Reinventing the Book in the Age of the Web

There’s a lot of excitement about ebooks these days, and rightly so. While Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle, there’s no question that it represents a turning point in the public perception of ebook devices. And of course, there’s Stanza, an open ebook platform for the iPhone, which has been downloaded more than a million times (and now has been bought by Amazon.)

But simply putting books onto electronic devices is only the beginning. As I’ve said for years, that’s a lot like pointing a camera at a stage play, and calling it a movie. Yes, that’s pretty much what they did in many early movies, but eventually, the tools of production and consumption actually changed the format of what was produced and consumed. Camera angles, pacing, editing techniques, lighting, location shooting, special effects: all these innovations make the movies (and television) of today very different from the earliest movies. YouTube is pushing the envelope even further. Why should books be any different? (Aside: Bruce Sterling just published an amazing rant on this topic – how the context of pulp magazines shaped the content of early science-fiction.)

In our work at O’Reilly as authors and publishers, we’ve long been interested in exploring how the online medium changes the presentation, narrative and structure of the book, not just its price or format.

A sample from my latest experiment, The Twitter Book, can be seen below.

Now, you might ask, how is a book authored in powerpoint a web publishing experiment? It boggles the mind!

The web has changed the nature of how we read and learn. Most books still use the old model of a sustained narrative as their organizational principle. Here, we’ve used a web-like model of standalone pages, each of which can be read alone (or at most in a group of two or three), to impart key points, highlight interesting techniques or the best applications for a given task. Because the basics are so easy, there’s no need to repeat them, as so many technical books do. Instead, we can rely on the reader to provide (much of) the implicit narrative framework, and jump right to points that they might not have thought about.

Perhaps the biggest driver, though, was the need for speed. We couldn’t imagine writing a book about twitter that wouldn’t be immediately out of date, because there are so many new applications appearing daily, and the zeitgeist of twitter best practices is evolving equally quickly. So we needed a format that would be really easy to update. (Again, modular structure helps, since new pages can be inserted without any need to reflow the entire document.) We plan to update The Twitter Book with each new printing.

The idea to write the book in powerpoint came to me while I was thinking about how quickly I write a new talk: I generally use pictures as visual bullets, to remind me about the order of my main points; I know what I want to talk about when I see each picture. And pictures are a memorable, entertaining way to tell a story. All I needed to do, I realized, was to write down some notes equivalent to what I’d be saying if I were giving this as a talk. (And in fact, I will be using portions of the book as the basis for my talk later today at the Inbound Marketing Summit, and a few weeks later at the Twitter Boot Camp.)

Of course, having the amazing Sarah Milstein as a co-author really helped. She immediately grasped the concept, and because she knows just about everything there is to know about the twitter app ecosystem, tools, and techniques, she actually provided much of the meat of the book. This allowed me to spend time on giving my perspectives on points that particularly matter to me, or that demonstrate my approach to twitter.

But even there, we saw real benefit in the format of the book. As wikipedia has demonstrated, collaboration is easiest when documents are constructed using a modular architecture. It’s hard to coordinate a complex narrative (even single authors sometimes lose track of their plot details); much easier to work on things in standalone units that share a common, “interoperable” format.

I first explored this modular approach to the book in Unix Power Tools, a book I wrote in 1993 with the explicit goal of emulating the hypertext style of the web in a print book. The book consists of a thousand inter-linked articles. In the print book, the “hyperlinks” were in the form of cross references to individually numbered articles. In online versions such as the one at Safari books online, the cross references are expressed as real hyperlinks.

Similarly, our “Cookbook” series of technical books (whose format was originated by Nat Torkington in 1998 with the first edition of the Perl Cookbook), effectively creates a database of answers to common problems.

In 2003, Dale Dougherty and Rael Dornfest developed the Hacks series, another approach to books as collections of loosely-related pages. The Hacks books provide a collection of tips, tricks, and documentation on the problem-solving approaches of cutting edge users.

Of course, modularity isn’t the only thing that publishers can learn from new media. The web itself, full of links to sources, opposing or supporting points of view, multimedia, and reader commentary, provides countless lessons about how books need to change when they move online. Crowdsourcing likewise.

But I like to remind publishers that they are experts in both linking and in crowdsourcing. After all, any substantial non-fiction work is a masterwork of curated links. It’s just that when we turn to ebooks, we haven’t realized that we need to turn footnotes and bibliographies into live links. And how many publishers write their own books? Instead, publishers for years have built effective business processes to discover and promote the talents of those they discover in the wider world! (Reminder: Bloomsbury didn’t write Harry Potter; it was the work of a welfare mom.) But again, we’ve failed to update these processes for the 21st century. How do we use the net to find new talent, and once we find it, help to amplify it?

I don’t exempt O’Reilly from that criticism. While we’ve done many pioneering projects, we haven’t fully lived up to our own vision of the ebook of the future. For example, Safari Books Online, our online library, recognizes that the reference work of the future is far larger than a single book. But we’ve done a poor job of updating the works in that library to be more “web like” in the way I’ve just outlined. It is still primarily a collection of books online. (We’re adding video, more web content, and working to update books to be more link-rich, but we’re not as far along as I’d like.)

Take a look at any ebook, and ask yourself how it could be richer, more accessible, more powerful, if it approached the job it was trying to do with fresh eyes, and a fresh approach.

Many of the products that result won’t look like books at all. After all, Google Earth is the new Rand McNally, Wikipedia is the new Brittanica, Google itself is the new competitor to many reference works, YouTube is becoming a vehicle for just-in-time learning, and World of Warcraft is the new immersive fantasy novel. What job do publishers do? And how can new media help us do it better?

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