If the Book Is Dead, Then Why Buy a Zombie?

Detroit Book Repository
Detroit Book Repository by TunnelBug / Flickr

Today’s guest post is from Jason Braun, who produces hip-hop sonnets from the Midwest.

A year has passed since Jane Friedman’s 2011 AWP panel, “The Future of Authorship and Publishing in a Transmedia World,” and I’m still sorting through the fallout.

I went to the panel with my friend Jamey Bradbury, a fine fiction writer, who happened to be John Irving’s research assistant. Jamey wanted to learn more about e-books. I wanted to see how music might fit into the future of literature. We were immediately thrust into a much larger dialogue.

It was science fiction writer William Gibson who said, “The Future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” But it is Jane Friedman who is trying to help us all with distribution. Just five minutes into the show, the panelists were tossing questions like Molotov cocktails:

  • Why dream of being on Oprah’s Book Club? Why not be Oprah?
  • If people ask you at your literary magazine what you publish and you say, “Great stuff,” how long do you expect to be around in an age of diminishing funding for the arts?
  • Free is not a sustainable business model. Do you know how they sell fancy cheese?

In the twelve months since that panel, I have pushed my way into publishing, app design, and promotion. Only now, I have more questions:

  • Besides the new approaches to marketing that are available to writers, editors, and publishers using app or e-book formats, what is anyone doing to enhance, expand, explode or recreate the experience a “reader” could have?
  • If we momentarily entertain the notion that the book is dead, even for 15 minutes, what shapes, forms, containers, and distribution streams might we invent?
  • What are writers, editors, and publishers doing now besides hawking a zombified version of the book?
  • Frequently the e-book or book-as-app is a less pleasurable experience than that of ink on wood pulp. Our “readers” have a smartphone, a tablet, or computer at their warm fingertips, and as Hacker Historian George Dyson recently said in an interview with Wired, “Computers are idle 99 percent of the time, just waiting for the next instruction.” Why create as if this wasn’t part of the equation?

The future of the book is limited only by our definition. We could pour narratives, poems, memoirs, how-tos, and manifestos into innumerable forms:

  • Mix tapes
  • Audio tours
  • Tagging online photos with links to audio, wikis, and narrative maps
  • GPS-enabled apps that start the campfire songs for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as they reach the Ozark mountain peak corresponding to longitude and latitude pre-programmed by the scout master.
  • An e-book in which the “author” has allowed readers not just to choose their own adventures, but to write the work’s last chapter and/or change it daily according to the number of click votes it receives on the book’s webpage. That would beat the hell out of book club.

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