After a one-year hiatus, the Books in Browsers conference made its return November 3–4, with roughly 150 attendees on hand for two days of presentations at the Gray Area Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District. This year’s event, the seventh edition of the conference, was something of a reboot—where previous iterations focused on more technical and design elements of publishing on the Web, this year’s conference explored the expanding array of powerful new digital tools at the disposal of today’s storytellers.
It was an eye-opening program, organized by PW contributor Peter Brantley and sponsored by the University of California, Davis, and the Frankfurt Book Fair, with assistance from Berkeley New Media. Under the title Telling Small Stories, it focused heavily on how visual images, alongside text, are forging new, narrative forms—no surprise to anyone on Snapchat or Instagram.
The two days of presentations felt more like a master class than a conference. Attendees—who included publishers, authors, gamers, coders, filmmakers, artists, and librarians—heard from a range of creators, all experimenting with a potent mix of old and new media.
Among the highlights for me: filmmaker Adam Dewar detailed the making of his 2015 Instagram thriller, Shield 5, which utilized not only the 15-second video clips then allowed on the platform (Instagram video clips can now be longer), but also text and user comments.
Jane Friedhoff, a game designer by trade, showed off software that she created while at the New York Times called Membrane, which enabled authors and readers to generate targeted conversations within online articles by highlighting specific words or passages—a sort of next-level comments function, but more powerful, focused, and interactive. The kicker to Friedhoff’s story: she left the Times, and the code she created for Membrane now appears to be mothballed among the Times’ other moribund IP holdings.
Artist Dan Goldman talked about his work with a nonprofit group to create Priya’s Shakti, a comic book and augmented-reality app that confronts sexual violence in India, a venture that truly highlights the power of visual storytelling. And in one audience favorite, Nick Brown, who leads a product team for Ingram VitalSource, demoed a powerful new music-study tool that, among other features, enables users to conduct a virtual orchestra using a smartphone as a baton, with the ability to change tempos simply by altering one’s motion.
Sure, some of the presentations seemed tangential to the business of book publishing and to the work of libraries. Certainly, this was no ordinary publishing conference. But that, attendees said, is what made the program so compelling.
“For me the value of BiB lies in the chance to hear about the many new forms of storytelling available to us as designers, animators, filmmakers, and writers today,” says Kate Pullinger, an author and professor of creative writing and digital media at Bath Spa University, in England. Pullinger gave a talk about her forthcoming work, a smartphone novel titled Jellybone, which will utilize the digital features (beyond simply rendering text on a screen) now available on many devices.
Claire Renault Deslandes, digital publishing director for French publisher Editions Bragelonne, a leader in France’s emerging digital-book market, says that she has now added BiB to her “must attend” list. “It is refreshing to talk about creation, and how it is impacted by innovation, or generates innovation, and a bit less about market share, and marketing strategies,” she says, adding that BiB is “a great place to give birth to new, outside-the-box ideas.”
That was my takeaway as well. For well over a decade, publishers have been grappling with the future of books and reading in the digital age—but it’s hard to point to many “outside the box” ideas. Listening to the presentations at BiB made publishing’s so-called digital revolution seem like a border skirmish—a series of flash points around distribution, new platforms, the occasional legal battle, and looming over it all for many of the big houses, a stated desire to protect their legacy print businesses from the vagaries of our networked, increasingly device-driven world.
Things are starting to change, however. For years now, the Frankfurt Book Fair has showcased new media alongside traditional publishing. A startup called Oolipo launched at this year’s fair, for example, a platform that harnesses for storytellers the full range of tools now available on any smartphone—GPS, maps, video, a camera, picture editing, sensors, Internet and phone access, touchscreen interaction, and music.
Libraries, too, have grappled with the digital transition. But librarians have been eager to adapt and refocus their energies—take, for example, the library community’s embrace of the maker movement, their support for technology instruction, and even the lending of computers, cameras, and recording equipment that is pretty common in libraries across the nation. In fact, it seems as though the seeds of the 2016 BiB program were planted by Brantley, at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia.
In a talk he conceded at the time was a bit “edgy,” Brantley spoke of how a growing sense of “digital craft” will inevitably expand and enrich our storytelling and information environments. “Text will still be a primary mode of storytelling, because of its low barrier to entry,” he acknowledged. But, speaking to librarians just months after simmering tensions between libraries and publishers over e-book lending had begun to cool, Brantley implored libraries to think more broadly about their future roles.
“There is a whole new world of publishing exploding right before our eyes and we’re not doing anything about it in any kind of concerted way,” he said. “I think we need to do that.”
It was a prescient talk. In the analog era, libraries had a fairly well-defined mission: to collect, preserve, and make available our cultural output. But as more of our cultural output is born digital and network dependent, what will libraries collect in the future, and how will they collect it? How will libraries handle new forms of storytelling like Dewar’s Instagram thriller, for example? If print is no longer the center of the creative universe, do libraries simply accept a diminishing role in our culture? Or do they seek new roles?
Publishers face similar questions. As digital storytelling evolves, will the book as it has existed for centuries become a niche product? Will the publishers of today simply yield the future of storytelling to Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon?
Those questions are why I found BiB’s focus on creation so compelling. Will any of the efforts I heard detailed at BiB have an immediate impact on publishers or libraries? Probably not. But BiB reinforced a simple truth for me: storytellers will utilize the full range of tools technology offers them. And in an age where technology is advancing rapidly, shaking up institutions with alarming speed, it is imperative for publishers and librarians not only to anticipate what’s around the corner but also what’s further down the road.