What books are becoming [and what we may not be seeing]

This is Article 2 (following What readers want) in the “Lessons from Croatia Reads” series of articles on NSR, which aims to describe the experience of turning the country of Croatia into a Free Reading Zone in December 2016. The series is not meant to be a standard case study of all that various numbers and figures prove and don’t prove about the future of books and reading in digital format. It is an attempt to highlight the perspective that I think is missing in the publishing and library industries. The Croatia Reads project was/is meant to give all who work with books a glimpse of a future that holds so much promise for the written word. In this future things look radically different than they do today, but the possibilities are greater than they are today.

I start by responding to what I have heard publishers, librarians, and authors say for many years (especially in recent months), and what I no longer relate to as a publishing professional, writer, life-long learner, and reader. This idea—this insistence—that books and knowledge must be protected. That there is a lot of logic behind how books are written, how they are published and distributed, and how they are curated and ‘saved’ for future generations. But is there? What if there used to be a lot more logic behind it all but that same logic no longer applies today?

Books, I see now, do not want to be guarded or protected. They do not care to belong to any entity (human or artificial) and, in fact, do not want to belong even to those who create them (authors), claim them (publishers), and collect them (librarians). Books don’t want to be recommended and they don’t want to be judged. Like traveling souls yearning to meet a curious companion on their journey, they want to be free to reach the reader on their own terms. They want a relationship with the reader that is genuine and organic and does not involve outside forces.  And it is clear: they can only accomplish all this in digital format.

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What is a printed book anyway? A collection of sheets of paper with printed words on them bound together in perfect order, with front and back covers giving it shape and definition. A physical object we can smell and touch that must have the beginning, the middle, and the end. It must, because the technology that we have used for centuries (i.e., paper) dictates that at some point, printing (therefore, writing, too) must stop in order for the object to be distributed. The technology has dictated for centuries that the story the book ‘carries,’ ends.

All that is physical, in fact, has such limitations; it implies that at some point that which we create must end. This is why every book, regardless of type (fiction and nonfiction), must have the introduction, the middle part where the argument or the plot thickens, and the ending/conclusion where everything is resolved (or not resolved) in one way or another.

This is also the trap we fall into. This is the reason we feel ‘bad’ when we don’t finish a book. Or the reason ebooks are usually replicas of their print counterparts. This is why we judge people by the ‘number’ of books read and think less highly of someone who just randomly reads, even if his/her reading does not involve books. This is the reason a room full of physical books is automatically associated with prestige. We cannot seem to escape the confines of our centuries-old narrow thinking about reading and learning. And at the center of this thinking is our insistence that the book cannot be anything other the physical object we need to touch and smell.

But what if a book were a living organism constantly growing in virtual environments, and what if the knowledge shared by the creator/owner could flow wherever it wanted to, at any point in the creator’s journey? What if all that we publish could flow the way we post updates on Facebook? The way news articles flow to us online from all directions. The way music ‘comes at us’ from various sources. The way photographs are shared and re-shared. The way blog sites grow their content while their readers receive it. The way content ‘finds’ US, readers, not the other way around.

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In 2017, 20 or so years since the advent of the Internet and the proliferation of online technologies, which have profoundly transformed many industries (e.g., newspapers, music labels)—forcing them to rethink the way in which everything they create is shared and sold—the book industry still stands in opposition to the possibilities the digital medium can afford it. It remains hesitant (or slow) to change and chooses to walk the path of resistance to the new. We know why. We know the fear that the digital will ‘kill’ the print never really went away.

Even as many publishers begin to test different ebook models and slowly open up to the digital realm, they do so with a great deal of caution, reservation, and second-guessing. In the end, the ‘container’ is still to be produced and distributed the same way it has for centuries.

Having spent two decades working with and for librarians, I am also no stranger to the challenges they face. But I challenge librarians, nevertheless, to rethink if, perhaps, their institutions (and missions) need to be transformed into something that transcends the physical. Croatia Reads was, in fact, an effort to show to those who work with books what is missing and what is already possible—free, ‘sponsored’ reading outside institutions, and outside the confines of all that is physical.

Books are ready for the next chapter in their evolution, and for that to happen, publishers and libraries must be willing to experiment more. They need to learn to appreciate that the substance, not the container, is the true value of the book. And that substance—the written word—begs to be read in ways that transcends any container and institution. It begs to be released from the limitations of institutions and formats.

Croatia Reads was an attempt to give the book what it wants in digital format—complete freedom—while allowing publishers and all involved to benefit from it. As explained in previous articles, for one entire month last December, the country became an open virtual library, which people could access anywhere without a library card, special code, proof of citizenship or residency, and without restrictions. The reading was ‘sponsored’ by NSR and the technology was powered by Total Boox, the company behind the pay-as-you-read ebook model which pays publishers only for parts of books read (in this case, the payee was the sponsor, not the user).

Croatia Reads was orchestrated without cooperation with any library, even though we sought help from libraries months before launching (but didn’t receive it). Yet it was an attempt to show what the future library may look like. This library is is a river of knowledge flowing in every direction imaginable—an unstoppable force that ebbs and flows as it pleases but never discriminates. It asks not where you live, how old you are, where you were born, or what your address is.

This mighty invisible library doesn’t give you a card to hold or an access code to use. It doesn’t charge you late fees because nothing is ever late, it just is. It doesn’t tell you what to read, how to read, when to read, or why to read. It constantly grows and welcomes knowledge from all who want to create and share it (big publishers, small publishers, independent authors). It understands that as long as knowledge is tied to institutions and government entities, it will always be aligned with privilege. It also understands that books do not belong to it. Its job is to make them available at all times to all people, but there is no need to hoard anything anymore. Its job is to encourage and enable reading, not direct or supervise it.

This library has, in fact, awakened to its own responsibility that it needs to make every book available to every man or woman, regardless of geography and education. Suddenly, the concept of zip codes becomes ridiculous. Suddenly, an urban library collection is the same as that of a small library on a tiny island. Suddenly, the user is exposed to an endless flow of books that he/she is free to go in and out as he/she pleases, and it all counts as learning. Suddenly, that room full of books that we associate with privilege and prestige is less impressive. Its limitations start to bother us.

Best of all, this wonderful library of the future gives the book the ultimate love—it sets it free.

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See also

4 thoughts on “What books are becoming [and what we may not be seeing]”

  1. That’s where sponsorships come in, Diane. I will explore that in another article. Free Reading does NOT mean no money involved. It just means its free to to the reader. Thanks for commenting.

  2. As Enstein said (paraphrase) “….no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” I love seeing your open mind, Ms. NSLB. The open access perspective is such a fantastic ideal for ALL content. My concern is that the new world must be built on traditional foundations. No!? Someone’s gotta “pay the band”. Even free public libraries must pay the light bills!

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