Rewriting the Book

The Apple iPad is now launched and even before the applause dies it will be confronted by a crowd of competitors: other PC makers moving in from one side and e-reader makers from the other.

The competition, we should hope, will be as spirited as in the early days of the personal computer; potentially, the implications of this new class of devices will be nearly as profound.

For an embattled publishing industry, the new technologies offer the chance to reimagine both its products and its business model.

For publishers of magazines and newspapers, the ability to provide more seamless, dramatic and designed presentations should make digital periodicals more alluring to defecting readers and advertisers both. And the publishers have not only been waiting, but holding their breath.

But perhaps the most far-reaching consequences for both art and commerce stand waiting for the publishers of books.

The form is old and fixed and frozen. For centuries, authors and book designers have been straining at the confines. From the black page of Tristram Shandy to Lewis Carroll’s typographic mouse’s tail or tale (“Mine is a sad and long tale!” said the Mouse, turning to Alice and sighing. “It is a long tail, certainly,” said Alice) and on to the modernists for whom every textual convention is a playground dare, artists have hit their heads against the walls of the artifact — and the walls have stood.

The Kindle has been a start, but only that. Across two editions, it has been so far mainly a feat of file compression. But as new devices race on to the market (Kindle 3.0 among them), the book will be reconceived as a complete multimedia experience. And creative artists, working from scratch with the new tools, will reinvent the very idea of “book.”
 
A character has a song in his head, the tune now plays. A protagonist and her lover go to a movie, you see a clip. A landscape description is offered in prose, but supplemented with a slide show. The author provides a physical description of his characters, but you create avatars according to your own idea of the characters. And, in a nice deconstructive touch, you choose a turn at every branch of the plot — making you not only the reader but the “writer” of the book.

The role of “author” may in the future become something more like the role of “director,” who marshals the talents of animators, filmmakers, photographers, musicians, Web designers. (Who thinks none of this ever occurred to Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze?)

But, not forgetting that this article is appearing in Adweek, it is time to stress that the reimagined book offers innovations not only in content, but also in revenue.

The new technologies offer book publishers a chance — if they will master their disgust and see it — at advertising subsidy.

Up to now, the book has largely been free of commercial messages (backcover blurbs for works by the same author or “the movie version” don’t count). But as it evolves from bound paper pages into a multimedia platform, readers should become more receptive to advertising messages within the work — for the simple reason that they accept them in the other media that now come into play. If the reader (or viewer) is willing to accept advertising on YouTube, will they feel any differently if the YouTube clip is embedded into a book?

It’s worth noting at this point that there will always be a certain kind of book for a certain kind of reader: a book that offers the timeless satisfactions of a Janson typeface printed on acid-free paper bound in cloth or (if you’re feeling fancy) leather.