Notes on Unbound Books – A Conference Report (Part II)

One of the most interesting sessions on the last day of The Unbound Book conference, was the session on Future Publishing Industries. According to the program the session focused on the affordances and political economies of the publishing industry and libraries. Underneath a small summary of three of the papers presented on the panel and of the discussion afterwards.

James Bridle is a London-based publisher and an all-round creative person, who is involved in all kinds of book-shaped experiments. He finds himself in between and on the border of books, technologies of social reading, and literature. He, amongst others, devised the first book of Twitter, where he printed out his tweets in the form of a book. Bridle begins his talk by stating that there is a certain weight of expectation that people have concerning the physicality of the book. The physicality is what reveals the weight and cultural value given by people to a material object. What is it exactly that is so important about books, Bridle asks. Books exist in time. They exist through time. They are advertisements for themselves; you are immersed within the space of the reading process itself. You spend time with books and go on journeys. In this way books become the souvenir of their own experience. They are both a gift and the locus of more conversations around the book. The problem is, Bridle explains, that we have mistaken the temporality of the book for the physicality of the book. What we really care about is not about how books smell or feel in our hands. Ebooks create a cognitive difference because they don’t give the temporal qualities of the book: they are transient, they go away, and there is no way to enact temporal activities within them. This is starting to change though. Underlining, dog-earring, seeing your process as you go through the book; these instances of knowing where you are and of feeling that you are inside a book, in the space of a book, are being recreated online.

An important aspect of interaction with a book, Bridle states, is through making notes. Through note making we are in many ways doing something far more interesting with books. And we are encouraging people to have these interesting behaviors. However there are also weird behaviors around the book that we don’t talk about. For instance book guilt and the obsession of having to finish a book. Book fear, when you are unable to write in a book or book-ear. This is something that we can change however, Bridle states. We can now encode the totality of the reading experience. We can capture and engage with an archive. This is social reading, Bridle explains, something that provides a lasting and shareable experience. You can either keep them for yourself or share your thoughts. Bridle set up Open Bookmarks, to encourage certain behaviors, and to encourage best practices. Social reading is a great opportunity for publishers, according to Bridle, this is the direction publishing will be going into. Music wants to be recorded and almost all music is recorded. This is starting to happen with books too: books are subliming; they are going up in the air. But we need to keep our experiences intact and this is what publishers need to be involved in. Because this is where literature is going, and this is where the reader’s experience is going.

Nicholas Spice is the publisher of the London Review of Books, a literary magazine, tabloid, with an improved newsprint which appears twice a month. It has about 100.000 readers worldwide. They publish long-form essays on books and what comes out of these books. Spice explains how digital publishing has changed things much for the LRB, it for instance drastically changed the economics of distribution. The traditional distribution chain has been very inefficient, Spice explains. For literary books/magazines it has always been very hard to create readerships, as adverts and reviews are very hard to arrange. Bookselling is a very inefficient way of getting books to the public. High quality literature in the 1980s still had the same reach as it had in the 18th century. The old system was thus immensely inefficient. The change, according to Spice, has to do with the fact that at the LRB they don’t have to print and distribute anymore in order to reach the audience. People come to find them and find them naturally through search engines (instead of they finding them). The content sells itself; it has become an advert for itself. Also the form has hanged. Online the form has disaggregated; people don’t have to read the whole magazine anymore. This has changed the way people engage with the magazine. The output produced by the LRB has become both more and less ephemeral. Everything has now come to the surface; the whole history of the LRB is now online. The average time spend on the website is two minutes and that is quite good. But it is two hours on average with the physical form. The question is, can the LRB survive and flourish in this way? We are attracting very many new readers, Spice states. But the nature of the things and the mode of engagement with the reader have changed. New forms of creativity and literary production are coming up. One of them is the handling of critique and evaluation by the reader, instead of by critics themselves. Will the LRB be welcomed in this world in the long term? The difficulty is that it is an exclusive medium, not an inclusive one. It is the magazine to be in because it knows what to keep out. Editors and staff are sifting out everything. Complexity, difficulty, and things that take time and rarely succeed: that is the LRB. And it takes time: the editing, the writing, and the reading. Even the letters to the editors are heavily edited. The LRB is very continuous with the main trust of intellectual endeavor since the start of civilization. It has taken years of practice to create objects of intense complexity and interest to the people who want these. Spice does not want to defend this tradition, but this has been what our civilization has been about: the philosophy of the book as being of supreme importance to us. We overestimate, romanticize, and fetishize certain things: the openness of form over completed things, fragmentation over linearity, the draft over what is finished, the spontaneous over what is considered. You can already find these tendencies back in the romantic age: the overvaluation of the social over the solitude. There is a fetishization of real-time over artificial time, Spice states. What happens spontaneously is supposed to be better than long form and contemplation. Is that adding value to the thing itself, Spice asks? Do these things add value to the text, the richness of the text? Is the real conflation to be found between information and the information chain and what we do with that information? What we make out of it to create value is necessarily slow. And the LRB is inherently dedicated to that tradition. Two main questions remain for Spice: can the LRB survive in that world? And, will this new environment be capable of breaking down the tradition of creating works against real-time?

Simon Worthington is one of the founders of Mute, which he started up 17 years ago together with Pauline van Mourik Broekman. Mute is published as a magazine (biannually). As Worthington states, they have always been experimenters in their long history of publishing. Worthington describes the present situation in the publishing world as a slow motion train rack. All these massively disruptive things are going on: the competition market, capitalism, the supposed long-tail and the long-tail of labor… Because of this situation, Mute has always been changing their publishing models. They are both a journal and a critical group in that area, always with a small public and in that sense always in a crisis. Mute started up with the web, in 1994. Their approach has always been free to share; they put all their stuff up online to support interaction with their readers. Their model is based on subscriptions and/or on buying print objects. In 2005 they moved into POD. This was an important change for the value chain and for how things move along, the quality of POD has improved and if needed they print in small runs and they can print internationally, without shipping costs, made possible by companies like Lightning Source.

They also work as a technologist group, making tools. At the moment for instance they are working on a project on e-conversion systems. They have been working in the open source community for a very long time. Their main problem has always been how to sustain a project. They have been trying to find ways to recompense themselves. POD did help a bit with distribution and costs in this respect, Worthington claims. If you have a commitment to free and open, the people at Mute look upon epublishing as the way to go. Looking at the tools that are there however, they decided that they do not all fit to their purposes, so they decided to make their own tools.

Worthington goes on to reflect upon the perceived anxiety about technology and its disruptivity on reading and on the fear of losing the book. He thinks this is a misplaced anxiety. These anxieties are better seen as the effects of global capitalism: that is why bookshops are closing. The return on profit is not high enough within retailing. The larger publishing industry has been a succession of buy-outs towards the creation of a global supply chain. Only the last few years ebooks have become a real thing. What is the trend now? It is a global supply chain. These kinds of pressures have been destroying the small bookshops and independent publishing.

Mute is a small publication, via ebooks and html5 they create things the reader wants to buy. But according to Worthington the future will be controlled by the Apples and Amazons of this world. It will be a vertical model, a capitalist control market. The securing of that market and the holding on to walled gardens is another example of the train-rack. In this situation you don’t know who your customers are anymore and they charge you 30% for controlling the market. These forces are much stronger than the changes in our reading habits etc.

Coming back to smaller publications, Worthington asks how they can be run. They are all nodes in a network of critical and cultural writers. The Eurozine conference reflected on the same issues, how to create a relationship with your audience that isn’t just about reading but about creating something like sustainability. This is very hard to do in a situation where in the UK the top ten publishers control 70% of the market. Donations and things like flat rates wont work they just don’t have the reach. Flat rates and state taxation will never happen and the market does not really welcome smaller publications. It is a hard nut to crack. For Mute, Worthington concludes, at the moment it is the combination of ebooks, html5 presentations and experiments with social reading that do it. But the situation stays precarious.


How will we be able to sustain the educational and quality aspect of publishing with so much trash and information around?

Simon: The web is dominated by brands. In that way the web mirrors the world we live in very closely. If that is publishing it seems to continue online

Nicholas: Cultural leaders will decide what is quality together. A large circulation of the LRB is always bums on seats and the internet makes that process more intensive.

James: We are going towards an editorship of crowds. Not that we are moving away from experts, but books have always been about recommendations to your friends and now they are just moving to the web. Access and filtering is something publishers have always done and it will increase this role online.

Simon: We need the disruption of the web: why does the meme exist? you need to break these things apart. In the UK the fixed book price disappeared and this has made the book industry and the retail industry collapse with the rise if the amazons etc. Localized variety will be destroyed by global apps and amazons.

How can we promote a culture of solitude? How do you envision that, what could be a next step?

Nicholas: We shouldn’t make the mistake of conflating two sorts of benefit and value. One of the best things of new media is the way it has facilitated contact between people, not only in virtual space but also in physical space, for instance with the LRB bookshop. This was impossible in the old system; you could not reach the people economically. But this is a benefit that has to do with social organization; it has nothing to do with the content and the value of the content and the things that are discussed. I think here solitude is very important. People can write books together but obviously they don’t do it. You cannot produce interesting thoughts quickly; you need to think them out. More than simple blogosphere blatter, we are talking about solitude and time. The evidence is not very strong that the content and value of what is being said is very high.

James: There is a huge conflation here with the social aspect. A blog doesn’t involve comments explicitly. Like everything it can be written solitary too, it is a tool. In the way we build these tools, it is very important to look at the way we use them. Open Bookmarks was also designed to read solitary. I want to see a shift in our emphasis on what these technologies can do to the reader. We can use these tools to create new experiences, almost all on the reader’s side. They can be valuable for them on the solitary side though; we should not force the social in them.

Bob Stein: These are all beautiful statements on all of the best things of print culture (akin to  Sven Birkert). I don’t want to fight against that and I don’t design things that force people in a certain direction. It is however another thing altogether to want to figure out what the affordances of these new technologies are all about. For me the age of the individual is coming to an end, the way we are judged etc like this. Will these technologies lead to new societies? I want tot put it in the context of how deep the shift will be from print culture to digital culture

Nicholas: I think it would be wonderful that the individual would be less important, but I am more of a pessimist. I don’t see factual evidence of that changing and of the evidence of technology on changing people that much.

Simon: We need to look at the context of the whole media spectrum: it is about different ideas being in circulation. These experiments need to be run. You want to see what happens when more people write and explore ideas.

The ghost of the author is all around you. Shouldn’t we be cautious of sucking authors into the entertainment industry?

Nicholas: Authors are already part of an entertainment industry. The interesting thing is how the egos of authors will deal with the dispersion of their reputation. As Freud said, we write because of fame, money, and the love of women. The question is, how to get your thrills in the digital age?

James: Authors as performers is something that is not comfortable for me. Yes they have always doing this to some extent. I think we should provide authors with tools that support them. Writing is not such a solitary attitude; authors exist as parts of much larger networks and discussions. The world is what I am writing about so I am in the world when I am writing about it. The writer is also of the network. We are building these huge dichotomies of the web as social and the offline world as non-social and this is not helpful.

We have been discussing the social mob and the solitary individual. But what about the small team or group? If you take out the global industries, what the world looks like is small bands of groups of experts (publishers etc.) and small groups or experts of creators. They are still constrained groups, but not as large as society as large. There are expert bands on the one hand and technology bands on the other. Can we ask ourselves, can there be a way in the future for small expert groups to benefit from small groups of technologists? Blogging experts might also learn something from traditional experts. Can we combine expertise of all sorts on the one hand, and the social networked public knowledge on the other hand?

Simon: Small pockets and groups and the way they connect is very traditional and very physical sometimes. New tools need to be made, and some new kinds of practices need to come in place to let these groups know about each other.

Geert Lovink: We need to disassociate the book from the romanticized solitary author.


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