Reinventing the Book – A Q&A with Hugh McGuire

By | April 8, 2013 at 10:43 am | No comments | Blog | Tags: , , ,

 A Q&A with Hugh McGuire

Traditional arbiters of literary merit may have a hard time in the future, but literary merit will be fine and so will readers

Ahead of the SPUR Festival discussion on the The Future of the Book, we asked Hugh McGuire, the founder of — the largest library of free, public domain audiobooks in the world — and co-editor with Brian O’Leary of Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, to share his thoughts on some of the ways digital publishing will likely change the way books are produced, distributed and read. 

Your essay on the merging of books and the internet ends: “… the question isn’t what stupid things people have put on the Web in the past, but what great things we could do if books were connected on the Web in the future. That’s what sets people who love books, and the Web, to dreaming.” Can you outline which dreams excite you most?

What frustrates me most about the current ebook landscape is what I cannot do with ebooks that should be “easy” to do with digital goods. For instance, I would like much more robust ability to comment/annotate/highlight:

I’d like my own comments or highlighted passages from texts that matter to me collected and available in one place (on the web). I might be interested in some comments on certain books from selected colleagues and friends (or in earlier times) students, sometimes.

I’d like to be able to easily collect together comments/notes/highlights that I have made on certain kinds of books (say, a collection of comments/notes left in books on economics; a collection of comments/notes from novels by the Russians). I might like to tag those notes/comments in such a way that I could sort them or organize them in much more granular ways. I’d like to easily pull these comments into, say, an article or paper or book or blog post I might write…. ideally pointing/linking to the actual text (on the web) so that a reader of my article/paper/chapter etc, could go and explore the source text in detail.

I’d like to have a web interface to a text that would allow me to sort and explore particular things. For instance, I am a fan of Malcolm Lowry, and I would like to be able to find everything written about Malcolm Lowry, and bring that information together into one place. For certain kinds of non-fiction books, I’d like to be able package up just the chapters I am particularly interested in, and leave the rest behind, into one “book.”

For a certain topic, I’d like to collect the relevant chapters from a few different books into one packaged “book” that provides the actual information I am interested in.

I’d like to take all my favourite recipies from all my cookbooks, and build my own “best of” cookbook.

I’d like to be able to ask my Twitter followers to recommend books to me, and then have a service that will automatically package up the first chapter of those recommendations into an ebook I can download, and read, with links to buy the complete books at the end of each first chapter.

And that’s just for starters.

In an influential essay, Craig Mod has argued:  “The book of the past reveals its individual experience uniquely. The book of the future reveals our collective experience uniquely.” Do you agree?  Are books being produced differently, with readers playing a larger role in the composition (what Mod calls the “pre-artifact” stage), or is the collaborative future Mod imagines still more concept than reality?

I have a few thoughts on that:

First, books have never been individual pursuits. There are editors and put-upon friends, colleagues, trusted advisors, agents, mothers and fathers, workshoppers, copyeditors, proofreaders, designers … all of whom influence what book is finally published. No writer is an island.

Secondly, I think the form of the book — the long-form narrative driven mostly by an author, or small group of editors has endured and will endure. Whatever you think of digital, the truth is that the biggest books of the last decade — Fifty Shades, Harry Potter, Twilight — have all been LONG books, and in 2 of 3 cases, targeted at a younger audience. There is no lack of engagement with what books can uniquely provide. Which remains: a long form narrative (fiction or non-fiction) crafted by an individual or small group. (And note: even Wikipedia’s success is driven by a relative small group of dedicated editors who do the bulk of writing).

However, I agree with Craig that new engagement with audience during the creation of a book will transform certain kinds of books, and that we are likely to see many more books start their lives and get honed on the open web, before they also become packaged as “finished” products (many of which, incidentally, will not be considered “finished” ever).

In  Book: A Futurist’s ManifestoLaura Dawson writes that “Ebooks face a discoverability problem that print books never have: they are only discoverable online and by word of mouth. As far as the digital reader is concerned, without good metadata, the ebook doesn’t exist.” Given the near disappearance of traditional book reviews, who will form the taste of future readers? Is publishing doomed to be driven by metadata or do traditional arbiters of literary merit still have a role to play? 

Never in the history of the universe have so many book reviews been available to the world. There are countless blogs, facebook, Amazon reviews, Goodreads, Twitter recommendations. There are highbrow reviews and lowbrow reviews, and the most important ones: reviews & recommendation by people you trust.

The “traditional arbiters of literary merit” may have a hard time in the future, but literary merit will be fine and so will readers.

Printed texts are studied by book historians as artifacts of cultural history. Whether they are found in a centuries-old original manuscript or the annotations of Northrop Frye, the physical markings and marginalia within books make for fascinating reading. Are ebooks likely to provide us with the same sources of cultural history?

If done right — living on the web with persistent URLs, and with an open annotation system to collect notes and annotations from the wide world of readers — ebooks are likely to drown us in a deluge of sources of cultural history the scale of which we cannot even imagine.

Hugh McGuire appears in conversation with Paul Holdengräber on Thursday April 11 as part of the Spur Festival, co-hosted by PEN Canada. More event information here.

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