If the object of writing is to deliver to readers a text that is engaging and enlightens, or entertains them in some way or other, then the idea of maintaining a fixed form of a book needs to be reexamined. Writers will probably always want to keep control of their work, but who is to say that the particular collaboration between a writer and her editor results in the best possible book? Or rather, perhaps the "final" book ends up catering well to one segment of readers, but -- due to language, length, focus, or whatever -- another vast swath of readers is blocked from enjoying the book.
We've always had abridged versions and "selected-essays-from" and audio versions and made-for-TV adaptations. But in a more open rights schema (say, Creative Commons licensing), there is something thrilling about the idea that dedicated readers -- the most engaged of all stakeholders, beyond the original writer and editor -- might legitimately improve texts for certain audiences. (This is exactly what happened with LibriVox -- passionate readers transforming texts they love so that others can enjoy them).
I know I have read texts where I thought: the information in that book was great; pity it was so dry, or so poorly-written. As books go digital, the ability to work on them and adapt them for different needs becomes a simple matter of opening up a text editor, importing a file (in theory) and getting to work. In the academic market, and certain sectors of serious non-fiction, something like this could be extremely valuable to readers, and to writers as well (increased markets).
For such creative engagement to happen, it will require writers and publishers to look differently on their works than they might have done to date -- to view their "finished" books as something more open-ended, and available. The tools are here already; what remains to be seen is whether our culture of authorship has room for such a radical change in perspective.
We're seeing hints that in some quarters, we may be ready. Cory Doctorow has legions of fans who translate his works and make audio versions of his books. But for some reason this struck me as a bigger jump. Kevin Kelly reports as follows:
The other day I got a note from a Dutch guy who is a fan of my book Out Of Control. He found my ideas great but my presentation "frustrating." But unlike my other "frustrated" readers, Andreas Lloyd decided to do something about it: he remixed my book!
I think the result is quite amazing. Remixing is perhaps too strong a word because he mostly simply dropped entire chapters, with a little re-arranging here and there. It is a very sharp but intelligent edit. But the effect is striking. [more...]
Kevin Kelly's book Out of Control is a fascinating book full of fascinating ideas reaching across the board from artificial intelligence, evolution, biology, ecology, robotics and more to explore complexity, cybernetics and self-organising systems in an accessible and engaging way.
But in reading Out of Control, I found it suffering from a number of frustrating flaws: Not only is it way too long-winded, it is also almost completely void of meta-text to help the reader understand what Kelly is trying to do with his book (having read the book, I'm still wondering)...
I would have preferred a much shorter book, more narrowly focused on the idea of self-organising systems. The whole text of the original book is easily available online at Kelly's own website, so I thought: Why not remix the online text to make such a book? [more...]
Why not, indeed?
You can get a copy of Kelly's original book here (free on the web, or to purchase from Amazon).
And a copy of Lloyd's remixed version here (free on the web, free pdf).
I should add, this is one of the things at the back of our minds as we build Book Oven. We hope that good digital publishing platforms mean that writers and readers will start to get the sense that a book might live on, and grow after the writer or publisher press "publish" ... that engagement, annotations, commentary, and generally the life around a book might become as culturally important in our eyes as the original itself.
Follow Hugh McGuire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bookoven