Feature Articles

BOOK TO THE FUTURE: NEW TECHNOLOGY AND THE GOOGLE BOOK SETTLEMENT by Oisín McGann

(PI News November/December 2009)

This article is not primarily about technology– it’s about how the culture of publishing is changing. But instead of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the tidal wave of Oisin McGannnew developments in the industry, it’s important that we seize on the ones that are useful to us and take advantage of them – and avoid being distracted by the ones that don’t concern us, or those we can’t do anything about.

For people who love books and abhor the very idea of electronic media rendering them obsolete (which isn’t likely to happen for some time yet), it’s worth remembering that print itself was once a revolutionary technology. There was a time, only a few hundred years ago, when people realized that books were no longer going to be reproduced by hand. I believe we are entering an era of equal importance now.

Text – that simple arrangement of two-dimensional words on a page – has become fluid, amorphous, multi-functional and interactive.This is throwing a whole range of new challenges at those who produce and distribute it, and offering unprecedented choices to those who read it. With E Ink technology, reading the screen of an electronic reader is now like reading off paper.The new eReaders are comfortable to use and are blurring the line between your laptop and your book. Some people are already reading
books on their multi-media phones.

In Japan , a new form of publishing has emerged. Written on and for mobile phones, Keitai Shousetsu* are short, sharp, melodramatic stories that are taking the country by storm and driving the literati demented. Most of the writers – and the main audience – are teenage girls and young women. Originally released in free instalments from networking sites, the most successful have now been published as books, and dominate the Japanese bestseller list. Lately, more established writers have been dipping their toes into this new format.

Book publishers, who for centuries, have centred their activities around printed matter, are having to face up to the fact that their world is changing with alarming speed.The word ‘book’ can no longer just refer to printed pages, bound and wrapped in a cover. Now, this is just a print-out of the real book – the original digital file provided by the
author that publishers have been using for decades.

The book, as we must think of it now, is the raw creative material, which can be produced and consumed in a range of forms, including, but not limited to: printed books, books in Braille, ebooks and audio books, stretching on into other established media such as radio, television and film and more unknowable forms in the future. Perhaps, some day, we’ll be able to read a book using just our sense of smell – who knows? Even children’s picture books, those untouchable conveyors of storytelling magic, must now compete with the likes of TumbleBooks, offering animation and audio along with the pictures. These are already available from, for example, South Dublin Libraries, who offer ebooks and audiobooks online.

One of the reasons that the publishing industry is in such a panic, is that this raw creative material is so hard to protect once it can be accessed in a digital format. Just as the music industry has been devastated by online piracy, so the book publishers are afraid that once they make their content available online in any kind of digital format, the raw material will be stripped of its protection, reproduced and passed on for free. Music shops have lost all but the most loyal and discerning of their customers. Bookshops could be facing the same fate unless they change the way they do business.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the publishers are making exactly the same mistakes as the music industry. By trying to strengthen legal controls that will be completely disregarded by code crackers worldwide anyway, they are building a more rigid and fragmented structure, rather than a more flexible and universal one. Their first concern should not be creating work for lawyers; they should instead be ensuring that readers can access their legally produced books as easily as humanly possible.

As a consumer, all I want to know is how many times I have to click to get that book. Lawsuits have not provided many solutions to the music industry.

iTunes has – and even that came along a little late in the day. We need an iTunes that specialises in written material. And it needs competition. What we have to avoid is a situation where one company emerges with a complete control over the sale and distribution of books.

Which is why the Google Book Settlement is such an exciting and frightening development in the world of publishing, and one that will change the industry forever. With one astoundingly ambitious and autocratic move, the book industry is being dragged kicking and screaming into the digital age. We can be sure that this settlement was part of Google’s plan all along. It is easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission, particularly in publishing.

So why is this a time to feel positive about publishing? Because there has never before been such a varied and versatile means of publishing and selling our work, of communicating ideas to our peers and educating ourselves. Let’s take advantage of the recession by reminding people just how relative ly cheap and
how engaging books can be.

Centuries ago, books weren’t simply written – they were illuminated, readers weren’t just given words to read. Today, technology is offering us a staggering opportunity. This is no time to be daunted by the technology itself. Ideas, imagination, language and expression, these are the tools of our trade – and they can be applied to any medium. The art of painting is not restricted to those who can manufacture canvas. And now that anyone with a web connection can get published, good writing is needed more than ever.

Oisín McGann is a children’s author and illustrator, and board member of Children’s Books Ireland. His latest work includes Wired Teeth (O’Brien Press, 2008) and Strangled Silence (Random House, 2008).

* The first cell phone novel was ‘published’ in Japan in 2003 by ‘Yoshiy’, a Tokyo man in his mid-thirties. It became so popular that it was published as a printed book, with 2.6 million copies sold in Japan, and was further developed into a television series, a
manga, and a movie.

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