Yesterday was Book Hack Day, organised by Perera Media, Idno and GeekCamp. A group of hackers, writers, designers and publishers braved a few closed Tube stations to meet at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon with their laptops (80:20 Apple:Linux, I think) to talk and work on the future of the book in the digital age.
The day started on a high point with a really astute talk from Dan Franklin, digital editor at Random House, about where we are and where we’re going. He described how publishers entered the ebook space expecting to repackage and remix old content, but how they’re quickly finding this approach to be “lazy”.
He suggested that the old model, of publishers owning a stable of content to which they allow the public access, is breaking down. Creators of ebooks need to find new ways to get their audience involved. (The idea put me in mind of circus ringmasters with a travelling freakshow: in the YouTube generation, the ringmasters have gone but the freaks remain.)
(There was a great observation about enhanced content: that video integrates badly with text because “reading is inherently vertical, while video is inherently horizontal”.)
Finally, he suggested that publishers should be engaging with neurological studies to see a book could rewrite itself depending on what readers enjoy.
(An out-there idea, he admitted, and to my mind, an unlikely one, although there’s plenty of scope for invisible telemetrics from ebooks on, say, how far readers get, how quickly they read through sections of a book, and so forth, especially since an ebook could be then “fixed” and re-released.)
That talk was then followed by a quick talk by Nico Macdonald, chair of the Media Futures conference. Amongst other things, he raised the issue of whether non-fiction ebook apps enhanced with videos, animations and links are nothing more than a rediscovery of the CD-ROMs of the 90s – and then blew that idea apart by mentioning self-updating content, portability and social annotation, all of which have the power, now, to completely change the form.
The next quick talk was by Becky Hogge, who briefly discussed narrative, and the nice idea that writers have always started with non-linear, “3D” narrative content, and then had to work to organise and bed down these ideas into a 2D path. Perhaps in the ebook fiction space, that work of finding a path through the story, and organising its events, could be done by the reader? Or could a story have active agents within it, creating events by moving around themselves?
At that point, we began hacking. This part of the day was, I think, less successful than it might have been. A good hack is based on good data, and though a lot of people had generously supplied databases and documents, there was either not enough inter-related content to cross-reference, and the documents supplied were often so intractably formatted that it was hard to leverage them. (For instance, Laura North brought along her children’s picture book Jack and the Bean Pie which would have been a lovely thing to bring to life; but without the images and text in separate files it was difficult to start).
A couple of databases of note were used - the correspondence of Charles Dickens, and a set of iPlayer clips of books read aloud on Radio 4 – and so a lot of the hacks produced were data-mining exercises. I know that data-mining underpins the web and all the connected content services I use every day, but I still find it hard to concentrate on as a topic! For me the question of the day was, if you’re not just reading a book, then what are you doing?
For my own hack, I got involved with a couple of people on “building a house of stories”, and trying to integrate written content into a “3d literary magazine”. It’s a project being got off the ground by The Electric Bookshop and it has a lot of potential as a Granta for the modern age.
We all had slightly different takes on the idea – the usual questions of “how does the reader know what to do?” and “why does the reader keep going forward?” kept coming up – and we were still debating the design at 3pm, when the day had started at 10am, and that was without going to any of the other talks!
So, if the goal was to reinvent the book, I don’t think we succeeded. But as a day spent with interesting people from a variety of backgrounds, all talking about what the book was and what it could be, both in low-level detail and high falutin’ aspiration, it was pretty stimulating. On an IF front, I got a chance to show people my Kindle ebook and Make It Good and get some feedback.
The organisers of the conference have a definite goal to keep these discussions going, and went as far as building a social network site, BookHackers.com, as a forum for conversations, ideas and prototypes. It’s free, and open to anybody to join in, and I can imagine people from the IF world being interested.