The Book Debate: Context or Container

As technology becomes increasingly prevalent in the publishing industry, the definition of a book and the qualities it requires are made unclear. At the most basic level of this change is the medium of the novel. Digital book formats and web publishing are moving the book industry into unknown territory, effectively calling into question the role of the book and sparking the context over container debate. The rise of the Internet has created an overwhelming movement towards contextualization, with an online hierarchy of links and connections coming to designate value and worth. This in turn has led to conflicting ideologies regarding the isolation of the book in its traditional form. The idea of pushing context into book formats and modernizing them through external links is gaining ground in the publishing world, with many arguing that contextualization is necessary to maintaining relevancy. And yet, despite the growing popularity of this trend among professionals, there is little evidence to support claims of the public’s desire for increased context. Rather, what readers demand are convenience and the ability to create and participate in an online community. Through this essay I will thus argue that not only is contextualization of books not vital to their survival, it may in fact prove detrimental. If misused, adding context to books in a world already teeming with distractions could signal the death toll of the classic novel. To ensure this does not happen, publishers must move beyond the idea of metadata as savior and begin to focus on a greater plan of discoverability that includes links, the author, and most importantly, community.

In the Internet age, context informs every thought and action, with searches and links creating an intricate and somewhat inescapable web of interconnectivity. In the publishing sector, this has led to the belief that books should be linked and contextualized, effectively complicating their form as an isolated vessel. Many in the industry have begun to see the anomalous nature of the book as a set back and lost opportunity, arguing that publishing is being “unduly governed by the [same] physical containers” (O’Leary) that have been used to transmit information for centuries. By being a stand alone artifact the book is condemned as old fashioned and culturally irrelevant. Instead of grasping at relations, as is the norm, the traditional book blatantly ignores all contexts, including “tagged content, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata” (O’Leary). Current workflow hierarchies demote context to an afterthought in publishing, with often vague or irrelevant metadata being thrown in at the end of production. According to this camp, this must be reversed, with book creation beginning and focusing on context for the sake of both experience and discoverability. More and more people in the publishing world are coming to the conclusion that the future of eBooks lies in the reimagining of the book as an “immersive experience [and] connected community of discovery” (Abel). Context has become a messiah figure for book publishers, with followers of this movement claiming that these links alone are the answer to the high competition and saturation of the market. It has come to the point of frenzy, a conviction that unless books are twisted to parallel the web, they will soon face extinction.

As a consequence of this belief, several start-ups have dedicated themselves to developing an “API to make context available” (von Veh) and inherent to the book. Future press, an open source java script reader, is one such start-up, and like many others, is attempting to convert the eBook “to open web standards like HTML5” (Chasen). If successful, such programs would allow movement between related sites, generating connections and increasing discovery. With a history of ignoring and under utilizing technological advancements, it is clear that publishers are desperate to be on the cusp of any perceived revolution.

The enthusiasm of the industry to propagate this movement, however, is arguably misplaced. Reading has always been a singularly different experience than browsing web pages or social media, and to try and conform the book to such standards could have severe ramifications. There’s “still no substitute for the experience of close reading as we’ve come to understand and appreciate it- the capacity to imagine entire worlds from parsing a few lines of text; the ability to achieve deep and meditative levels of absorption in others’ psyche” (Self). By linking books, publishers risk complicating these experiences and distracting readers, a fact that is not lost on Will Self in his article, “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real).” In his piece, Self argues that adding context and connections to the book format will inescapably result in reader distraction as they flit from link to link like searching the web. Readers will be unable to “voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity” (Self) and the book as an experience and art form will suffer as attention wanes.

Linking books to the web also runs the risk of ruining the suspension of disbelief necessary to most works of fiction. Most literary fiction requires imagination to engage the reader, and the web above all else is a network of fact and theory. It is “there to provide instant realism” (Self), reducing fancy to fact with a few small strokes. Despite the good intentions surrounding the contextualization of books, it becomes clear then that such technology would ultimately be a hindrance, rather than a support to the novel.

On top of this, there is also very little evidence suggesting that readers even want increased context in their reading experiences. The “fast pace of change in the publishing industry makes it difficult to make good, well-informed decisions” (DBW) since publishers are often working off of confused or incomplete data. I would argue that linking books is one such example of blind decision making. Not only did my research fail to turn up statistical evidence supporting a demand for context, it also showed a significant lack of successful real world prototypes. Take for example, Small Demons, an LA start-up designed on the premise of book contextualization. Small Demons hosted a database of “people, places, songs, books, films, food, drink, and gadgets mentioned in books, allowing users to make connections between texts, and buy related goods” (Jones). Given the industry’s enthusiasm regarding the creation of connectivity between and within books, this start-up should, theoretically, have been a great success. It even had the backing (and business connections) of some major industry players, including Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Harper Collins, and Penguin. And yet, in November of 2013, just one year after its launch, Small Demons was facing closure, with low numbers and little interest to intrigue buyers. Now in 2015, little information can be found about this start-up, and the website boasts only an old promotional video.

While Small Demons may in fact return one day, its quick demise and the overwhelming support of major publishing houses right off the bat are extremely telling. Though Brian O’Leary argues that we can no longer sell “content alone,” neither can we sell context over the essence of the book. The failure of Small Demons should have signaled to publishers that not enough market research has gone into understanding consumer needs, and that context and connection just may not be the key to the industry’s progression.

If we remove the contextualization of eBooks as the answer to modernizing the reading experience and maintaining relevancy, it leaves what publishers have already known. In most cases, what readers demand is not increased gadgets or features, but rather convenience and community. When it comes to the reader’s needs and wants, often times it’s not about hardware, but rather “[c]ontent availability and pricing” (Brunner). Book publishing must be able to deliver that instant gratification and ease of purchase in order to compete in the digital age. According to the article “Context, not Container,” readers also want “convenience, specificity, ease of access, and connection” (O’Leary). Though O’Leary is referring to the type of connections promoted via web browsing and links, I would alter this statement for a more human slant. What readers want is not to be connected needlessly to external data, facts, or related products. Rather, what they seek are connections amongst themselves and the participation within an online community that the Internet allows.

More than ever readers “want to share their experiences in networked, highly social environments” (Sadokierski), and the rise of the Internet and subsequent book forums have made this possible. This, however, is not a new fact. It is well known amongst publishers that they must always take into consideration “how their readers will interact with and expand […] content” (Sadokierski). This realization is evident in the use of these blogs and sites as key components of both marketing and research within the industry.

Moving beyond this, I would argue that these technology enabled communities are in fact more vital to the survival and continued relevance of book publishing than any new API or database. Instead of depending upon context to save the book from death, we need to build upon these communities and cater to them. In a large sense this means making books not only readily available, but easily discoverable as well. The market for books, both print and digital, is obscenely oversaturated, making discoverability one of the greatest issues facing the industry. Although links and context cannot single handedly revive the book, they can, however, help fight obscurity when used as a tool to supplement metadata and serve online networks of readers. Since people “are reading only books that their communities make important” (Piersanti), the primary goal for publishers must become making their books known to these online groups.

To accomplish this, I believe publishers must look to web browser search engine optimization systems as an example. These systems rely on numerous criteria to rank pages and content, including amongst others, links, metadata, domain name, word count and page count, and update frequency. Though not necessarily directly applicable to search optimization for books, these categories highlight a vital point: context alone is not enough to combat obscurity. Publishers must therefore develop a new system to ensure discovery and relevance; one in which context, author, and digital resources work together to boost and propagate the online communities necessary for their survival.

Though a topic of continued debate, the ideas of the book as either context or container need not be directly opposed. Rather, in order to maintain relevancy and discoverability, the book must become both; a mix of connections and content singularly devoted to the expansion and servicing of the online reading world.

Works Cited
Brunner, Grant. “How technology is creating a reading revolution.” Oct 31, 2012. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

DBW. “Biggest Problems Facing Publishing: Disappearing Shelf Space, Discovery, Pace of Change.” Jan 14, 2014. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Future press.

Jones, Philip. “Small Demons faces closure.” Nov 6, 2013. Web. Feb 23, 2015. 

O’Leary, Brian. “Context, not Container.” Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. O’Reilly Media. 2012. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Piersanti, Steven. “The 10 Awful Truths About Book Publishing.” Aug 7, 2011. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Sadokierski, Zoe. “The Future of Independent Book Publishing- notes from the 2014 Ind Pub Conference.” Nov 18, 2014. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Self, Will. “The Novel is Dead (This time it’s for real).” May 2, 2014. Web. Feb 23, 2015.

Von Veh, Anna. “Books in Browsers 2013- Reflections.” Nov 1, 2013. Web. Feb 23, 2015. 





One Reply to “The Book Debate: Context or Container”

  1. With this essay, the author almost convinces us of her two main arguments with regards to contextualizing digital books: 1) that context is detrimental to the long-term viability of digital books, and 2) that the public has very little appetite for contextualization. The arguments are well presented and use a good array of sources from well-regarded industry commentators, they are clearly written, and are compelling enough to have the reader sympathize with the author’s point of view.

    Unfortunately, a lack of clarity of terms and a narrow interpretation of the very concept at the centre of her essay—context—leaves the reader ultimately unsatisfied. It becomes apparent as one reads on, that the author has taken a narrow interpretation of context that looks only at the interlinking of concepts to the wider Web and uses this narrow definition to construct something akin to a straw man argument. Moreover, it is left unclear with the final few paragraphs whether the author herself believes in the negative impact of this type of interconnections, when she suggests that they may prove useful in various forms book discovery.

    Taken with a slightly different spin and working with this narrow definition of context, this essay can be interpreted as presenting a strong (and more convincing) argument that publishers should try to address the debate of context versus content by simply interlinking their books to the world. As the author points out, there appears to be little appetite for such a book experience and it may (as she claims) ultimately prove to be detrimental to the reading experience. Read as such, this essay succeeds in making us think that context is important in much more complicated ways than some have imagined.

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