I took a week off work recently to begin writing my book. After 4 days I still hadn't put pen to paper (or should I say finger to keyboard). The problem wasn't what to write, I think I have that locked down. The questions 'Why?' and 'What exactly is a book?' troubled me more than I'd anticipated.
My initial fear was that I might be writing a book for vanity reasons but I settled on the excuse that I'm bursting with a creative energy that can only be satisfied by writing. This got me thinking about the next question. Why a book and not just a series of blog posts? What defines a book in this era of digital awesomeness anyway?
The iPad has opened up incredible possibilities allowing publishers to include linking, videos and animations in their books. The TED video above gives us an idea of how quickly the technology for producing a brilliant book-like experience is progressing. So where does a digital book stop being a book and become something completely new? Of course I don't have the answer, and spending too much time pondering such subjects isn't going to get my own book written.
As Kevin Kelly pointed out in his rather good blog post:
"In the past a book was defined as anything printed between two covers. A list of telephone numbers was called a book, even though it had no logical beginning, middle, or end. A pile of blank pages bound with a spine was called a sketchbook. It was unabashedly empty, but it did have two covers, and was thus called a book".
By that definition it would right to suggest that an album is not an album if the music is not printed on plastic or vinyl and is encased in a plastic box or sleeve? Of course that's not true. We know our children view vinyl and CDs as having about as much value as the packaging Amazon wrap their books in for shipping - they are garbage once you've extracted the content.
The distribution of books has changed and we are now going though a creative surge in the format of the book, which is natural given the devices they are now being written for. Why limit ourselves to a start, middle and end when there are options to extend the shape of the book in new directions? For the past few years transmedia has been altering the shape of films (which are traditionally confined to 90 minute cinema sessions) and TV (which comes on 1 hour chunks). Expanded story lines on new platforms connected via the version you buy on your eBook reader is increasingly likely as these devices become connected.
An interesting challenge for the publishers is how to make referencing more dynamic. Having read 20 - 30 books in preparation for my own I'd be happier to credit at point of reference with a link back to the original work, as I would when blogging, than give a mention at the end of my work, as happens in books. It would be great to bring that practice into digital books, deep linking taking readers on a journey that could produce great moments of discovery. I'm sure limited previews of works referenced would encourage impulsive purchases.
In essence my book is going to be my interpretation of a subject that many great thinkers have written about before me. Ideally it would not be something defined by a cover which marks the start and the end, but as part of a continuous conversation that includes Steven Johnson's 'Where Good Ideas Come From', Sir Ken Robinson's 'The Element' and Jay-Z's 'Decoded' amongst many others. It would go on to include writers not yet born should they decide to join the conversation in the future. It's a never finished piece of work with no boarders, a bit like Wikipedia. Because of its deep linking you could say Wikipedia is a book about everything. Or maybe not.
I've just finished reading the digital version of Jay-Z's Decoded, which was excellent. It featured clickable lyrics which gave his interpretation of tracks line by line. It also featured video of him in conversation. A nice touch would have been to annotate those videos offering links within to supporting video... but hey... respect is due to the guy for coming up with something so fantastic. As a side note he also launched the book page by page as a digital/real world treasure hunt. Nice work.
It's great to see such creativity being applied by an artist who traditionally expresses himself through music. If the music industry had embraced digital with such passion all those years ago who knows what amazing musical moments they would be producing now.
Of course people are still making music despite the predictions of the doomlords who heralded its death many years ago. Books aren't going to disappear - they're just going through a really healthy change, a consequence of which being that a lot less trees are going to be chopped down in the coming years. And like the music industry the people who need to rise to the challenge are those who formally had the power. Publishers should be diving into the amazing technology that is available to create new experiences like the one in the TED video.
Opportunities are opening up for new writers to publish their work without a publisher. Though it would be foolish to assume anyone can recreate the success of Amanda Hocking (the self publishing author currently selling 100,000 books a month digitally without having ever been published) new services and models are removing the barriers for those who previously wouldn't have considered it either because of lack of publisher or not having a 'big enough' idea.
A recent development in digital publishing has been the rise of short form publishing. TED have recently launched TED Books which run less than 20,000 words each — long enough to explain a powerful idea, but short enough to be read in a single sitting. Kindle Singles reflects the love of short form that we've grown accustomed to online, whilst Seth Godin, whose Domino Project is also challenging traditional publishing models and looking to publishing shorter books with 'no wasted words' and 'no filler'. The idea that a book can be less than 50,000 words long should be a catalyst to get more people writing, at the same time encouraging a sales increase as prices drop to near micro payment levels.
If publishers are going to look to the past for a view of the future then they should look no further than what happened to the music industry and run in the opposite direction. The democratisation of publishing should encourage a new era of creativity on both sides. The ideal scenario being that more people will write because self publishing is becoming easy and publishers will push the boundaries of publishing in an attempt to still have a role in their game. I might even get my own book finished.