If we are to believe the forecasts, the future of books and storytelling is inextricably linked to the increasing inter-connectivity of our world. A future beckons in which it will be bad manners to read a book alone, without sharing every character, every plot twist, and every page with your friends, your family, and that odd-looking homeless person on whom you took pity and to whom you gave your small change on the way home from the office. It all sounds perfectly hideous to me, but that’s what the experts say is going to happen.
In the kind of news story that makes me consider a lobotomy to be a prudent, forward-looking lifestyle choice, CBCNews in Canada claims that ‘Social reading is the next phase of e-book revolution’. The article is bookended with misplaced references to Al Jolson and, inevitably, Guttenberg, and after a few figures on the growth of the e-book market in Canada, we are introduced to Bob Stein, who is a ‘digital pioneer’.
Stein heads up the Institute for the Future of the Book, and previously came up with the idea of adding commentary to DVD films. He’s now working on a new app called ‘Socialbook’, which the article explains is like a chat-room discussion thread, but on steroids. Socialbook will “let all your friends in your personal digital network know what you’re reading and invite them into the conversation.” Interesting idea, that: to have a conversation while you’re reading.
But it doesn’t stop there. Socialbook will put participants right in the book, where they’ll be able to pull out quotes, scribble notes in the margins, and even – get this – rearrange the text. I wonder if Stein has any future projects lined up where viewers will be able to edit the film they’re watching, or where the listener will be free to change the notes in a piece of music? Discussing the merits of any work of art with your friends is one thing, but treating the work of art as some kind of flexible play-dough – especially if its creator did not intend that – is quite another.
The article continues with opinions and quotes to support the immodest notion that the structure of reading stories, which has been in place for the last 500 years, is about to be “blown away”. I do realise that the people who come up with these ideas need to hit the hyperbole hard to get attention, but sometimes just the tiniest bit of circumspection really wouldn’t be amiss.
In any case, the CBCNews article avoids the elephant in the room as much as the second article I’ve got for you this week. In a rant by Jani Patokallio, we get no closer to the real issue that is at the root of all this upheaval: whether or not books should be free. Patokallio demolishes the reasons for the EPUB format comprehensively enough, but on the condition that we see all traditional publishers as the most venal sharks, and on the assumption that authors are happy to give their work away for free. This second article goes into more depth on formats and types of code, but also steers clear of the key issue.
If content is free, then of course it doesn’t need to be protected against “unauthorised” copying. But there are different types of content. On websites like Indies Unlimited, you have stacks of quality writing available for free, with no more than an unobtrusive “donate” button. But this is substantially different from an author allowing their book to be downloaded free. For example, most authors using the KDP system do so to build a readership, it’s fair to assume, who may purchase further books in the future. Patokallio’s claim that requiring readers to pay a modest sum for a book is an “inconvenience” misses the point entirely, that content creators should be able to charge money for their work if they wish.
Ultimately, the creator of any work should have the right to decide whether they will give it away for free, without being regarded as a shark if they choose not to. Being forced by technology or by social pressure to reduce the value of thousands of hours of creativity and hard work to a fiscal ‘0’ is not progress.