Interview at The Age of Glass

January 19, 2011

Ahead of ifbookthen in Milan next month, Carlo Annese, an Italian journalist and book blogger, has just posted an interview with me at L’età del vetro: Part One and Part Two. (Sorry if I’ve mistranslated the blog title, Carlo.)

It’s in Italian, so, with his permission, I’m posting the English version here, as there’s some bits about Open Bookmarks in there which may be useful…

Let’s start from a coincidence. As you entitled the speech at ToC in Frankfurt “The Form of the Book, and its Aura”, quoting Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, so Mr. Richard Nash used the concept of “Aura” answering one of my questions. He did it with regard to what an important Italian manager in publishing had said a few days before: “We must be ready to future, but a digital file will never have the charisma of a printed book”. I’d like to ask you the same question: what do you think of this antithesis, is this a fear that will disappear as time goes by or will it keep on being a persisting perspective mistake?

CDs are not as charismatic as vinyl, and photographic paper is not as charismatic as canvas but I don’t get the impression that music or the visual arts have lost much in the last hundred years; on the contrary, we have lived through, and continue to live in, a period of ever-expanding creative possibilities.

Nostalgia for the paper book is misplaced: paper will continue to be printed (although what we choose to print on it may change) and books will continue to be written (although we may consume them in different ways). The publishing industry may be in trouble; literature is just fine.

I quote you: “There are still a lot of arguments against e-books and they’re all about the physicality of books. The truth is that books are essentially not physical object, but temporal ones”. What does it mean and how could eBooks change this perspective?

Books exist not only in space but in time: they are avatars of the writing and reading process. All that time that the writer spent working on it, weeks and months at their desk; all the time you spend with it, where you go with it and how it changes you. These are the essential qualities of the book; not the number of pages or the type of binding.

Ebooks free literature of the need to fulfil some unrelated requirements, but of course they introduce a whole bunch more. We haven’t figured out what to do about covers yet, for example: we need something to represent and sell ebooks—we need a way to show off our bookshelves and flirt with people in cafés—but the fact we’re still designing “covers” seems… odd.

Ebooks also introduce the possibilities of new behaviour: new ways or writing, reading, sharing, annotating and experiencing. We can only learn about and indulge these if we’re able to let go of some of our paper metaphors.

Open Bookmarks.org sets out from: (a) reading is not an individual, isolated event any more, it’s a social action letting every user to share his bookmarks (i.e. pointers, highlights, notes); (b) social reading must be open, apart from different devices and different selling platforms. I wonder if publishers and readers are ready for the revolution. Will the formers let their contents to circulate in the DRM’s era and will the latter share their bookmarks without reservations about privacy (I mean: How will shared personal data and bookmarks belong to the users and how will data be protected? Moreover, how will publishers use them)?

I’ve written before about the primacy of (b) over (a): the most important thing is that people should own their own bookmarks, so that they can save them, store them and revisit them irrespective of devices and platforms, which at the moment are tied to corporations, which may not be around forever. This is the “open” in Open Bookmarks.

One of the many happy benefits of this approach is it will also allow people to share their reading, but that’s up to them. There are always privacy implications with that, but there are privacy implications for everything. If people want to share, they can share, if they don’t, they don’t.

For publishers, there are similar questions to the ones we’ve already been facing around DRM and text-to-speech. How much control over the text do you cede to the reader (or, rather: how much control do you attempt to take back through the new technology, a control you never really had with paper books)? As with these technologies, I think we’ll see that the benefits to publishers of more openness outweigh the somewhat nebulous fears.

Will Open Bookmarks.org have a kind of filter/moderation?

Open Bookmarks is not an ereader or a social site, or a vendor, but an argument and an approach. Eventually, it will be a proposal for a standard: it’s an idea that will hopefully allow lots of other people to make things. Filtering, moderation, and many other things like personal data protection and privacy, are up to them.

Are you still testing the platform? Is the wiki about standards, strategies and terminology still ongoing?

Very much so.

You said in Frankfurt: “In various part of Europe, Sweden and Germany in particular, there are organizations that group all the e-books from publishers. I don’t know why we’re not doing that in English too”. What’s your impression about the Italian digital publishing market? Do you think that European users will be fast enough at adopting eReaders and eBooks? Which is the key element for their success: device penetration, content availability, social reading standards or what else?

I don’t know enough about the Italian book market to make concrete predictions, but ebooks are definitely coming, everywhere, and from what I’ve seen across all markets, each one adopts new practices faster as we learn more—and we’re all still learning.

For me, the biggest factor in ebook adoption is not device penetration (ereaders have been around for almost ten years) or ebook availability (although this is becoming an issue and we need to get on top of it), but a seamless, friction-free service and delivery process. This is what Apple mastered with iTunes and why Amazon and the Kindle are on the way to monopolising ebooks—in English-language markets at least. Publishers can let this happen, or they support more open alternatives.

Do you think social reading will influence authors in their way of writing?

Possibly, but I’m always wary of the idea of technology influencing writers, or writers writing for particular technologies. Experimental writers have always been with us, whether it’s someone like BS Johnson experimenting with the form of the book, or Umberto Eco playing with the shape of language itself, and I look forward to these experiments in ebooks and social reading (indeed, I’m trying to kickstart them with projects like http://www.artistsebooks.org/). However, I also think there’s infinite room for traditional forms of writing: the novel isn’t going away any time soon.

1 Comment

  1. [...] e io ho avuto la possibilità di intervistarlo. James mi ha gentilmente chiesto di pubblicare la english version dell’intervista sul suo sito principale, booktwo.org. Un onore, dopo l’intervista con [...]

    Pingback by Bridle: Il social reading dev’essere open / 1 « L'età del vetro — January 19, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

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