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My friends and colleagues at Safari Books Online will be posting a blog entry every day for the month of November, similar in spirit to National Novel Writing Month, but with less ambition. We’ll focus on technology and publishing issues, though I’m pretty sure at least one post will be about kale. At Threepress we did this back in 2009, but this time it should be much better, with a diversity of voices and viewpoints.

I’ll go first.


Books in Browsers 2012

Photo of clay figures from the Internet Archive

Most speakers felt compelled to uneasily acknowledge the presence of the Internet Archive’s army of pint-sized volunteer replicas.

Once again I was privileged to attend the Internet Archive’s Books in Browsers event. I think of it as the TED of digital publishing, without the brand dilution of a million lesser imitators. Organizer Peter Brantley consistently manages to attract not just the best thinkers in the publishing industry, but outsiders who have innovations to offer and provocative thoughts on writing and storytelling.

Simplify away the incumbents

One of the unique joys of BiB is the way in which themes arise organically. Day 1, in particular, felt to me like a single presentation, expressed in distinct movements:

  1. The act of publishing can be simpler. (Craig Mod, citing The Magazine)
  2. The existing complexity only benefits incumbents. (Brian O’Leary)
  3. Too much of that complexity comes from technologies that have outlived their usefulness. (John Maxwell)
  4. Simpler, better tools already exist and are free. (Adam Witwer and Adam Hyde)
  5. Embrace the web. (everyone)

Very little about Day 1 was recognizably about traditional publishing. Most of it wasn’t even about specific formats or software. It was about resetting our expectations of what the act of publishing is: who can do it, how quickly, and the ways in which it’s converging with every other activity in our digital lives.

Beautiful skeuomorphism

Screenshot from poeti.ca

poeti.ca, a gorgeous collaborative editing interface

One of the other delightful aspects of BiB is how one presentation can accidentally be a refutation of the other. Immediately following my talk, where I derided the “white rectangle UI” of authoring systems from MS Word to the typewriter to the quill pen, Blaine Cook and Maureen Evans stepped up to present Poetica, a truly exciting extension of that very old interface. Poetica is not quite done yet, but it’s lovely and thoughtful and absolutely unlike any other “publishing workflow” I’ve suffered to use or have pitched to me.

Qaulity [sic], not quantity

Not many BiB attendees actually work at publishing houses, but everyone there cares about reading, writing, and learning. Kassia Krozser had joked about doing a “live demo” (of reading a print book), and I wish she had, because her talk came at the conclusion of Day 2 and would neatly reinforced Day 1’s emergent theme of simplicity. In the end, what matters is the quality of the writing: did I enjoy myself? Did I learn something? Am I a better person for having lent two hours of my time to this author’s point of view?

Though perhaps “writing” doesn’t purely fit anymore. There were BiB presentations about video, and audio, and gameplay, none of them in the context of tedious profit-motivated “enhanced ebooks.” Sometimes the story is an aggregation of video (Ben Moskowitz), then-and-now photos and draft screenplays (Masaaki Hagino), or peer-to-peer game design (Tobias Green). I learned that the work doesn’t need to be composed of words. It tells the story we need to hear.

See you next year!

Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle presents the Archive’s vision of “Universal Access to All Knowledge”, shortly after the entire building experienced a power outage

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5 Responses to “Books in Browsers 2012 (Liza Daly’s recap)”

  1. Liana Holmberg

    Thanks for the recap. What did you think of the Enthill ebook gift cards? (I’m not associated with the company, just curious about how they may be able to connect indie bookstores to the new ecosystem of web-based publishing.)

  2. lizadaly

    It seemed like they were doing well. DRM was a big stumbling block for them; I think those kinds of initiatives will be much easier to implement when publishers let go of those concerns. I’d encourage small houses, who rely on indies, to consider it especially.

  3. Jim Gleaves

    I’m really interested in points #2 and #3 regarding the legacy complexity in the publishing industry. Clay Shirky has a fantastic piece on how difficult it is for an industry to simplify itself at http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2010/04/the-collapse-of-complex-business-models . He basically argues that established processes are so deeply rooted the people involved can’t simplify things, even if they want to. “In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.”

    • Liza Daly

      Thanks Jim. It’s certainly true that there are complexities inherent in publishing that any given actor can’t do away with themselves. At last year’s BiB, Brian O’Leary proposed that multiple entities cooperate to reduce that complexity. Although Brian was thinking bigger than this, one example might be that a publisher, agent, and author all agree to drop DRM, go digital-only, and keep global/secondary rights with the same entity. That kind of decision vastly reduces complexity even without making changes to the industry as a whole. Some publishers are already experimenting with that kind of model through discrete imprints.

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