October 19, 2010

That which we call a book by any other name



It's how it is.They’re talking evolution over at Business Week. In particular Matthew Ingram is talking about when a book is no longer a book. He is of course referring to e-books and in particular this new-fangled short variety being offered by Amazon as well as Borders.

Amazon’s Singles (I still cringe when I read that name) and Borders’ Bookbrewer are two platforms hoping to entice authors to publish shorter works with their respective companies. Bookbrewer is all inclusive, meaning that the author can upload (for a fee of course) their book’s text of any length and have it listed on all the major retailers online. Amazon has separated their Kindle self-publishing into two sections, one being books and the other being, well, Singles.

Singles, if you’ve somehow forgotten, are works that range from 10,000 to 30,000 words. Amazon leaves us to assume that these are prose works we are talking about. Otherwise poor Juliet might end up wondering about whether her collected soliloquies should be called a book or a single, to which I would advise the star-crossed noble not to sweat it.

So what’s with this evolutionary talk? Just when is a book not a book? I’ll let Ingram do the talking first.

The line between what we call a “book” and something that’s just a really long chunk of published text—what you might call the “not quite a book” category — continues to blur in the electronic publishing world. In one of the latest examples, Borders (BGP) has joined forces with a service called Bookbrewer to provide a simple service that allows bloggers or anyone else with an idea to publish what is effectively an e-book and get it distributed through all the major e-book platforms. In a similar move, Amazon (AMZN) this week launched its Kindle Singles program, which is also designed for publishing less-than-book-length writing online.

And then there’s this bit about similarities between today’s innovations (electronic self-publishing platforms) and those of the early days of the Gutenberg revolution:

When introduction of the iPad was first rumored, I suggested the tablet could become a platform for authors of all kinds to find a larger market for their works — not just authors of traditional books (many of whom love the e-book revolution for a variety of reasons), but also bloggers and other thinkers with interesting ideas, academics with valuable research papers, or anyone with something he or she might feel deserves a larger audience. In some ways, it’s like the early days of the Gutenberg revolution, when authors published short manuscripts and “chapbooks,” and everything in between.

To start with there were no early days of the Gutenberg revolution because, well, no revolution occurred. Certainly the invention was to have a profound effect on culture but not in the way many harbingers of the new like to believe. It is convenient to think of the new and old confronting each other in some sort of technological death match where only one can remain. The reality is though that it didn’t happen that way.

It’s all about manuscripts and, irony of ironies, the rise of print culture initially had a positive effect on the role of manuscripts. Painstakingly edited and meticulously copied, handwritten manuscripts were often more accurate than the ones produced by moveable type. Typesetting is subject to mechanical error and requires disassembling and reassembling between printings, which is an opening for both human and technical errors to creep in.

When it came to the “chapbooks” and short manuscripts that Ingram refers to in his quote the room for error was even greater. One edition of a political pamphlet could be very different from the next, often due to the lack of records (especially if the pamphlet was libelous) on the part of the printer.

The point here is that the conflict wasn’t between the books of the past versus the book of the future. It was a conflict over accuracy and accountability. The copyist existed for a long time after the press, which undermines the use of the term “revolution.” In turn when we read about profound metadata errors in Google’s last library and copyright transgressions by Amazon the comparisons begin to become stunningly clear and require no clichéd pronouncements like, “The book is dead. Long live the book.”

It’s true that manuscripts eventually succumbed to print even in the officious capacities where they had thrived for centuries after Gutenberg’s press. They are not gone however, and in a practical sort of way the printing press has only served as a form of rapid conveyance for the manuscript. Don’t look at the handwritten aspect too closely. Typing is writing.

In short? The invention(s) was not and is not one concerning the book itself. It is one of book logistics.

So when an author publishes a short or long work on a digital format there is nothing revolutionary going on except from a standpoint of access and distribution. The writer still has to write something, perhaps edit it, render it definitive (for the moment of course) and then publish the work, say via Kindle Singles or Bookbrewer. The work produced and distributed, regardless of semantic or syntactic vagaries, is a book.

And so it shall continue to be. The “Single” is just a name for the way Amazon wants to sell a book. A single is a book. Or in the terms of a Venn diagram: All Singles are books but not all books are singles.

So please, enamored technophiles, don’t cloak a marketing gimmick within the vestments of invention. It might very well be a useful and innovative platform but it’s just that: another platform to sell, you got it, a book.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.