The state of the book

I read somewhere a lament for the dearth of journalism that takes the 30,000 foot view and provides an entry point into a subject for readers who haven’t been following the daily dispatches. I’ve never seen something like that for the state of the book — not the state of book writing, but the state of the book itself, the experience it provides, and the ecosystems that support it.

Maybe that’s because of the enormity of the subject, or how quickly it is evolving — it would be foolish to claim to have distilled everything important, and anyway it would be out of date a few weeks later. So let’s call this a combination of an annotated bibliography and my own musings on the subject, and let me know what I’ve missed in the comments.

Licensed books and incompatible bookshelves

One day in July of 2009, a certain set of Amazon Kindle readers turned on their devices one day to discover that a novel they had bought had disappeared with no action on their part. Amazon had discovered that there was a copyright issue and the book was being sold illegally, so they remotely wiped the book from everyone’s devices and issued refunds.

The novel was George Orwell’s 1984. It’s that sort of groan-inducing irony that makes reality feel like a first draft.

The incident was a wake-up call: buying an ebook is not like buying a paperback. Aside from the obvious material difference, ownership of an ebook affords you a different set of rights. In fact, “ownership” isn’t really the right word at all. As stated in its terms of service, “Kindle Content is licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider.”

That has consequences beyond Big Brother-style book recalls. It also means you can’t lend or resell an ebook. When you buy something in print, the first-sale doctrine says that you have the right to further distribute that book, for free or for sale. No such guarantee exists for licensed ebooks. Apple and Amazon are currently each trying to implement (and patent) methods to lend or resell ebooks, but even if they succeed, what do you suppose the chances are that a book bought from the Apple iBookstore could be lent to a friend reading on an Amazon Kindle?

Not only are there barriers to sharing between friends, there are also restrictions on where the book goes while in your own possession. Imagine that a paper book you buy from Barnes and Noble can’t go on your IKEA bookshelf. You have to buy an approved Barnes and Noble bookshelf for your Barnes and Noble books, and if you start buying from Powell’s instead — well, it’s time to go furniture shopping once again. That’s the situation with ebooks: Kindle books can only be read on a Kindle device or Kindle app; Apple’s iBooks can only be read on Apple devices. Choosing a different bookstore means choosing a different reading platform, and likely leaving behind all the previous books you bought.

Those living at the intersection of book wormery and tech geekery seem to agree that the best possible future is one in which an open standard succeeds, so that a book from any store could be read on any device. The current file format struggling to become a standard is epub. Defined by the International Digital Publishing Forum, epub is free and open — anybody can make an epub book, and any manufacturer can choose to support it for free on a device they make. The publishing world’s 800-pound gorilla has declined that opportunity: Amazon requires you to convert an epub into their own format before you can read it on a Kindle. Virtually every other reading device supports epub, but you have to jump through technical hoops to actually read them.

Aside from file format considerations, digital rights management poses another problem for people who would like to buy books from any store and read them on any device. DRM is a digital lock that is meant to prevent the owner of a piece of content from being able to share it with anyone else. But some argue that DRM is a poor solution: it stops law-abiding book buyers from transferring books among devices, while doing nothing to prevent expert book pirates, who have the technical knowledge to break the lock.

DRM isn’t just a problem for customers. In an April 2012 piece, indie bookseller Ruth Curry painted a picture of what DRM was doing to her ilk:

DRM is supposed to prevent piracy and illegal file sharing. In order to provide DRM, you need at least $10,000 up front to cover software, server, and administration fees, plus ongoing expenses associated with the software. In other words, much bigger operating expenses than a small business can afford. By requiring retailers to encrypt e-books with DRM, big publishers are essentially banning indie retailers from the online marketplace.

I’m hoping what happens to online music stores happens with books: Amazon and Apple have both dropped DRM in their music stores. Tor Books Uk, a sci-fi/fantasy publisher, just announced that it has seen no ill effects from going DRM-free one year ago.

There are some people fighting the good fight. Open Bookmarks is a project by James Bridle (mentioned in my last blog post concerning A Ship Adrift) that is dedicated to making “social reading easy, personal, and open,” including allowing readers to own their books and read them on a variety of devices. The Publication Standards Project works toward open publication standards and DRM books. Those sites are two of the best articulations I’ve seen of how I’d love the book landscape to evolve. Unfortunately, both sites seem to be dormant.


As you might expect, what is making the ebook landscape difficult for individual readers is making it perhaps more difficult for libraries. Publishers sometimes give libraries ebook files that expire after a certain number of times lent, to mimic the natural decay of a paper book gradually falling apart and passing out of circulation. Other times the ebooks simply expire annually. Sometimes publishers allow an ebook to be lent in perpetuity (but still only to one person at a time and with DRM). It seems publishers have not settled on a standard way to provide libraries with ebook. Nor have they figured out pricing: last March Random House decided to triple its prices for libraries.

Aside from issues of fairness or long-term viability, this situation calls into question future of preservation. Preserving books used to be the responsibility of libraries. But if libraries only get ebooks temporarily, or only with DRM controlled by the publisher, the onus of preservation falls to the publishers. Will publishers spend time and money on taking care of obscure but important titles than aren’t earning them any money?

Libraries are going through a lot right now aside from changes in books and book pricing. For a broader view of libraries, check out the American Library Association’s report Confronting the Future: Strategic Visions for the 21st Century Public Library (PDF), and for a particularly exciting piece of news, here’s the lowdown on the launch a couple weeks ago of the new Digital Public Library of America.

Marginalia and social reading

I’m farming this section of the post out to Sam Anderson of The New York Times Magazine, who wrote an essay in 2011 about how marginalia should be treated by ereaders. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll pull out this bit:

According to the marginalia scholar H. J. Jackson, the golden age of marginalia lasted from roughly 1700 to 1820. The practice, back then, was surprisingly social — people would mark up books for one another as gifts, or give pointedly annotated novels to potential lovers. Old-school marginalia was — to put it into contemporary cultural terms — a kind of slow-motion, long-form Twitter, or a statusless, meaning-soaked Facebook, or an analog, object-based G-chat. (Nevermind: it was social, is my point.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the undisputed all-time champion of marginalia, flourished at the tail end of this period, and his friends were always begging him to mark up their books. He eventually published some of his own marginalia, and in the process even popularized the word “marginalia” — a self-consciously pompous Latinism intended to mock the triviality of the form.


This gave me an epiphany — a grand vision of the future of social reading. I imagined a stack of transparent, margin-size plastic strips containing all of my notes from “Infinite Jest.” These, I thought, could be passed out to my friends, who would paste them into their own copies of the book and then, in turn, give me their marginalia strips, which I would paste into my copy, and we’d all have a big virtual orgy of never-ending literary communion.

It was a hopelessly clunky idea: a vision right out of a Library Science seminar circa 1949. It occurred to me later, however, that this embarrassingly analog fantasy should actually be possible, fairly simply, right now, with digital technology — that this sort of hypercharged marginalia might be one area where the e-book can actually improve on the tree-book.

He goes on to cite James Bride’s Open Bookmarks and Kindle’s public note sharing as promising first steps. Here is a little more that I would assume he would add if he wrote the essay today:

  • Readmill is a reading app for iPads and iPhones that is the closest thing to Sam Anderson’s vision. You can’t view other’s marginalia in the app (at least not on the iPhone — I haven’t tried the iPad version) but it does allow you to share your highlights and notes publicly on the Web. It supports epub books and PDFs with or without Adobe’s DRM scheme.
  • Findings used to offer a similar service, but only for Kindle books. Then Amazon informed them that that was no longer allowed, and Findings had to shift their focus to sharing clips from web pages only. A shame, and an illustration of the drawbacks of relying on a closed reading system built on a proprietary format.
  • The Mellon Foundation is funding interesting work on ebook annotations. Specifically, they spent nearly 50 grand on a project called Standards Development Workshops on E-Book Annotation Sharing and Social Reading, a community and consensus-building project that you can read about here (PDF). Mellon is also funding the Open Annotation Collaboration, which had a hand in creating the Open Annotation Data Model, which aims to create a framework for sharing annotations between platforms in a way that conforms to the architecture of the World Wide Web.

The idea of sharing highlights and annotations with your friends sounds terrific, and there are a number of smart people working to make it happen. There is enough momentum behind the idea that the future of reading as social seems all but inevitable. But it bears repeating that there is no guarantee that this future will include being able to share with a friend who bought the book from a different store or is reading it on a different device. Amazon just bought Goodreads, perhaps the foremost social network built around books, and while it is unlikely that Goodreads as we know it will go away, it is more likely that future improvements will benefit the Kindle platform only.

What do we mean by “book”?

We have so far successfully avoided that elephant in the room, the question that lodges itself in the back of one’s head when reading about this stuff: Just what is a “book,” anyway? If in a few years’ time paper is gone, if friends’ notes start appearing in my margins, if I find video embedded on the page, if there is no page at all but instead just scrolling text on a screen, is what I’m reading still a book? Or are ebooks something different entirely?

There is a risk here of losing sight of the modest aim of this post, which was to present a sort of snapshot of books today, and instead begin future-gazing. But then again, it’s hard to have a good conversation about books without defining what you’re talking about. So, I’ll cheat: here is a snapshot of talk about the future of the book.

Craig Mod, a writer and book designer who thinks a lot about the future of the book, says the book is a system. And while traditionally it has been a system of isolated parts and experiences (a small handful of people producing a book together before sending it out for to be read privately by individual readers) the book of the future will connect readers to publishers, and readers to each other, and books to one another. To reconceive books in the digital age is to grow ligaments between all its constituent parts.

Bob Stein, director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, says the book is a place. That’s the common denominator among the different formats: the book is a place where “people congregate to hash out their thoughts and ideas.”

To say that the book is a system and a place is a good description, but is not a definition. After all, the Web is a system that allows for people to congregate and hash out their ideas, but the Web as a whole isn’t a book. There is some aspect of boundedness that is essential for a book, an authorial presence that structures information into a cohesive whole.

But while the book is evolving so quickly, maybe a definition of what it is we’re talking about would be counterproductive. Better to push the boundaries first and demarcate them later.

7 thoughts on “The state of the book

  1. Wow! So many issues I’ve never thought of. Some books are worth one quick read. Those are fine for an e-reader. Other books are worth sharing and revisiting. I think for the time being I will continue to collect those on paper. Reading an e-book is not the same reading from a real book. It’s like phone sex; the content may be the same, but it’s a different experience.

    1. I’m also sticking with paper for the time being, but only because Kindle seems like the only compelling option but I don’t want to marry myself to that platform. (Once the iPad mini has a retina display, that plus the Readmill app will be very compelling.)

      You said you’ll stick with paper for books you want to share and revisit, but those are the ones that most make me look forward to digital. Imagine remembering an idea you want to revisit but not which book contained it. With the right digital setup, you could search across all your highlights in your entire library at once. Then you pick up the book and find that your friend with similar interests has read the book since you last looked at it and made their own margin notes which you can turn on and off. Today’s rereading and sharing will seem very clunky in comparison. (Though I can also imagine that scenario inspiring the same criticism that the Internet has, that if we have no need to internalize information it won’t have a chance to connect to other information, become knowledge, etc…)

  2. You raised a lot of interesting points about choosing between digital and physical copies of books. I currently purchase my books and comics in both formats. I typically buy physical copies of things that I am proud to display or would like to loan to friends. I think there is a tangible value to holding and displaying something, which will encourage the continuation of physical publishers for a long time to come.

    However, there are also tremendous benefits to using digital formats. When discussing literature, it’s much easier to quickly flip between multiple books or search for a specific passage on an iPad. Beyond that, the ability to carry an entire library in a two-pound package has massive benefits for travelers, the education system (I’m really excited about the potential for eBooks to impact students in areas with very few resources), and the easily distracted. That’s why I think the digital format will continue to grow in popularity, in spite of foreseeable bumps in the road.

    There is little doubt in my mind that news stories will appear in the near future about large numbers of consumers losing access to content. I don’t forsee these sorts of events as being hard stops, but rather as points of progress, which will alter the system for the better. When consumers are made angry enough, they tend to respond quickly and companies will respond in turn. The fallout of these events will hopefully be quick improvements upon the distribution methods and ownership rules surrounding digital media.

    That’s not to say I’m not somewhat nervous about the digital content I have purchased, only that the current benefits outweight the risks.

    1. Searches and electronically shared notes for discussions – those are huge benefits. I hope that there is a better way to archive content before too long.

    2. Chase, I agree with all if that, particularly the bit about the upcoming fallout from people losing the books they think they have bought. What happens when the kindle is no longer the go-to ereader and people discover they can’t move the books over? (I know there are ways to convert kindle to epub but I don’t think it’s easy or allowed by the kindle terms of service.)

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