Authors: Jason Merkoski
And though the average American only reads seven minutes a day, and that number is dwindling, I’ll take it. I’ll happily trade an ounce of blood for a moment with a great book.
Indexes are a part of the book where ebooks suffer the most. Textbooks and most nonfiction books often have a section at the end where someone intimate with the text has scoured the book for its main subjects and created an index with the page numbers of when those subjects are mentioned. The best indexes are done by hand and are sometimes as lovingly long as a chapter in the book itself.
One of my favorite nonfiction books, the aforementioned
, is great in part for its index, because it lists such subjects as icebergs and water snakes, opium fumes and alligator holes, green lightning and the horns of the moon. The diverse list of subjects ranges from bacon and beans to demonology and to the palace of Kublai Khan itself, from slime fishes to ice blink, and from Neoplatonism to the noise made by earthquakes.
The current generation of ebooks ignores all the wisdom inside indexes like that one. True, many ebooks have indexes tucked away at the end, but they’re rarely integrated with the text of the ebook. And they’re not often hyperlinkable, allowing the reader to jump right to a topic. They often just list page numbers instead, which makes no sense, as many e-readers don’t even display page numbers! This is a shame, because when you search for a word within an ebook, your Kindle or Nook should be able to use the index to help find exactly what you’re looking for. Instead of just looking for whenever a word appears inside the text, which is how e-readers do searches now, they should give first-class treatment to words in the index, rank those results higher.
I think we’ll see this improve over time, as innovator-entrepreneurs build out the index feature. Some genres of content lend themselves better to having great indexes—travel guides come to mind. It’s hard to mourn the loss of an index—it’s sort of like grieving for an Excel spreadsheet—but the index is just as important for ebooks as for print books. And unlike print indexes, digital indexes can benefit from innovation.
After all, it’s not hard to imagine a project that crowd-sources the creation of indexes. Such indexes could become collaborative experiences, ways of building community. We see similar bottom-up contributions on Wikipedia or on specialty wiki sites on the web, where fans lovingly edit content to help future fans. Wikis for
assiduously index each episode of every season’s TV show, introducing the places where new characters enter or old ones leave. The same could easily be done for ebooks, once e-reading platforms start to open up and allow collaborative access.
That said, I’m not sure indexes will integrate in a fluid, seamless way with the Holodeck-style experiential books I wrote about earlier in this chapter. Earlier, I mused about which books can (and can’t) be made into immersive, experiential ones. As I said, I’m partial to the works of Borges and Coleridge, and I don’t think they’ll ever translate well into rich multimedia experiences—but what about you? Do you have any ineffable books, inscrutable plays, or downright diabolical short stories that you would feel proud to recommend online as examples of great writing that can never be made into immersive experiences?
How will readers engage with one another in the future? How will they engage with authors? And how far away is a future of direct reader-to-reader and reader-to-author engagement?
Engagement takes many forms. For example, my aunt mails my dad a box of mystery books to read every month, books that she’s gone through and wants to share with him. My best friend burns audiobooks onto CDs and mails them to me. My girlfriend loaned me her favorite book when we first started dating as something of a test—as a way of gauging my personality by whether I liked the book. The act of sharing a book is a close connection, often as close as a touch and perhaps more intimate.
You can share digital books, but the experience is less warm than when you hand over your favorite paperback. You won’t connect with your friend or loved one over the same cover and talk about the same dog-eared pages.
Digital book lending is swift and soulless right now. At least two retailers offer this feature. It’s a testament to Barnes & Noble that they were the first to offer this, that they understand the connection one reader has with another through a loved book that’s shared between them—because it’s Barnes & Noble, after all, that encourages people to get together in their stores and read books on comfy chairs and that hosts book discussion groups that gather like-minded friends of the written word.
The digital experience of book sharing has a long way to go, and it’s a bit crippled now. You get a soulless email from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and then the book magically appears on your device the next time you’re within wireless range. Like much in the world of digital books, it’s a bit clinical, designed by technologists instead of humanists. But it works, with the benefit that you no longer have to worry about your friend holding on to the book for years and neglecting to return it to you.
When I first started dating my girlfriend and she loaned me her favorite novel, I accidentally ripped the cover off it while reading. That almost ended our relationship right then and there! With ebooks, there’s no damage and no worry. The ebook boomerangs back to you after two weeks. That’s a lifesaver and a relationship saver.
Ebook sharing demands to be more personalized, though. It should be as personal as sitting with friends in a café or someone’s living room. Ebook sharing needs a major innovation that breaks through the glass of Kindles and iPads, shattering the wall between readers. This needs to be something immersive, like perhaps video windows, to provide joint experiences where all the readers are in the same room. This is what we’re really looking for when we share a book with a loved one—a connection with that person. We send the book’s author out as an emissary and hope to connect over his or her words.
In a way, we need to combine book sharing with book clubs.
The great potential for ebooks is that they can give you the opportunity to share and discuss a given book not just with your nearest neighbors, but with people in distant cities and even distant countries. You’ll have an opportunity to talk to them within the book, face to face perhaps, like with the iPad’s front-facing camera. You’ll have opportunities to become part of social networks that will emerge from the book itself after being inspired by it.
Perhaps Amazon or Apple will acquire a social network of their own and create “channels” within the network, one for each book. This way, there will be a conduit for discussion built right into the reading experience. Perhaps these channels will be moderated by passionate enthusiasts of each book. Members will contribute discussion topics, and perhaps there will even be opportunities for the author herself to jump in and become part of the book circle, available for question-and-answer sessions.
Of course, as with everything socially networked, you’re going to eventually see these sites infested by ads and spam, by digital cockroaches you can’t quite kill.
Retailers and publishers are currently building out features for the socialization of content through book sharing and book clubs. Retailers benefit from having these features, because they allow content to go more viral and spread through the social networks of the readers. As it is, you can already Facebook and tweet about passages inside digital books. But before long, we’ll start to have conversations on the pages with other readers—and perhaps with authors, as well.
I know of at least two publishers that offer the ability for early readers of a book to directly contribute to the editorial process. Readers can comment on which pages work and don’t work, and if the author is receptive to their feedback, then the next version of the book can incorporate the readers’ suggestions. This is a useful process for shaping an author’s manuscript as it moves out of the publisher’s editorial process and into the world.
By allowing early adopters to interact with the book, the author (and publisher) benefit from a higher-quality book, targeted better to what the readers want and expect. Likewise, the readers benefit. On the sites I know of, users can often buy the book at a discounted price because they were part of this editorial process. Both authors and readers are given incentives to engage. The only pity is that this process isn’t more widespread and isn’t yet built into the platforms of any ebook retailer. You have to be a diehard fan and sign up for this service on a publisher’s website.
I’m certain this will change over time, though. Especially for nonfiction works, where the author and readers can refine the content of the book to clarify the subject and include topics that the readers really want to learn about. The author and the reader will spend more time collaborating and interacting.
The concept of “authorship” itself, I suspect, will even blur and be diminished as books become shaped by readers themselves. In some ways, for some kinds of content at least, the author is often no more than a privileged reader herself. She can shape the material, but she often relies on conversations with other expert readers to find facts, elaborate on a point, or fill in missing pieces.
We’ll start to see books being written and rewritten multiple times—with new endings or new twists or new characters—as the author and the audience engage digitally, something that can’t be done effectively with print books. True, you can release a new edition of a print book with an updated appendix and a new chapter perhaps, but in doing so, you often start a new conversation, rather than adding to an existing dialogue.
A digital book will become like a chat room with a community around it. It could come to resemble an online video game, with readers all over the country having an intense online discussion or playing out the plot at the same time, wearing headphones and talking to one another over the internet in real time. Authors will move into the role of directors and orchestrators, and the audience will move into the role of the musicians. The readers will actually write many of the words. The author will choose the venue and shape the narrative in the same way that an Xbox game designer creates the playing field and core graphics that everyone else in the game gets to manipulate and use.
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This is an interesting time for books, and there are many ideas in the wild, some of which will actually take root and grow. Many of these seeds will be grown under the care of retailers and under the guidance of publishers, but clearly, many of these seeds will be nurtured by others, such as startups that patch the cracks between what the publishers and retailers offer for ebook reading.
I can see a totally different set of reading features than those we’re used to. A lot of these are social features—and let’s face it, we are a social species, a tribal people. Whether your tribe is your family, your school, or your work community, or an actual tribe such as the !Kung in the Kalahari, there’s something inborn about how social we are. Reading is a solitary act right now, an isolated interaction between one person and a book. The reading experience is at cross-purposes with our inborn impulse for sociability. So what better way to augment the reading experience than to bring social elements into it?
It’s no stretch of the imagination to see people camping out on words or paragraphs within a book, carving out domains of expertise. People might do this for the same reason that Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest—because of the challenge, because it was there. Someone, for example, can become the expert on the nuances of meaning of this very sentence.
Readers will camp out on a paragraph or sentence in an author’s book, staking it out as their turf and defending it when rivals want to squat on that turf with alternative interpretations. I can see people chatting with one another and coming together in conversations that are centered not just around the book, but around a given chapter or section of a book.
Also, as you’re reading, you’ll see who else is reading, where they’re from, and what e-readers they’re using. You might decide to reach out to them and chat about this book or this section. The book might prompt you with some starter questions or conversational topics related to it, much like discussion questions in a book club. The chats can be private or public.
If they’re public, they get attached to the book in digital format, like transcripts, accessible by other people, as well. In this way, books might continue the Talmudic tradition of commentary, and commentary upon the commentary. It’s a tradition started by Jewish scholars between 200 and 500 AD, and it continues to this day. Seen in this way as stories interwoven with commentaries, books will serve as town halls, literate ones where people come together and talk, and their talks will remain for those who come after them, for readers who venture into this conversational thicket months or even years later.
These chats will probably start with text, although you could easily imagine chats happening in a face-to-face way, with video as well as audio. I can even see authors meeting with journalists and interviewers in the actual pages of their books and conducting the interviews within the books, so that the interviews themselves become part of the reading experience. “Meet me in the chapter on the future,” I’ll say to any journalist, because that’s where I’ll talk to them, right here on this page. The book can become the home where you’ll find the readers, as well as the author.
But even once a book is done being read, the interaction between reader and author doesn’t end. Some readers are privileged. They’re either authors themselves or cultural influencers. Typically, the reviews they write often appear on the backs of book jackets or in the first few pages of a book as testimonials to would-be readers.
This concept is archaic in the digital space, because by downloading any Kindle book, you’re going to be taken past these testimonials. You’ll be plunked down right at the prologue or chapter one. The testimonials may well be in the content, but few readers will notice them. The only place for such book reviews will likely be in the pages of legacy stalwarts like the
, periodicals that are swiftly moving into digital format themselves, making the reviews and testimonials even harder to find as they vie for our attention with pop-up ads and Facebook games animated right there on your screen.
Paradoxically, the arbiters of taste will likely no longer be professional book reviewers but readers themselves, people like you and me. It’s a continuation of the trend Amazon started with its own book reviews, in which anyone can contribute a review for a book and the reviews can be as long or as short as you like. The inherent democracy thus provided is a sensible gauge, more sure perhaps and certainly less biased than the most astute of paid reviewers. Amazon has done a remarkable job with this and still has a leg up on Apple and Google and all the others. Even if you’ve chosen to buy Apple content for your iPad reading pleasure, you’ll still often find yourself going to Amazon to read its reviews first.
Interestingly, some Amazon reviews are better than the products themselves—not only can they be entertaining, but they’re social commentary too. I’m thinking in particular about the Denon AKDL1 Dedicated Link Cable or the “Three Wolf Moon” T-shirt or Tuscan whole milk, all of which can be found on Amazon.com. I can read these reviews all afternoon long, laughing my ass off. The reviews likely started as reactions to odd products or high prices—the Denon product is a stereo cable that retails for $999, and a gallon of Tuscan milk sells for $45.
Hipsters started writing reviews to mock the products, contriving fictional reasons for why the products are so expensive—with the laughable results that the milk reviews read like those for high-priced wines (“best paired with fresh macadamia nut scones”). And the Denon cable, these reviews suggest, can transmit music from your stereo faster than the speed of light, with the unfortunate side effect of summoning legions of devils into your home.
The “Three Wolf Moon” T-shirt, with its mawkish and unintentionally hilarious design, soared into mock popularity due to hundreds of irreverent hipster product reviews and found itself to be a top-selling item in Amazon’s clothing store. In fact, I think Amazon should consider publishing a book of their best and most infamous product reviews!
The digital space has already started transforming the engagement between author and reader, and that process will only continue to accelerate along the lines I described above. How long will it be before we see a book written as a series of comments on an Amazon product review? How long before we see a novel published only on Facebook as a series of posts, a novel that is inherently viral?
Epistolary fiction used to be popular—that is, fiction based on exchanges of letters—but I think we’ll start to see more fiction shaped by the forces (and mannerisms) of social networks. This has already been happening in Japan, where the first cell phone novel comprised of text messages was sold in 2003. It became so wildly popular that a franchise of print books, manga, TV shows, and a movie was spun off from it. There are cell phone applications available in South Africa specifically targeted at letting you write—and receive—novels in text-message format.