What IF?

The book gives way to the download, and solitary reading transforms into virtual conversations

HUMANITIES, July/August 2009, Volume 30, Number 4

To fully take in all the ways that the act of reading is changing in response to new technology, you would need to be a bit of a philosopher, have a sociologist’s broad structural view, be conversant with economists and business people, be geeky enough, say, to know your way around the many applications associated with the networked screen, have a psychologist’s understanding of behavior, a diplomat’s tact, a historian’s perception, a cognitive scientist’s perspective, an educator’s caution and concern, a librarian’s equanimity, a literary critic’s acumen, a bookseller’s despondency, and a publisher’s sense of alarm and disarray. No one, it seems safe to say at this point, does fully comprehend what’s afoot as the printed page begins to give some ground, perhaps much ground, to the networked screen.

Two camps have formed, though, at opposite ends of a readers’ continuum. The first is represented by an “infotopian” dream of more than six billion minds united by the Internet’s promise of access to every book on earth. The second is loyal to the traditional image of an engrossed reader holding and poring over a physical book. Both have strong cases to make. It is hard to imagine the physical book ever being fully supplanted. But bibliophiles will likely discover their reading pleasure, scholarship, and authorship enhanced by digital networks. How that might come about is a question being addressed by the Institute for the Future of Book.

Headquartered in a townhouse in Brooklyn, the institute is a think tank where the thinking is as much about book publishing as it is about software design. Bob Stein, the codirector and founder of IF (as Stein and others call it), is a former publisher of fine-quality CD-ROMS who brought out one of the first electronic books in the early nineties. He is, in short, a book-loving techie, though his cultural interests are wide-ranging.

In 1984, Stein founded the Voyager Company, which came out with the first commercial CD-ROM. It was the kind of multimedia triumph Stein had been dreaming about, bringing a Vienna Philharmonic recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 together with biographical material and a copy of the score.

Another of his innovations is the Criterion Collection of high-end films on laser disc and now DVD. As the Voyager group eventually retrenched, the Criterion group saw its sales increase rapidly. The collection has become well known for its in-depth background information, and it was an industry trailblazer in providing audio commentary.

But after years of trying to keep the content of his products up to pace with technology, he discovered the networked book—networked as in plugged into the Internet but also connected to likeminded readers. “Reading and writing have always been social activities, but that fact tends to be obscured by the medium of print.”

One of Stein’s most recent projects was a kind of online book club in which seven women, separated by nine time zones, engaged in a close reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The women, selected by Stein, agreed to read Lessing’s novel and then comment online in margins of the electronic book made possible by one of Stein’s most widely acclaimed projects, open-source software called CommentPress.

The result was a dynamic read for participants and onlookers. A rolling margin for commentary remained in place next to the page of text being commented on. It also allowed further remarks, comments on the comments, to be added, all next to the relevant passage. One of the collaborating readers said of the experience, “It was those lengthy, sometimes tangled conversations in the margins which were the most exciting feature of the project.”
Stein is now working on CommentPress 2.0 in hopes of making the online conversations even better: “This is the billion-dollar question, How do you model [an online] conversation, a real conversation, among a large number of people?”

Stein—bespectacled, dapper, hip, and in his sixties— says he selected The Golden Notebook for the experiment because “none of my young colleagues, with degrees in English literature from Harvard, Oxford, and Yale—none of them had read it, and I thought about how interesting it would be to have a conversation in the margin between somebody of my generation and somebody from their generation. And then I realized we could do this, we have the technology.”

After Lessing won the Nobel Prize in December 2007, Stein contacted her while he was in London and explained the project. With some help from Antonia Byatt, British novelist A. S. Byatt’s daughter, Arts Council England got behind the project financially. “The experiment,” says Stein, “was fabulous and successful in establishing the viability of asynchronous reading groups.”

CommentPress can allow any number of readers (though Stein says ideally no group should be larger than twenty) to write down their impressions, observations, or opinions in the margins of a digital text while others look on and participate in discussion threads much as on a blog. The software positions the discussion to the right of the text, a design decision that did not seem significant until Stein saw the result. After IF put McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory online in 2006, “this conversation started to emerge in the margin,” remembers Stein. “I realized suddenly the author and the reader are in the same space. . . . It flattened the hierarchy of print.”

Similar arrangements can be made for manuscripts. After serving as a platform asynchronous reading groups, CommentPress has been most frequently used for peer-to-peer review. But the range of possibility goes beyond scholarship. Any author wishing to work in the public eye can post the progress of his manuscript, and use CommentPress as a sidebar application to take commentary, direction, even argument from readers.

“Transforming the book into a visual representation of dialog, and reimagining the book itself as a conversation,” as Stein puts it, is a major concern at IF. “An old-school author,” says Stein, “is somebody whose commitment it is to engage with subject matter on behalf of future readers. A new-school author is somebody whose commitment is to engage with readers in the context of subject matter. . . . Authors are about to learn what musicians have already learned, which is, they’re going to get paid to show up, whether it’s at a speaking gig at a university or on a page of their book.”

The Columbia- and Harvard-educated Stein is, however, no polemicist. He is more a courtly emissary than a wild-eyed disputant. In fact, this son of New York City publisher reps manifests and embodies many of the sensibilities needed to provide the necessary calming effect within anxiety-ridden publishing circles. When asked recently at BookExpo America, the publishing industry’s annual trade show and weekend-long confab, what he was reading lately—the oft-asked question—he replied, “‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ on my iPhone.”

So, CommentPress reinvents marginalia as social interaction, but what about the more obvious physical aspects of the book? What, for instance, becomes of dust jackets in the bookless future? The best jackets tell readers, especially ones browsing in bookstores, something subjective about the content of the work. Designers who are also avid readers can be particularly adept at finding a way to convey what lies between the covers. Book covers are important to marketing and sometimes cherished by readers.

Imagine the great pleasure a bookseller finds in summing up the narrative of a work while handing it to a potential reader, who easily anticipates the brand of storytelling promised by an intelligent and skillfully executed jacket design. The dust jacket is a key part of the sales pitch. This manner of salesmanship is known in publishing as hand-selling, and it is how, in spite of the relatively recent phenomenon of online bookselling, trade books have been sold for most of the past hundred years—at least.

Stein, an amateur musician who enjoys jamming online with a friend in California (“The connections are there now to do it well.”), says he regrets the probable demise of the dust jacket, as he did album covers when CDs replaced vinyl. But soon the technology, he thinks, will be in place to create a personal connection with the book as an object of art. For example, he says, a way may be devised to project an author’s signature or even a book cover design on the wall of a reader’s library. Given the degree to which we are identified by our possessions, it might not be a bad marketing strategy. But will it satisfy the person who decorates their home with books, or the person who sees their books almost as friends?

Salman Rushdie once said he grew up kissing books and bread. Such veneration of the physical object shows how very different readers who prefer the printed page are from those militantly championing the networked screen. Blogger and ink-and-paper author Susan Scafidi has said that books are the scented candles of the twenty-first century, meaning that they are becoming identity-bearing goods and will continue to have material value in our culture, especially, she thinks, if signed by the author.

But does that mean our culture will still value the reading of ink-and-paper books? Print culture has a rapidly aging clientele. This is borne out in studies by the National Endowment for the Arts that show literary reading in decline among all age groups, especially the youngest. Adherents of the networked book, though, such as online Wired magazine’s Kevin Kelly, suggest a luminous future for reading as the number of available books rises with the creation of what is often called the “universal library”: “Plans like Google’s [to digitize out-of-copyright and out-of-print books] will allow all the books in the world to become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas.”

In a keynote address at the centenary celebration late last year for Yale University Press, director John Donatich pointed to Walter Benjamin’s eerily prescient prediction about books: “The great work of the future will consist of fragments torn from the body of other work. It is a reassembly, a patchwork quilt of meaning already accomplished.” Stein’s thoughts on the networked screen follow a similar line. “I’m a browser,” he once told Wired, “and for me, being on the Web is exactly like being in a bookstore—browsing the stacks, picking up things.”

Donatich isn’t convinced, though, that browsing in a library and browsing the Web are the same. When he first arrived at the helm of Yale University Press, he says, he often thought of ordering takeout and spending whole weekends in the library. “Browsing the stacks was a kind of invitation to serendipity,” he recalls. “I was excited by the distractions I would find on my way to what I was looking for. Researching online, I feel more as if I were playing a video game, dodging popup ads as if I were fighting asteroids with a joy stick.”
That view, sometimes disparaged by advocates of a bookless future, is seconded by Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Wolf believes all the Twittering, texting, e-mailing, and blogging so characteristic of life in the digital age call for a kind of intelligence quite different from that down-the-rabbit-hole experience of reading in solitude with book in hand. We may become, she fears, “mere decoders of information.”

The book, then, may or may not be replaced, but the digital revolution is, indeed, transforming the way we read. In the past thirty years, there have been more advances in the evolution of the book than there had been in the past five hundred years, but these recent developments have been largely engineering feats and not the minuscule adjustments artisans have been making over time, perfecting the form of the book, the typography, binding, and page makeup and design, even the way books are shelved, from the massive jeep-sized armarium commune of the Middle Ages, capable of housing at most a dozen of the era’s outsized tomes, to the mechanically collapsible bookshelves used today, or at least till recently, as space savers in many university libraries.

The book itself, though, has not been surpassed by another technology. Like the piano it is perfect as it is. But we have also become very good at producing books and more books, to the point where libraries become overcrowded and librarians overwhelmed. Thinkers looking at networks’ influence on societies globally are generally in agreement, then, that the ink-and-paper book may be in the first stages of losing its cultural centrality.

Author Yochai Benkler has made this point in, what else, a book, The Wealth of Networks. The information economy, he writes, is undergoing structural change, and, as a consequence, social networks made possible by the Internet will, as Stein has been saying, change the space the book occupies. For anyone interested in understanding and writing about the future of print, and the publishing practices that have sustained the printed page for the past two hundred years or so, this is critical. An echo of Bob Stein’s idea of the “flattened hierarchy” between author and reader can be heard in much of Benkler’s writings: “The networked information environment has permitted the emergence to much greater significance of the non-market sector, the nonprofit sector, and, most radically, of individuals.”

The digital book, with its innumerable entryways becomes a work that is never finished but always in progress, providing a whole new space for writers, readers, and publishers. Stein speaks of a book as being a place where readers congregate. IF’s latest projects are being underwritten by a software designer that is developing a “robust and fantastic” new version of CommentPress, a finely grained application, which focuses more on the text being commented upon: In the margin are links that connect to annotations from an increased number of readers and which allow for paragraph-by-paragraph commentary rather than page-by-page commentary as in The Golden Notebook experiment. And there is a commercial model being used in conjunction with this by trade publishers.

“I used to say,” adds Stein, “as the value of content goes to zero what people pay for is community . . . but I’ve changed that . . . and say we redefine content to include conversation, because if you want to be on the page, if you want to participate, you’ve got to pay or subscribe.”
Stein also has plans to start a publishing company that will come out on the same day with a gorgeous print version of a physical book and an online version. The book he has in mind for this project is a cultural history of the rise of technology in the West, primarily in the United States. “The book cries out to be printed beautifully,” he says “but on every page there are seven things you’d want to Google.”

Many publishers seem to be more and more of a like mind. IF has plans for its new version of CommentPress to accompany online editions from some of the top university presses, as well as dynamic projects with some trade presses. In Stein’s view, publishing an electronic book which can then have CommentPress plugged in for a price, allowing readers to be in the margin, literally, with an author for, say, three months, is something electronic reading devices like Amazon’s Kindle probably cannot do. In this scenario traditional publishers would maintain their proprietary ties to authors, which would provide an opening for them to remain economically viable.

What this all implies for skills in the literary arts is anything but clear, but we should begin to get some indications over the next ten years or so about which cultural shifts will take hold. For Stein, though, whose long career and experience with rapidly changing technology have given him a special vantage point, the path to the next generation of publishing is clear: “The future of the book as an object is as an art object. And the future of discourse . . . is in the electronic domain.”


Amidst the crowded, noisy aisles at the Javits Center, a coterie of youngish faces has formed around a lean, mature bookish man with a SOHO book bag slung over his shoulder. From a short distance but not quite within earshot, I can read his lips: Where is Steve Moyer? Bob Stein, upon first impression, does not seem to be the type you keep waiting. When we settle in a few minutes later at a bistro table overlooking the 11th Avenue grand foyer entrance, I find out why. “My parents are on their way, and I have to keep an eye out and give them a hand.” IF’s Bob Stein is the son of eighty-eight-year-old publisher reps, and at that very moment they are making their way through midtown Manhattan to come to the hub of books and reading, publishing’s occasionally extravagant, even lavish, often misunderstood industry show, BookExpo America.

For about fifteen years now I’ve been wending my own way to this Rabelaisian kermis, whether in New York City or, in years past, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C. For booksellers (and former ones like me, who just can’t stay away), this is the place to be, this weekend in late May, to meet with sales representatives, publicists, editors; to attend seminars presented by bookselling colleagues on anything from how best to conduct reading groups to teaching staff how to sell dictionaries, Bibles, and kids’ books; to accept invitations to publisher dinners, where you can wind up sitting next to Richard Ford, David Guterson, or Mark Helprin; and to simply wander the myriad aisles of the convention floor, where publishers turn themselves into bookstores of sorts and display their new titles, hand out galleys, and trade industry gossip.

On the “floor” you may cross paths with Knopf’s impeccably turned out, urbane, and unfailingly polite Sonny Mehta, or Ecco Press founder, the poetic and gracious Dan Halpern, or Counterpoint’s Zen-like Jack Shoemaker, publishing legends, each one, for the authors they’ve discovered and shepherded through the editorial process.

At the Random House booth, actually, at one of their many booths, you may happen upon an “author signing,” which can knot up traffic flow, as it does this day, with Jonathan Lethem perched on a stool and autographing galleys of his new book, due out in October from Doubleday.

The diversity of U.S. publishing sinks in, too, as you stroll along, passing booths for the likes of Other Press, Fulcrum, Seal Press, Graywolf, Paul Dry Books, or Overlook, all known for serious titles for the discriminating reader, mixed in among the giants Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, or W. W. Norton, and the dozens of university presses.

Some of the most familiar names, though, are missing this year. Oxford University Press has not come to the show at all, and stalwarts like Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin, now the single entity Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, opted for a meeting room on the lower concourse, an economizing decision for the house which announced plans last fall to suspend acquisition of new titles.

Remainders companies, though, are present in their usual numbers, their booths displaying what bookstores snap up as sale books, which are titles no longer selling well for publishers and sold off for pennies on the dollar in order to reduce inventory. This system gives many books a second life, at radically reduced prices.

But if you’re in quest of quality first, sale price or no sale price, you look to the likes of David R. Godine. Booksellers appreciate the press for top-notch, well-written, beautifully designed fiction, nonfiction, and kids’ books (yes, it’s a real find when a Godine book shows up on a store’s sale table). The press is as uncompromising as they come, and David Godine is in it for the long haul. Which brings us back to Bob Stein’s bookselling parents, who also rep for Godine, and who are often asked, So when are you going to retire? No plans to at present, comes the answer. The publishing industry, too, taken as a whole, this year seems unwilling to consider retirement any time soon in spite of an ailing economy and the onslaught of technology that threatens to marginalize their markets and the ways of their centuries-old craft.