(2018-12-21) Mod The Future Book Is Here But It's Not What We Expected

Craig Mod: The 'Future Book' Is Here, but It's Not What We Expected. (See past 2015-10-01-ModStagnantCanDigitalBooksEverReplacePrint) The Future Book (ebook) was meant to be interactive, moving, alive.

It would be sly, maybe a little creepy. Definitely programmable. Ulysses would extend indefinitely in any direction you wanted to explore; just tap and some unique, mega-mind-blowing sui generis path of Joycean machine-learned words would wend itself out before your very eyes.

But … by the mid-2000s, there still were no real digital books.

The iPhone launched in June 2007, the Kindle that November. Then, in 2010, the iPad arrived

Hiking with a Kindle definitely feels futuristic

Kindle indicated with a subtle dotted underline and small inline text that those final sentences had been highlighted by “56 highlighters.” Other humans! Reading this same text, feeling the same impulse. Some need to mark those lines.

I wanted to write, “Fuck. Sad to think this is the last new work we’re going to get from this guy. Most definitely dead as I’m reading it.” You know, something in the vulgarity of Johnson himself. I wanted to stick my 10-cent eulogy between those lines for others to read, and to read what those others had thought. Purchasing a book is one of the strongest self-selections of community, and damn it, I wanted to engage.

But I couldn’t. For my Kindle Oasis—one of the most svelte, elegant, and expensive digital book containers you can buy in 2018—is about as interactive as a potato.

Amazon won. Trounced, really. As of the end of 2017, about 45 percent (up from 37 percent in 2015) of all print sales and 83 percent of all ebook sales happen through Amazon channels.

Technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building—everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. (Book Publishing Ecosystem)

Almost half of author earnings now come from independently published books

Since launch, Kickstarter has helped fund more than 14,000 “publishing”-related projects, collecting some $134 million. The 10 best-funded publishing projects on Kickstarter alone generated more than $6 million in funding—and then reaped much more in post-publication sales.

The emblematic story of a Kickstarted book is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. Launched in 2016, it quickly shattered all book-funding records, raising $1.2 million combined during its initial Kickstarter and IndieGogo campaigns. The book went on to sell over 1 million copies around the world. Rebel Girls has become a brand unto itself. Publisher Timbuktu Labs launched Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls 2 in 2018, raising another $866,000 in pre-sales

“When I think about Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, and the whole movement, and the whole community that has formed around it … I would say that today we are a digital native brand, and that we have done this starting from a physical object, and a very traditional one such as a children’s book.”

The Timbuktu success story often omits one important detail: The company began in 2011 as a breathlessly future-of-publishing app developer, making a digital children’s magazine for the newly launched iPad.

Despite the positive press, it never gained the necessary traction to become a sustainable business or justify taking on more capital.

And so as a last-ditch effort, cofounders Favilli and Francesca Cavallo retreated to LA to rethink their business and life plans. It was there the idea for Rebel Girls was born, and a sustainable business was built around the opposite of an app: a physical book. Goodnight Stories didn’t emerge spontaneously, though; they began to test it, six months before launching their now famed Kickstarter campaign, using the simplest of internet technologies: email.

In response to this email list explosion, the startup Substack launched in 2017 as a newsletter publishing and monetization platform. Most newsletter platforms and payment systems aren’t integrated in any smooth or meaningful way. Charging for access can be an onerous task. Through the Substack system, though, a publisher can easily set up metered access to a newsletter for a subscription fee.

the energy that was once put into blogging has now shifted to email. Robin Sloan, in a recent—of course—email newsletter, lays it out thusly:

we simply cannot trust the social networks, or any centralized commercial platform, with these cliques and crews most vital to our lives, these bands of fellow-travelers who are—who must be—the first to hear about all good things. Email is definitely not ideal, but it is: decentralized, reliable, and not going anywhere—and more and more, those feel like quasi-magical properties.

Ownership. We recognize we (largely) own the mailing lists; they are portable, can be printed out, stored in a safe; they are not governed by unknowable algorithmic tomfoolery. (Personal Media Franchise)

The trouble with rigid definitions of what is or isn’t a “book” is that sometimes something that’s not shaped like a book, is actually very book-like.

Taiwan-based Ben Thompson publishes a newsletter called Stratechery.

it’s hard to imagine him with fewer than 10,000 subscribers.

In 2008, WIRED co-founder and technologist Kevin Kelly predicted how the internet and email would allow creators to be independent. He called it the 1,000 True Fans theory.

Folks like Ben Thompson are effectively writing books.

It’s also worth noting that Thompson’s position is protected: No outsider can take away his subscribers or prevent him from communicating with them.

Social media, however, is not predictable

Today I’m convinced you could skip a website, Facebook page, or Twitter account, and launch a publishing company on email alone.

If a publisher is going to augment emails with social media, Instagram feels like the best fit. Books are inherently visual, and cover design is in something of a golden age at the moment

Audiobooks only gained significant publishing market share in recent years

over half of all audio book listening takes places at home.

Moving images (Video, Animation) were often espoused to be a core part of our Future Book. While rarely found inside of an iBooks or Kindle book, they are here. If you want to learn the ukulele, you don’t search Amazon for a Kindle how-to book, you go to YouTube and binge on hours of lessons, stopping when you need to, rewinding as necessary, learning at your own pace.

Vannevar Bush's “Memex” essentially described Wikipedia built into a desk.

The "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is an iPhone.

Our Future Book is composed of email, tweets, YouTube videos, mailing lists, crowdfunding campaigns, PDF to .mobi converters, Amazon warehouses, and a surge of hyper-affordable offset printers in places like Hong Kong.

But temper some of those flight-of-fancy expectations. In many ways, it’s still a potato.

Tim Carmody: Towards the Future Book

This is all clever, sharply observed, and best of all, true. But Craig is a very smart man, so I want to push him a little bit. What he’s describing is the present book.

the present state of the book and discussions around the book feel as if that future has been foreclosed on; that all the moves that were left to be made have already been made, with Amazon the dominant inertial force locking the entire ecosystem into place. But, in the entire history of the book, these moments of inertia have always been temporary.

I think the utopian moment for the future of the book ended when the Google Book Search Settlement died, leading to Google Books becoming, basically abandonware, when it was initially supposed to be the true Library of Babel. I think that project, the digitization of all printed matter, remains the gold standard for the future of the book.

There are many people and institutions still working on making this approach reality.

Library of Congress

Internet Archive


The retrenchment of the Digital Public Library of America is a huge blow. But the basic idea of linking together libraries and cultural institutions into an enormous network with the goal of making their collections available in common is an idea that will never die.

It’s the problem that our generation has to solve. And at the moment, we’re nowhere.

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