Sometimes tech’s greatest benefit to the reader comes when it stops with the publisher.

Craig Mod, in Wired:

We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve—I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a “standard book” will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on a piece of digital fiction, and realize that it gets better every time I take away an opportunity for interaction.

I was also thinking about this reading Robin Sloan’s print mailings, which you can get if you sign up for his newsletter. Sometimes they come on thin pink paper, printed with a Risograph and folded in thirds. The latest one came in an envelope and on paper that felt very much like a junk mailer, which Sloan explains was of necessity but also part of the fun, since it came from a fictional bureaucracy. In each case, he runs the Ruby scripts, does the care and feeding of the AI, gets ink on his hands, or whatever else needs to be done for you to receive something delightful in your actual physical mailbox with no double-click to install, no log in, not even an ‘on’ button.

I see a parallel here between the technical burden that Sloan shoulders, and that the book printers and distributors that Mod refers to do, and a particular trend in web development: doing more work earlier in the process, in order to make what you send to your reader lighter and less complex. That can mean server-side rendering, doing most of the computation on the sending end rather than the receiving end so that the reader receives the simplest bundle of text possible. Or even before code hits the server, doing more work at compile time. Rich Harris, the maker of one such tool called Svelte, argues that “complexity, like energy, can only really be converted from one form into another” and he would prefer to take on the complexity rather than make his reader or customer or whoever is waiting at the end of the process deal with it. Shifting more of the effort sooner in the assembly line.

What you as a creator lose in that bargain is often not a loss at all. You may give up some novel or flashy presentation, but do your readers want that, or do they want to escape from it? And making it easier on the readers might make it harder up front for the people making the thing—but it’s always hard to make something that feels easy, always complicated to make something the feels simple.

Some of the time—maybe most of the time—the fancy tech does not belong in the hands of the reader. Too often it results in irrelevant cognitive load for the reader or too much computational load on the reader’s device—two analogous problems that often go hand in hand. Respectful tech helps get a piece to the reader in a way that feels light and simple and elegant, as with a restaurant that keeps all the complexity hidden behind the door to the kitchen, so that guests might have a simple, quiet, concentrated, respectful experience. (Snow Fall is Benihana.)

It feels like people take as a given that interactive widgets and lots of motion are what it means to use the native tools of the web, when in fact those are the tools of advertising, the problematic funding source for most of the web, which is built around the goal of diverting your attention rather than aiding your concentration. What would a web that prioritized readers over buyers look like? I suspect the difference would be greater than just an absence of ads, or even an absence of clickbait.

Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story. Continue reading “Notes on The Pickle Index”

The return of the scroll

Phallaina is “the first scrolling graphic novel,” and it is fun. Instead of turning pages, you just scroll from left to right. Breaking free of the confines of the codex means there is no need to divide the illustrations into panels. Take a look at this example, where one plane serves first as the floor but then also as a door perpendicular to that same floor:


There are dozens of thoughtful, playful moments like that, all enabled by the scroll.

This is the sort of thing that is both exciting and difficult to think about in relation to a future generation of ebooks. Sometimes, as you can in most ebook readers now, you want to give people the option to switch between pagination and scrolling. But sometimes, as evidenced by Phallaina, scrolling is essential to the experience. Other times text and illustrations will have been carefully crafted to sit together within the rectangle of a page, and in that case not only must you force pagination, you can’t allow the text to reflow for different screen sizes. How do you accommodate all those variables—scroll vs. page, optional vs. forced, formless vs. definite? One of the under-appreciated virtues of paper is the number of decisions that are made for you.

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.