Writing on the Ether: Reaching for the “New Book”

Sprint Beyond the Book team Frankfurt alternate texted story image 2
The Sprint Beyond the Book team at work during Frankfurt Book Fair.

Table of Contents

  1. Covering a Sandstorm…While Standing in It
  2. An Agile Conversation
  3. The “Why Am I Here?” Question
  4. Author-ity, Itself, in Question
  5. Sprints are Special, Not the Rule

Covering a Sandstorm…While Standing in It

Several things make the Frankfurt Book Fair simultaneously exhilarating and nightmarish, particularly if you’re there to cover it.

friday-frankfurt-2013-show-daily-cover-232x300I had the pleasure of working the Fair last week with the Publishing Perspectives team, which somehow puts up with each Tuesday’s Ether for Authors. We were the ones darting around from one event to the next interview, as were our good colleagues from London’s The Bookseller in the next-door office.

Such an assignment is exhilarating because many, maybe most, of the world’s best and most engaged, busy, experienced, insightful, and successful people in and around publishing are there, all at once, along with the publishing press corps.

It’s also nightmarish because that conclave of so many fine folks is a little like one of those dreams in which everybody you know seems to have turned up at one strange house party, and you’re supposed to be conversant with everything on everyone’s mind. (Don’t tell me I’m the only one who has these dreams, just let me go on thinking we all do.)

You fly out of Frankfurt, in fact, with a sizable list of important people and longtime friends you didn’t get to see. What was that crowd of 275,000+ others doing in the way?

The HarperCollins pavilion at Frankfurt Book Fair 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson
The HarperCollins pavilion at Frankfurt Book Fair 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson

The frustration, of course, is in trying to detect trends in the industry! the industry! while it’s being buffeted by this sandstorm of digital change. The FutureBook‘s Sam Missingham wryly tweeted, “So, have read a few articles post-Frankfurt. Do we really think subscription models were the big talking point?”

And Hugh Howey has noted in The World of Booksa fond post from Paris about seeing non-U.S. publishing interests and people at work—that Frankfurt is roughly eight times the size of New York’s BookExpo America (BEA).

From Fiction and Nonfiction in Hall 4.1 to Brazil’s special setup as Guest of Honor (next year Finland) to the Agents’ and Scouts’ encampment (“LitAg”) in Hall 6.0 to the International Publishers in Hall 8.0 and from the outdoor Agora all the way back to the Galleria—you could get the idea that almost any one of our myriad issues in publishing might be the key focus of the whole thing.

This is why I found it unexpectedly refreshing when something new was created during the three industry-only days of the Fair, itself.


Surrounded by booths and pavilions that proudly showed off drop-dead handsome book covers, looming famous-author faces, and branding, branding, branding, the “Sprint Beyond the Book” ensemble was subtly subversive.

The Sprint Beyond the Book team at Hall 8, N170, Frankfurt Book Fair 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson
The Sprint Beyond the Book team at Hall 8, N170, Frankfurt Book Fair 2013. Photo: Porter Anderson

After all, they weren’t selling anything. And while they weren’t shy about showing their own logo to announce that the Arizona State University-based Center for Science and the Imagination was in residence, there were no café-sized deal-making tables. Unless I missed them, no tote bags, either.

Just one table with a group of five or six people at any given time, hunched over their laptops writing fast and trying to concentrate while Frankfurt’s booming city of publishing roared around them. (Hall 8.0 was so loud that by Friday I was losing my voice from talking with folks over the din.)

I had a piece in our Show Daily about Beyond the Book on Friday.  You can download the Daily here and a version of the story is online at Publishing Perspectives. Then I mentioned it Tuesday in the Ether in regards to the much longer-term effort that Berlin’s Adam Hyde has been leading in his Book Sprints program.

As I told Hyde in our exchange, the use by both programs of the term “sprint” seems to be coincidental and pragmatic. These efforts are completely independent, although logically aligned; certainly, in the idea of rapid output.

Two members of Adam Hyde's Book Sprints for ICT Research team in Mata Paquena, Portugal, confer. Photo supplied by Adam Hyde.
Two members of Adam Hyde’s Book Sprints for ICT Research team confer in Mata Paquena, Portugal. Photo supplied by Adam Hyde.

Next week, I’ll have a chance to hear Hyde’s latest observations on his own work in his presentation at Books in Browsers (#BiB13) in San Francisco. I’m looking forward to a chance to talk with him more about his new Book Sprints for ICT Research program funded by the European Commission.

I’m dropping in a shot here of that program’s first Book Sprint outing last week in Mata Pequena, Portugal, just so we all can get a snootful of that setting for a moment. The event ran nearly concomitantly with the Book Fair in Germany.

As grand as Frankfurt is, this pastoral retreat in Portugal was a part of publishing, as well. And look at it. Can this be bad news for books?

For now, I want to focus on some of the material that came out of the 72-hour Beyond the Book effort at Frankfurt. It gave us not only something we didn’t have when Frankfurt opened—a collection of forward-thinking essays—but also because it pulls together some important thoughts about a movement the day-to-day commercial side of publishing doesn’t have many chances to see yet.

This is not something Jonathan Franzen should read. What’s going on here reminds me of the restless, sometimes fretful experimentation in theatrical work that Peter Brook did at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris and Anne Bogart and Martha Clarke have done in New York. it doesn’t always hang together. And no one really has the overview. The action is on the ground.

The question is how we can allow the digital disruption to do no more than morph the print book into an ebook replica? Digital owes us more. We owe ourselves more. “Enhanced” bells and whistles and easy gamification—just because we can—won’t take care of it.

Before going any farther, it’s also good to say that we need not kick publishing for not being on top of this. Being all but blown away by the digital dynamic is plenty. You don’t blame people on a runaway train for not developing new modes of transportation.

Kat Meyer and Holger Volland open Frankfurt Academy's CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 Conference. Photo: Bernd Hartung, for Frankfurt Book Fair.
Kat Meyer and Holger Volland open Frankfurt Academy’s CONTEC Frankfurt 2013 Conference. Photo: Bernd Hartung, for Frankfurt Book Fair.

Even our self-publishers have their hands full. Many delegates to the Frankfurt Academy’s CONTEC 2013 Conference led by Kat Meyer and Holger Volland were engaged in that pivotal arena of contention—self-publishing’s escalating incursions into publishing overall.

In fact, if anything, the point Amazon’s Jon Fine made at CONTEC, which I wrote up Tuesday in Ether for Authors: Is It Time for Publishing to Call a Truce? is a good starting place for today’s inquiry.

Half the panel in our Frankfurt Academy Self-Publishing and the Industry town-hall session: From left, Amazon's Jon Fine, Silo Saga author Hugh Howey, Nelson Literary's Kristin Nelson, and Curtis Brown's Jonny Geller. Photo: Bernd Hartung, provided by Frankfurt Book Fair.
Half the panel in our Frankfurt Academy Self-Publishing and the Industry town-hall session: From left, Amazon’s Jon Fine, Silo Saga author Hugh Howey, Nelson Literary’s Kristin Nelson, and Curtis Brown’s Jonny Geller. Photo: Bernd Hartung, provided by Frankfurt Book Fair.

Fine was saying that hand-wringing over print vs. digital needs to give way to questions of books vs. the rest of the entertainment world, much of which has been digitally driven for quite some time.

This is how Fine put it:

In a world where you have so much competing for your attention—movies, music, video games, the whole nine yards—to make it as easy as possible for people to get to books, both buying them and then accessing them after they buy them, is huge. It’s absolutely essential as we move forward.

That pushes us is into the booth in Frankfurt with Beyond the Book. To react to the seductive, pulsing, beeping, interactive, mobile allure of entertainment choices arrayed before us today, is it enough to turn the book into something more glowy?

If we’re to get the most out of digital (before it gets the best of us), don’t we need to make it do more for us than 4G and backlighting and swiping to turn the pages? Is $1.99 vs. $2.99 vs. $9.99 the best place for our focus before we look harder at what we’re actually selling?

This is the other current of energy that was moving through Frankfurt, like self-publishing, with almost imperceptible persistence. A breeze of research, of curiosity. Worried playfulness.

Jennifer Rankin
Jennifer Rankin

It dovetailed with Jennifer Rankin’s piece in The Guardian, A new challenge to books – stories that follow you into the real world, pegged to the release of the interactive iPad thriller The Craftsman (with face-tracking software) from Julian McCrea and Mike Jones.

Rankin’s article refers to a French Revolution retelling of Frankenstein from Profile Books and inkle studios without mentioning that its author is Dave Morris of London.

There’s an odd tendency among some in the industry to congratulate publishing firms willing to experiment without giving credit to the authors behind these new ventures. Here, for the record, is author Kate Pullinger’s level-headed review for The Guardian of the work.

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Kate Pullinger

We hear from Pullinger in Rankin’s story. She points out that it’s authors who may be pushing forward more steadily than publishers. She tells Rankin that “ebooks are ‘not a very good copy’ of print books: a ‘transitional technology’ that will be ‘more webby’ in future.”

Pullinger, like Hyde, is presenting next week at Books in Browsers in San Francisco. Her talk is titled “Landing Gear: A Writer, A Novel, A Publisher, An API.”

And terms for these concepts “beyond the book” vary from “Web book” to “networked book” to “books in browsers”—I rather like “more webby”—and other phrases that indicate the intention to release a book to be whatever it needs to be.

If digital has taught us anything yet, it’s that its energies can blindside and reshape our work much more quickly than we expect at times, and in ways we inevitably wish we’d put more thought into earlier.

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An Agile Conversation

Ed Finn
Ed Finn

The Beyond the Book team writers were the ASU Center’s director Ed Finn; our own Jane Friedman of VQR and host of the Ether;  author and ASU professor Dan Gillmor; author and Univeristy of Maryland assistant professor Lee Kon­stan­ti­nou; and Hugo-winning author Charles Stross.

The collection of essays was supported off-site by Intel’s Brian David Johnson and Exprima’s Corey Pressman (also speaking at Books in Browsers), but a glance at the project page shows that Friedman, Gillmor, Konstantinou, and Stross have contributed the bulk of the material, said to total about 25,000 words.

And as the group decamped Frankfurt, the work was stored here on the project page, as a simple and effective list of categorized short essays.

I liked the way Finn set up the issue when I interviewed him for Publishing PerspectivesWhile You Were in Frankfurt: Sprint Beyond the Book:

We realize we’re spending an incredible amount of effort trying to recreate the print experience online. And I think that’s a terrible mistake. Print books are a very mature tech. They don’t require a lot of power. They’re very durable. They’re easy to access. And we all  understand how they work.

We’re missing the boat on all these incredible things that digital text can do that we don’t do right now. New types of collaborative texts, for example. Imagine sitting in a classroom and collaborating on a text, adding your notes, making your comments as you go through it together.

Referring to the Intel content-production platform the team was prototyping, Finn said, “Think of the ‘book’ as a performance space.” With that concept, he’d cornered my full attention.

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The “Why Am I Here?” Question

What was going on behind Finn as we talked was the live generation of somewhat collaborative text, a group-writing effort that has produced a lot of potential litanies, calls and responses worth following.

Here, for example, is one way to put together some of the commentary produced.

Jane Friedman
Jane Friedman

Friedman – Why I’m Here — Jane Friedman

While the book has become a shadow of its for­mer self partly because of how often the form has been exploited and over­pro­duced for profit (for the slight­est and most banal of ideas), mostly I just see it as a less com­pelling way— even a last resort — for shar­ing ideas.


Dan Gillmor
Dan Gillmor

Gillmor – Why I’m Here — Dan Gillmor

As Char­lie Stross put it ear­lier today, a basic func­tion of a book is to con­vey ideas from an author’s brain to the brains of the read­ers. One of my goals here is to start to sort out the ecosystem(s) that will make that hap­pen in years and decades to come.



Charlie Stross
Charlie Stross

Stross – Why I’m Here — Charlie Stross

I’m Char­lie Stross. I write for a liv­ing, but I’ve got a dirty lit­tle secret; I don’t under­stand books…What does it mean for the func­tion of a book, the trans­fer of infor­ma­tion from an author’s mind into a reader’s, when the book becomes an eas­ily trans­fer­able chunk of data not bound to a phys­i­cal medium?


Lee Konstantinou
Lee Konstantinou

Konstantinou – Why I’m Here — Lee Konstantinou

We need to reimag­ine (and trans­form) pub­lish­ing as a field, not just as an indus­try, from pro­duc­tion to dis­tri­b­u­tion to con­sump­tion…We shouldn’t sim­ply sub­mit to the mar­ket or to the allure of new tech­nolo­gies, but should make a new lit­er­ary sys­tem that works for read­ers and writers.

Each of these excerpts is from its writer’s answer to the question “Why Am I Here?”

What i find interesting in them is that there’s evidence here of a desire for stability amid an arrival of new constructs. We read words such as “system,” “ecosystem,” “compelling way,” “function of a book.” These phrases reflect less a desire for the kind of creative chaos that might cause some to fear this work than for dependable paths to new places.

And from such excerpts, I think we can take away an understanding that some sort of intuitive destruction is less the goal than is thoughtful, exploratory change.

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Author-ity, Itself, in Question

Of less reassurance, at least to writers, perhaps, is the section on the question “In what new ways will authors engage with their readers?” The question, as presented to these writers and to their readers can include the issue of “the economics of authorship in the future.”

Friedman – The Idea of the Author is Facing Extinction

The dig­i­tal era may entail a new type of author­ship, one that is built on resam­pling, remix­ing and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Authors may evolve to be lead­ers, mod­er­a­tors and syn­the­siz­ers of infor­ma­tion, rather than the dic­ta­tor in con­trol of it.

 Gillmor – Authors Develop Communities, Not Just Audiences

One…cau­tion: Con­ver­sa­tions and com­mu­ni­ties take time. Authors have to ask them­selves how much time they can afford to divert from their most essen­tial job: writ­ing and re-writing. If they neglect that, the rest won’t matter.

Konstantinou – Two Paths for the Future of the Author

Your investors may want to be seen as the sort of per­son who sup­ports a par­tic­u­lar kind of lit­er­ary project. They may be fans of your lit­er­ary brand, not your books…You shouldn’t nurse the fan­tasy that you’re earn­ing your keep because read­ers love – or even read – your books. Whether or not a lit­er­ary invest­ment ful­fills its promise, its suc­cess is only inci­den­tal to its mate­r­ial realization.

Stross – Google Should Buy the Entire Publishing Industry

Con­sumers are con­vinced that any­one can write a book: how hard can it be? So the idea of charg­ing, say, $10,000 a copy for a novel strikes them as ludi­crous, even if the work in ques­tion took the author years of hard work to pro­duce. In eco­nomic the­ory, the term for the change in demand as the price of a prod­uct increases is the price elas­tic­ity of demand.


I’m particularly taken with Stross’ comment that “consumers are convinced that anyone can write a book.” This, of course, is one reason that everybody is writing one (or eight).  That consumer, the reader, has become the writer. Or is trying to do so, at the National Kitchen Table.

While it’s a moot point—this explosion of first-time material simply is here, we don’t get to vote on that—I do like to remind folks at times that the digital disruption of publishing might have seemed less calamitous if the digital tools themselves hadn’t triggered history’s biggest crusade of untested writers into the marketplace. If that marketplace had been given a chance to right itself, establish new channels of distribution, arrange new roles for various players to handle new procedures for getting to market, then the force of content, much of it unrefined might not have delivered such a kick in the gut to an already staggered system.

But, then, that wouldn’t have been full disruption, would it?

And the reason I’ve wanted to hunker with this material today is that when we search for a “new book,” for forms beyond both print and digital models of it (ebooks), I think we need to be cognizant of the creative dynamics shifting around us, as well.

It’s not enough to test new platforms and systems for content development and distribution in some tech-fueled vacuum. It’s almost adolescent to imagine those “stories that follow you into the world” and then dive back into more gamification without also stopping to consider where the human costs and shifting values lie.

One of the passages contributed to Beyond the Book by Friedman that will resonate most strongly with her regular following is in a sequence called “How will books be edited in the future?” and she has titled her commentary The Future of Editing: Beta Readers and Agile Publishing. She writes:

Future edi­tors may strug­gle to hang onto their gate­keep­ing role, and only remain tastemak­ers if their name car­ries cur­rency with read­ers, mean­ing they become brands that sig­nify some­thing impor­tant to both authors and the tar­get audi­ence. Are edi­tors open to mar­ket­ing and pub­li­ciz­ing them­selves as brands? It may be a dif­fi­cult future for today’s edi­tors to accept, since the pre­dom­i­nant view in pub­lish­ing is that good edi­tors “dis­ap­pear” and are not spo­ken of; the atten­tion goes to the writer.

This is the kind of casualty we don’t have to accept with a digi-shrug and “Gosh, shit happens” when we’re crusading for what’s beyond the book.

And how literature handles its people—the stuff on whom its dreams and sales are made—will finally tell us more about the expressive character and compassionate value of our work than any number of startups and softwares, hackathons and app releases.

What do we want to watch out for? Speed.

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Sprints are Special, Not the Rule

Don’t get me wrong, I seriously appreciate the three- and five-day efforts Hyde leads in his Book Sprints. And as you can see, I was truly glad to watch Finn’s Beyond the Book collection of essays come together at Frankfurt in 72 hours. These were some of the  hardest-working people in the book business last week.

But those are extraordinary scenarios carefully prepared by Hyde and Finn, staffed to generate what they do in a hurry, at least by comparison to the numbingly long, retail-driven drag of traditional publishing schedules.

Are we impatient for the “new books”? We are.

Do we have to have them tomorrow? We don’t.

Kat Meyer
Kat Meyer

Will they be better “new books” if we take a little time to make sure everyone is accounted for, considered, even consulted and heard before we declare digital tools our icons and traditional publishing our parking lot? They will.

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Peter Brantley

These are among our most human arts. And digital capacities, by definition, come with new speed and efficiencies. Faster? We’re already faster. We can afford to pace it, which is one reason Peter Brantley’s and Kat Meyers’ Books in Browsers conference is important: it’s a moment to stop and think together, to present and consider…maybe to change course from time to time as we see and hear new elements of the fray.

It’s actually not a race. Because when we achieve the new books, we want to like them. And we want to like ourselves.

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Main image: Porter Anderson, Frankfurt Book Fair 2013, Halle 8.0

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