Earlier this week, the ancient and long-cherished concept of the unitary book took a blow directly in the spine.
I couldn't be more thrilled.
The event I'm referencing was a Simon & Schuster announcement that they will start selling individual e-chapters to Dr. Memhet Oz's "You" series of health and wellness books.
This is clearly just the beginning of the profound shift - the gradual deconstruction of the book from its conventional cloth box into a fragmentation of digital components. In the same way that iTunes liberated songs from the album format, books will no longer be solely linear.
And Simon & Schuster is looking at a wide open model: they've said they want to expand this effort to other authors, and want to make their content available to a variety of sites across the Internet.
Needless to say, they would like other publishers to adopt their e-commerce platform; today, everyone wants to become the standard because that's where the positive economics kick in.
Simon & Schuster's Chief Digital Officer Ellie Hirschhorn put it like this:
"It represents a transformational shift from current trade publishing models... consumers may no longer have to purchase an entire book when perhaps a chapter or two will provide them with the answers they are looking for, or if they are looking to sample parts of a book before making a decision...This opens up a new world of opportunities for where and how our digital content can be distributed and sold, and we plan to expand both the chapter selling model and use of our e-commerce widget to other content categories."
The announcement, on one level, is no surprise. As eReaders like the Kindle and the recently announced Barnes & Noble nook are reaching the tipping point of mass adoption, this was an inevitable step. New platforms and products always inspire new content concepts. Here, publishers are creating and re-purposing content in a way that's bespoke to the new medium.
Of course, this will be met by the usual group of Luddite bemoaners. The chorus of clingers to the past who'll wail about the loss of the book and the destruction of authorial integrity.
But, of course, making chapters of a book available separately will merely be a technologically-enabled version of what we do anyway. And do naturally.
For as long as there have been books, readers have made their own rules. They've hopped around, skipped entire chapters and created their own narratives based on their own interests, patience and logic. We aren't slaves to the author's breadcrumbs; in fact, post-modern novelists celebrate this pathlessness. (George Perec, I imagine, would love this fragmentation.)
And wandering is what we do in our local Barnes & Noble, anyway, as we dip, browse, sample and explore.
Simon & Schuster was motivated, clearly, by the cautionary tale of the record industry. The labels were so late to the digital game, and defended their closed models with such retrograde persistence and stubbornness, that they allowed others - mainly Apple - to slice off a huge wedge of the revenue pie.
And, of course, the labels' lagging vision allowed file-sharing to emerge in this vacuum, which in turn forced them to become litigants against music lovers - their best customers of the future. For all these reasons, music is the mother of all cautionary tales of business model destruction.
Beyond the publishers, this is a great forward step for consumers, too. Being able to quickly and cheaply download a range of book chapters will expose readers to the potential of more great books, give them the chance to discover new writers, themes and subjects, on an affordable, low-dose, chapter-by-chapter basis. It's the highest and best use of impulse selling.
Writers win, too. Big time. Because more authors will get the chance to get introduced to new readers, and open up new markets - which they desperately need. At it's most basic, it's sampling, like Whole Foods Market giving away tasting cubes of aged gouda. And it works.
So if the idea of a book being sold as piece-goods upsets you - remember that it didn't trouble Charles Dickens, who serialized his novels in newspapers.
In fact, all in all, this is one time where the much-abused cliché "a new chapter in publishing" may turn out to be just that."