reading (however you choose to go about it)!