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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Jason Braun

Jason Braun

Jason Braun currently teaches English and is the Associate Editor of Sou’wester at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He hosts Literature for the Halibut, a weekly hour-long literary program on KDHX 88.1. He has published fiction and poetry, and has reported for or been featured in The Riverfront Times, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ESPN.com, Drum Voices Review, Sou’wester, The Daily Iowan, The Nashville City Paper, and many more. Releasing music under the moniker “Jason and The Beast,” Braun’s most recent project “Made This For You: The Mix Tape as Literature” can be downloaded by naming your own price (even free) at Jasonandthebeast.com.

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25 Comments on "If the Book Is Dead, Then Why Buy a Zombie?"

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Bonnee

I don’t get why people love moving everything into the technology, I LOVE hand-held books… reading off a screen feels… annoying? I dunno… silly technology. But at least it gives writers another avenue for publishing, yes? 

Jane Friedman

In my mind, it’s about observing how much more time people spend using their laptops, iPads, mobile devices, etc, and how books (reading) can be a part of that.

Matthew Turner

Some interesting thoughts. I too are interested in the experience going forward, and i feel we could be reading very differently in 5 years. We just need that one big platform to come along

There were social networks before Facebook, but it wasn’t until ‘it’ came along before mums, dads, grand parents, etc got involved.

I feel books will have it’s own platform, not in terms of selling (that’s amazon’s domain), but the actual reading. 

Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

PatrickAParish

Personally, I’m going to go against the grain here and offer the thought that readers want to read so that they can use their own imaginations and interpretations to enjoy a story.

Everything that’s written here is true in that tech is able to offer people a more complete sensory experience with the likes of movies, gaming and ect… But for the people that want to read, I think that those are the people that want to use their own imaginations and to perhaps escape for a little while, the overwhelming sensory bombardment that they experience in other areas of life in today’s world.

Jane Friedman

I believe that the future of reading has very little to do with the future of books—and I believe Jason would agree. The Economist has done some interesting thinking in this area, and coined the term “lean back media” to describe immersive reading experiences using technology such as the iPad. More here: http://www.economistgroup.com/leanback/what-is-lean-back/

PatrickAParish

Hmm.. very interesting indeed. I’m still confused over what this is going to mean for authors though. Do you think there’s going to be more of a demand for authors to have a programming abilities, or video capabilities, or something else, to create a more immersive environment?

Jane Friedman

I think most authors still buy into the cultural myth (myth as far as worldview—not in a false myth way) that the best and most important way to write and tell a story is between the covers of a book.

While I think authors with a more diverse set of tools for telling stories will be more attractive to publishers, authors can be more effective if they envision the many different ways to share a story and message outside the confines of the book container.

Mehmet Arat

I find all discussions about the future of thoughts and books very interesting. It is sure  that we are moving in a fast transition period. I think paper books still have an advantage with their silent and solid appearance, but it is really difficult to see what we will have in the next decade.
Thank you for sharing this interesting discussion.

Danezeller
Jason, The idea of writer as entertainer is fascinating. I think it impacts much of what I do, but mostly in the marketing area.  I believe that there has always been, and always will be, a communication between writer and reader that is not dependent on technology, but rather on written words and imagination. (see Patrick Parish comment).  I believe the new tools will affect how we market, distribute, and present stories, but, at the heart of it all is how well we choose and order words. After spending four hours a day with the new social tools, sometimes I… Read more »
Jane Friedman

I tend to agree that tech is affecting marketing more than content (“words”), at this point, but I see some revolutions in that area, too.

You might be interested in this think piece by Kevin Kelly about the future of the book/reading: 
http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2011/04/what_books_will.php

Kalpana Mohan

Interesting possibilities here. I can see we’re limited only by our imagination.

And that’s when I was given an opportunity to work with an artist from another medium, I jumped at the chance. I decided to be part of an event that melds dance and literature. My nonfiction work will be performed by a South Indian classical dancer; she will also dance to a fiction piece and some poems. http://rebelution.eventbrite.com/

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Nancy Lee Parish
Reading a book should be an immersive experience on it’s own. If it is well written, then it will be just that. I think the biggest problem is that more and more “junk” is being published, and it needs something so the reader can overlook the fact that it is not a great story. Other technologies are great for promoting books, like book trailers, though a lot of those tend to build a great expectation for a story, only to leave one wondering if they bought the same book! I don’t believe that reading needs to be “improved” upon. Perhaps… Read more »
Jane Friedman

I don’t want to speak for Jason (though I will) in that the key idea isn’t that reading should be improved upon, but that it can happen in so many different ways. 

I don’t think the “traditional” reading experience will go away any time soon, but we should also start thinking beyond the page about the many ways we can touch people that don’t have to be in the “traditional” container of the book.

Mahfood
I’m reminded in reading your article about a print edition book that does something similar to what you mention in one of your points about letting the audience write the ending. The book is called The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal and is available on Amazon for under $4 used (http://www.amazon.com/The-Sunflower-Possibilities-Forgiveness-Paperback/dp/0805210601). What the author does is tell a story about a Jew at a concentration camp during WWII who is ushered into a dying Nazi’s chamber. Gradually, he realizes why he’s there – to extend forgiveness to the Nazi. He simply walks out. What follows is a series – dozens –… Read more »
tolga
I’m on the optimistic side of all this. “High tech media is a traditional book but with pictures/media that ruins imagination” It doesn’t have to be that way.. Most of the content is not written for new possibilities. But most important of all, more people can create something with little cost and put it out there… And we are getting very very close to a time when reading from a device will be more comfortable than holding a book, perhaps without needing external light or reading glasses, etc. But I am concerned about the transformation of the mind, will the… Read more »
Adam Al Sirgany
I’m also very optimistic about this. Opening up the market in a way that both allows new media and variations on old (traditional… insert correct adjective here) forms is great. Art is, in part about innovation, and adapting to the ever-changing world. Whether the new forms Jason offers as examples hold the same kind of timeless presence that some of our favorite books do (and hopefully will) is really beside the point. Point taken, all those who prefer a good old paperback. I do too! But isn’t it true that our love for that presentation has a great deal to… Read more »
Kevin Eagan
Jason, These are great questions to ask about the direction of the book in the digital age. I’m interested in this idea you bring up about the eBooks, as they are marketed now, being simply a zombified version of a print book. I agree that taking a form that was designed for print (words on a page) and putting it on a screen is only one step toward a digital literature, a step that isn’t very inspiring in the first place. I like the idea of enhancing the text with new and interesting things. The ideas you brought up would… Read more »
Kevin Eagan
Jason, These are great questions to ask about the direction of the book in the digital age. I’m interested in this idea you bring up about the eBooks, as they are marketed now, being simply a zombified version of a print book. I agree that taking a form that was designed for print (words on a page) and putting it on a screen is only one step toward a digital literature, a step that isn’t very inspiring in the first place. I like the idea of enhancing the text with new and interesting things. The ideas you brought up would… Read more »
Andi-Roo

I’m so unimaginative, the suggestions made in this conversation regarding the future of books truly amazes, excites, & astounds me. I’m happy with stories in whichever form they enter my home — audio books accompany my housekeeping chores via my iPod; books on CD travel with me in the car; my Kindle rides in my purse where ever I go; & a paper-bound book lies on my bedside table. The more possibilities presented, the more stories I may devour. Escapism, how do I love thee, in all your myriad forms! BRING IT!

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[…] post is by Jason Braun. You may remember him from an earlier guest post here at JaneFriedman.com: If the Book Is Dead, Then Why Buy a Zombie? I like this story because it illustrates new ways of thinking about your stories or content, plus […]

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[…] on “The Future of Authorship in a Transmedia World.” I’ve written about that panel before on Jane Friedman’s site and I’m still covered in the residue of exploded brain matter as a result of what was said there […]

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