Progress surrounds us. We land rovers on distant planets. Satellites and wires that we will never see or touch allow us to connect with anyone anywhere. And we can read great literature on our phones—or play with pigs in space.
Helping to create publisher Sharp Stuff, and publishing our book, American Dreamers, made me hopeful for the future. American Dreamers has optimism at its core, with 56 of today’s great innovators sharing their ideas on how we can make the world a better place. It also made me hopeful for the future of books.
While many stand on soapboxes these days, predicting doom for the printed word and for publishing, there is so much to be excited about. Every day, new ways emerge to create and distribute content, and to connect directly with readers. At Sharp Stuff, we were proud early adopters of Medium (from the founders of Twitter), for example, and use it constantly to interact and create content. I see the future of publishing as limitless, and as we stand on the verge of major changes, here are a just few innovations that excite me.
Digital books and platforms: E-readers and iPads allow for myriad reading experiences. By simply changing the text size, readers with vision impairment can see the words on the page. Links, music, and animations can bring the text alive. (Check out the amazing app, the Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, and you’ll see what I mean).
But why is it that publishing seems to be largely missing out on this huge pulse of creative exploration? We are still having debates over ownership, DRM, and the quality of print on demand, while the rest of the world moved on a long time ago.
I downloaded an album to my computer a decade before I downloaded a book, and I share and talk about music much more frequently and easily with friends than we ever do about literature. Movies (Netflix and Hulu), music (Pandora and Spotify), food (Yelp), and photography (Instagram) are all now hugely social and digital. Books, however, still remain mostly on the shelf—and still largely private.
Print: Many of us love the physical book. And while digital books are now a part of the landscape, we can still create physical objects that inspire. POD and digital publishing allow for quality books to be created much more quickly than is the case with traditional printing technology; we created American Dreamers in three months, and one of our favorite presses, OR Books, created Going Rouge in about six weeks.
In the time of Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook we should be able to create content and stories closer to the time when they matter most to people. But to get traditional press and reviews, galleys must be sent out at least three to four months in advance, removing most chances for innovative and relevant books to be reviewed or receive coverage.
Tinker: There’s been a major push for open source technology in the past few decades. When the ability to make and build was taken out of the hands of major industrial leaders and given over to passionate tinkerers, the world changed.
Our culture is now blessed with a huge population of young people who love to hack, build, deconstruct, reconstruct, and tinker with everything from clothing to computers. Peer-to-peer e-tailer Etsy is rife with crafts made from the detritus from the past and more companies are open-sourcing their platforms and allowing users to improve things. Trimet, the public transportation system in Portland, Ore., allowed the public access to its code and, in return, received apps and innovations that improved communications, efficiency, and engagement.
Readers tinker with books, whether we embrace that practice or not. The Free Book Incident in Seattle, Wash., concocted an interaction based on this idea. Anyone walking by various storefronts across the city can stop in, take a book, play with it, cut it up, draw in it, make a poem from found words. We have all seen amazing art made from books and paper; this is tinkering at its finest. Books are not end-results. They are raw materials for discovery and creation.
What have I learned thus far from publishing American Dreamers? That this is an exciting time for books and the book business. Are things changing? Yes—but for the better.
Instead of worrying, the industry should celebrate, tinker, release new formats, and throw ideas to the wind. Let’s make books that inspire experimentation, and let’s push the publishing business forward rather than be dragged along.