The book, in its printed and widely-available form, has existed for nearly six hundred years. Trade publishing is what I affectionately think of as an industry fuelled by love, bestowed on a special kind of physical object and the information and potential it carries. Publishers have met and further inspired demand by offering greater accessibility to content in traditional print formats. However, the age of digital demand offers chances to publishers to broaden what a book can be. By failing to embrace open access, interconnectivity, and reading in digital formats, do publishers risk turning into the casualties of the industry’s democratization of content? Now is the time for publishers to reconsider how they approach content editorially and how content can be related to the greater ephemeral web—and what the reader’s role is in this new endeavour.
In my presentation, “Content Vs. Context: Or, No Book is an Island,” I explored two articles by Brian O’Leary Context, Not Container and Community Organizers: The end game for publishers, and argued that publishers should look for new ways to create book inter-connectivity: editors should be deep tagging book content with metadata at subsection levels (rather than just at the title level) and incorporating this into their workflow before the copy-editing stage. Furthermore, they could interconnect content with other media, such as chapters from other books, music, and video content that readers could buy into if they so chose. O’Leary’s idea is that by contextualizing content we are building a “Library Within Us” where a book’s content is no longer isolated within the boundary of its covers or its position on the virtual bookshelf. What I have come to realize is another important factor to this re-envisioning of the book, is the potential for a reader to connect her books to content from the ephemeral web. This concept goes beyond democratizing knowledge, which I consider to be the primary achievement of publishing since the 1400s, it democratizes the curatorial role. As readers we become our own librarians/editors/curators of content combining web bookmarks with books and other connected media. This ability to curate allows us to bridge our ephemeral reading with more traditionally lasting content creating a reading scrapbook, timeline, and archive that leaps the boundaries of our currently ghettoed content spaces. Of course, this approach to content would be ideally served through readers’ ownership of digital content, rather than the current purchase-to-access model for most digital books; this model would also be at its most valuable if digital content were sharable by the owner, so that readers can share their uniquely curated content with friends.
In her essay Untangling the Ephemeral Web: The Value of Transient Content, Amanda Smith describes ephemeral web content as
“written material that’s not intended to be retained. Before content became digital, ephemera was a print phenomenon, in the form of playbills, birthday cards, train schedules, travel brochures, etc. They were throwaways—cheaply printed service materials that had little value beyond a near expiration date.”
Digital ephemera is BuzzFeed posts, tweets, Instagram photos, and so on. All of this ephemeral content—digital or physical—is a snapshot of a moment in time. It’s often event- or trend-oriented, but, people have always kept ephemeral items—the stuff that makes up scrapbooks such as concert tickets, programmes, and newspaper clippings. Our love of ephemera has also been capitalized upon in fiction and non-fiction titles—a recent example is S. By J.J. Abrams, which is full of the story’s related ephemera stuffed between the pages. Smith also talks about the amount of ephemeral content she reads in relation to the number of books she reads, since she got her first smartphone—the ephemeral stuff is eating into the time spent with book content. My interpretation is that she feels a disconnect between these types of reading, but what if traditional long-form book content, when appropriate, could be married to its related ephemeral web content?
In “Content vs. Context,” I discussed the potential for a digital version of Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth with Hadfield’s original tweets, photographs, and videos connected to their corresponding events in the written content. I also suggested that the book could be curated by the editor to connect its content with other content of similar interest: with chapters from the writings of Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan, with music from popular science fiction movies, and with novels that would appeal to the same audience. I would like to take that idea one step further.
Once owned by the reader, the digital An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth could become so much more. It is a continuously unfolding event of a book. Since its hard publication date, Hadfield has played concerts and toured the content, meeting readers—most recently he spoke at TED2014 in Vancouver and performed at the subsequent #NinjaTED concert. Readers of the book and followers of Hadfield’s story have generated their own content based upon these appearances and meeting him. This content—video clips, photographs, tweets, and so on continue the astronaut-on-Earth story, building upon the content and themes of the book. Now, imagine a reader being able to integrate her own chosen content with her digital book—material that might otherwise become ephemeral on Twitter or Instagram, into her personalized version of the book: the photo she had taken with Hadfield at a signing, his TED Talk, favourite answers to questions on his Reddit AMA, news updates from NASA, tweets from other astronauts undergoing training, and so on. Here she has a scrapbook, of sorts, that starts with the traditionally edited and published text, has connections to contextual content selected by the editor, but then becomes marked up with web and personal ephemera that create a updated timeline and ongoing record of the content past publication date.
Readers have all sorts of passions—whether it be space travel, or fashion, historical fiction, cooking, or romance novels, there is the potential for connecting ephemeral web content to all of these genres and for the reader to personalize her content if she so chooses. When we read we are building our individual understanding of human experience and contextualizing our place in the universe. Digital books allow us to create a piece of content that is a snapshot of ourselves during the place and time that we read that content in an accessible, portable way that goes beyond traditional marginalia and personal bookshelf organization. Our digital books, together on our devices, could form a Goodreads-esque timeline of our reading experience or, perhaps, more suitably, a cloud, showing the overlap of reading for those with two, three, or a dozen books on the go at once. These books, combined with their contextual connections, could create a galactic filament–like visual interface. No book is an island in this sea of stars.
Your reading, in context.
With deeply tagged digital books that are owned by the reader, the potential for personalization and contextualizing with ephemeral web content with other artistic content is enormous. The ability to incorporate contextual links rather than just traditional marginalia in print books and notes in eBooks, would transform each copy of a digital book into a creative collaboration between the reader, the author, and the publisher. Ephemeral content tied to a reader’s book could even be archived in the cloud in case it is deleted from its original location on the web. Trade publishers are in the business for the love, and perhaps the greatest love a publisher can invest in digital books is in setting them free for the reader to make her very own.
O’Leary, Brian. “Community Organizers: The end game for publishers.” Magellan Media. 21 Oct 2010. Web. 25 Mar 2014.
O’Leary, Brian. “Context, Not Container.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. Pressbooks, 2012. Web. 25 Mar 2014.
Smith, Amanda. “Untangling the Ephemeral Web: The Value of Transient Content.” PUB 802: Tech & Evolving Forms of Publishing. 26 Feb 2014. Web. 25 Mar 2014.
Till, Kaitlyn. “Content Vs. Context: Or, No Book is an Island.” Presentation, Pub 802. 17 Mar 2014.