Back in 2004 I wrote post called The Death of Consumer Electronics. Wishful thinking of course. My central, hopeful, argument is that we’re actually content creators, not consumers. What exactly do you consume when you take a digital photograph and post it on Flickr? Sure you can sit and watch a TV show or DVD, but… maybe the conversation about the show is as interesting as the show itself. James Stewart, my good friend and co-worker, points out that Stephen B. Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You is out of date because it doesn’t talk specifically to perhaps the most erudite show ever on TV – The Wire.
But what about this reading thing? You sit and read books, don’t you – its a solitary activity. You have voracious readers. The idea of consuming literature must be as old as books itself. But then- there is an other side to the book, the canon, the stories we tell each other.
We like to discuss books. We like to write things in the margin – we even have a name for this activity – marginalia, a practice as old as the Illuminated Manuscript. Most of all though, books help us learn- particularly when we share them.
The wikipedia definition of marginalia talks of smart students buying previously annotated books. The most famous recent example of a book made more valuable by marginalia is the spell book Slughorn gives to Harry Potter, annotated by the eponymous Half Blood Prince. The spells in this “edited” book work better than the official text book. Lucky the book didn’t have any DRM eh?
That’s my big problem with most current efforts in digital publishing- they don’t learn from the web. We can bookmark a link on the web but why can’t we bookmark a digital book?
Its not enough to view source, you need to be able to share it and mark it up. What the hell good is XML if its just for layout?
If we go back to Joshua Schachter’s original reason for creating del.icio.us, it was to scratch an itch, to allow personal marginalia on the web. But the service really came into its own as a social tool. The real value is found in sharing links. But media companies hate sharing. Hate it. File sharers are pirates, right?
If you talk to Adobe, Apple, or Microsoft they are generally most concerned with “Digital Rights Holders”…. for that read Big Media.One of the things that concerns me and folks like Twitter’s Alex Payne is that the iPad is seemingly about passive consumption, not realisation, not sharing.
The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing. It is a digital consumption machine.
Where am I going with this? Well for one thing, I was fair amazed to come across some news from Macmillan this week: Textbooks That Professors Can Rewrite Digitally.
Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers of trade books and textbooks, is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes.
Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations or illustrations.
While many publishers have offered customized print textbooks for years — allowing instructors to reorder chapters or insert third-party content from other publications or their own writing — DynamicBooks gives instructors the power to alter individual sentences and paragraphs without consulting the original authors or publisher.
I believe this is the future of digital publishing. Learn from open source. The idea of content lock down just makes no sense. Paper books don’t have DRM. You can share them, write on them, cut bits out for your scrapbook and so on. But imagine if you could do all that digitally…
Why shouldn’t books be a little more like Wikipedia and a bit less like a copy-protected CD?
It might seem like the editable, annotable, shareable book is a pirate’s charter, but publishers have little choice but to adapt.
I spent some time earlier this week with George Walkley, who runs digital strategy for the world’s second largest publisher – Hachette. He is super smart, a digital native, but also very much a book nerd. At Hachette text book publishing is a market with no growth left in it… but publications for digital white boards is a growing, profitable market.
The magic spell for profitable publishing is going to be in annotation and sharing, not the romantic, isolated book reading of the garret. What the hell good is a manuscript that you can’t share or illuminate?
The image from above is by Anastasia Crimca, a Moldavian, and one of the originators of the illuminated manuscript. I learned about him when I worked as a researcher on the Macmillan Dictionary of Art and Architecture.