Monday, April 11, 2011

In Defense of the Book as a Container

Podcasting has turned radio into a new medium. From the New York Times Magazine:
...the value of a media product does not come from being fast. It comes from being timeless. ...It wouldn't make sense, [Abumrad] said, to devote the effort to seduce, disturb and engage the listener if "Radiolab" epidsodes were merely broadcast once and disappeared.
Exactly, I thought, Radiolab is like a book.

Back in October, Brian O'Leary posted a rather long essay on his blog, called "Context First". The essay was well received, and he presented versions of the essay at conferences around the world. I excerpt:
my idea in a nutshell is this: book, magazine and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information.  Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring that which cannot or does not fit.

Worse, the process of filling the container strips out context – the critical admixture of tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, audio and video background, even good old title-level metadata – that is a luxury in the physical world, but a critical asset in digital ones.  In our evolving, networked world – the world of “books in browsers” – we are no longer selling content, or at least not content alone.  We compete on context.

I propose today that the current workflow hierarchy – container first, limiting content and context – is already outdated.  To compete digitally, we must start with context and preserve its connection to content.
Something about O'Leary's essay has been gnawing at me ever since, but until reading yesterday's article on Radiolab, I couldn't put my finger on what it was that bothered me.

The implication of O'Leary's "Unified Field Theory of Publishing", is that in order to compete, print publishing needs to break away from the limiting forms of the print medium and become something new, in jazzy harmony with our contextually dynamic digital world, filled with links and metadata and APIs.

Bear in mind, O'Leary's [a consultant who's worked in both the magazine and book industries, is] dead right about magazines. But I've decided his implication is dead wrong about books. We need to understand what it is about the book that makes it a container of media that will persist into the digital world. It's NOT context. The wonderful thing about the book as container is the same thing that lifts Radiolab as podcast above Radiolab as radio. It's the timelessness.

So as we evolve the ebook, I think we need to be aware of and nurture its potential for timelessness. If we put the context first, as O'Leary urges, then all we have left is a website.

Long live the content container formerly known as the book!

  1. As we develop plans for the Gluejar business, we need to add some definition to the "containers" that get released as creative commons ebooks. One thing we might do to enhance "timelessness" is to add a digital signature that verifies that the content of the ebook hasn't been altered.
  2. [Update] This conversation has continued over on Brian O'Leary's blog. There's also a remarkable reflection, in French, at SoBookOnline, that does a great job of laying out the ideas and questions that Brian and I are wrestling over.
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  1. I think you've misconstrued what I said. "Context first" argues for a change in workflows so that print, and the containers that emulate print, become an output, not the defining characteristic of how content is stored. I never argued for whiz-bang jazzy website-like enhanced e-books; I argued for preserving the flexibility to use content in many different ways, including the ones we have come to know.

    I also think it is unfair to characterize me as a "magazine guy". I have worked for both magazine and book publishers, and I have consulted for more than a dozen years with both. That is a surprising comment, coming from you.

  2. As long as timelessness doesn't imply mutability. A book cannot mutate. It's gotta be a snapshot of the author's thoughts/perceptions/ideas/stories as of a moment in time. If it loses that quality it becomes something other than a book.

  3. Brian,

    In a sense, I AM arguing that for books, the container, suitably defined for digital consumption, SHOULD be the "defining character of how content is stored". And when I refer to Jazz, I don't mean whiz-bang, I mean mutable to suit context.

    Aren't you "originally a magazine guy"? (changed text)

  4. Bob, Exactly! Mutability is the enemy of timelessness.

  5. Certainly, in many types of publishing, flexibility to weave together content strands is more important than the construction of a container that will live across time. These types of publishing (I'm thinking textbooks) will usually be dominated by the website, not the book.

  6. Using mutability to argue against "context first" fails on two fronts. First, if you want one time-stamped, immutable version of the work, then render it when the time is right (print, PDF, EPUB .. you name it). The underlying content storage does not prevent that.

    Second, print works already evolve. Look at the multiple versions (presentations) of Emily Dickinson's work. Subsequent research and study opens up new interpretations of prior works, and they get reformatted, annotated and extended. We're improved by this activity. "Context first" makes it possible to offer those improvements with less overhead.

    Eric, in describing me you might be better off saying "(originally a) paper boy". It's just as true and just as relevant to my credentials in speaking on the topic.

  7. I want the New York Times to correct errors in its stories, but it makes me a bit queasy to think of its stories as mutable. And I don't think Emily Dickinson's readers want her works to change because some scholar says they should change.

    I'm arguing that there are advantages to a work flow focused on perfecting a work, flexibility be damned. In manufacturing, modern quality processes have eliminated rework flows in favor of a "do it once, do it right" philosophy.

    My blog posts are mutable, at least for the first few days. I hope my description has become more accurate.

    I think that in stead of a "unified field theory" of publishing, we're going to see a bifurcation of publishing. Using your example of Cookstr, context-first publishing will move away from the book towards connected information channels while container-first publishing will evolve toward the production of self contained literary objects.

  8. I think you're right about bifurcation. One distinction to draw would be between narrative, linear content (fiction, histories, biographies and the like) and non-narrative material (education, reference, how-to, nature and travel guides etc.) The former lends itself to publishing in relatively fixed, immutable containers that have a beginning, middle and end. The latter can be organized into more granular topical, potentially re-usable units that are assembled and rendered in various ways and on multiple delivery platforms. It is this content especially that will lend itself to the workflows described in Brian's presentation.