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The Book as Process, Conversation, Byproduct

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Nieman Lab's Megan Garber wrote a brilliant post about the nature of books and conversation using as illustration a conversation about my book. It is, as Jay Rosen said, too good to summarize. So please do go read it.

I love Garber's piece not just because she said that "90 percent of Morozov's criticisms are wildly unfair," referring to a so-called review of my book. I love it because Garber delivered the most serious criticism of my book to date:

The precise thing that makes idea-driven books so valuable to readers -- their immersive qualities, the intimate, one-on-one relationship they facilitate between authors and readers -- also make them pretty lousy as actual sharers of ideas. Books don't go viral. And that's largely because the thing that makes books lucrative to authors and publishers -- their ability to restrain ideas, to wall them off from the non-book-buying world -- is antithetical to virality. How can books be expected to share ideas when the very point of their existence is containment?

I wrote a book about sharing. But a book is a bad form for sharing.

The book, Garber said, is "designed to advance books within the marketplace, rather than the marketplace of ideas. It aims at publicity rather than publicness, at selling objects rather than propelling the arguments they contain."

Garber is right. I've confessed my hypocrisy in writing both my books on other grounds: I didn't make them digital, clickable, correctable, linkable... I did it to get paid, edited, promoted, and distributed (though with the closing of Borders, that last function becomes less valuable). Garber points out as mitigation that I had shared my ideas about publicness on my blog before I wrote the book.

"The professor has been preaching publicness for years -- at Buzzmachine, in his Guardian column, at conferences, on TV, on Twitter, on the radio, on his Tumblr. If you follow Jeff Jarvis, you follow Public Parts. You've seen his thoughts on publicness take shape over time. The book that resulted from that public process -- the private artifact -- is secondary. It is the commercial result of a communal endeavor."

She's being too easy on me. While I wrote the book, I did share and discuss many of the ideas in it on my blog. That can be a form of collaboration and peer review. But I didn't do it nearly enough, as far as I'm concerned. I was so busy researching, writing, and editing the book that I neglected the blog.

As Garber notes, I say in Public Parts that I should try to make my next project -- if I choose to undertake one -- different.

At the end of Public Parts, Jarvis mentions that his next project may not be a book at all, but rather a book-without-a-book: a Godinesque series of public events held both in person and online. "The book," Jarvis writes, "if there is one, would be a by-product and perhaps a marketing tool for more events."

The book, if there is one. The book, a by-product. Imagine the possibilities.

I'm still working on what that could be. So let me begin the process and outline my early thinking here to hear what you think.

Start with Kevin Kelly's 2006 essay in The New York Times Magazine arguing that authors would come to support themselves with performance -- and John Updike's appalled reaction to this "pretty grisly scenario." I'm not suggesting that authors become merely actors after their books are done.

I'm suggesting, as Garber does, that talks, events, symposia, blogs, hangouts... -- discussion with smart people in any form -- should come before the book. The process becomes the product; the book (if there is one) is a byproduct.

To take an example: I've been wanting to explore the impact of one simple idea, that technology now leads to efficiency over growth. I wrote a post about one aspect of that here and here as well as here and here. The conversation was amazing in its intelligence, perspective, and generosity. It became even better when Y Combinator founder Paul Graham posted it to Hacker News with a challenge, asking what makes this revolution (digital v. industrial) different. Amazing replies ensued. It took me many hours to go through it all, taking many notes.

That made me decide to propose this topic as a talk to South by Southwest. It has been accepted, so I have a deadline for research. But I want -- no, need -- more conversation in the meantime.

That leads me to an idea for a new business. I don't really want to start it or run it; I just wish it existed so I could use it.

It is time to disrupt the conference and speaking businesses and give some measure of control back to speakers (also known as authors) and their publics (formerly known, as Jay Rosen would say, as audiences). I hope for a way to support the work of authors and thinkers -- support it with conversation, attention, and collaboration as well as money.

So imagine this: Authors decide to hold their own event. If you have the brand and popularity of, say, Seth Godin (or, in the sales arena, Jeffrey Gitomer), you can gather a large roomful of fans without effort; each does. But folks like me don't have their brand or promotional power. So let's say I get together with another one or two authors and we propose an event in which we discuss what we're working on.

Kickstarter would seem to be an ideal platform to find out whether there is sufficient demand to support such a gathering, at least to get started. If enough folks sign up, the authors can rent a venue: no risk. The startup I wish for would handle logistics for a fee. It could also be a platform for groups to get together, organizing conferences without conference organizers.

The event, in my view, isn't speeches to audiences so much as conversations. The author needs to bring value: a presentation, a talk, a set of ideas or challenges. But it's the conversation I crave, to develop and further challenge ideas and gather perspectives. The event could be streamed for a larger public. It could be videoed and shared online for continued exchange via blogs, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, et al.

Note that this isn't about containing ideas but sharing them. That's what Garber and I both want.

Is there a book? Why should there be? Because a book can memorialize the ideas and research that comes out of this process. It can bring the discipline that the form -- and a good editor, like mine -- can demand. It can spread the ideas yet farther -- to the many more people who couldn't be bothered joining in the process and the conversation. It can make the ideas last longer. (In Public Parts, I quote Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein pointing out that Gutenberg's Bible turns out to be a much longer lasting repository of data than a floppy disk.)

If there's a book, is it printed? The likelihood of that decreases by the day. So if it is just electronic, then it can change form, including video from the process; photos and graphics to illustrate points; and permalinks to any part of the book to support conversation on the net.

So now we arrive back that the book I apologized for not writing in WWGD? -- digital, clickable, linkable, correctable, updateable, part of a conversation. There are issues: Conversations can be invaded by trolls. There's no economic certainty. We'll make missteps.

But can we get closer to Garber's ideal? Well, we'll know it when we see it. But if we try this route, we now have a standard to judge it against: the one Garber sets in her great post.

Our assumptions about information itself are shifting, reshaping "the news" from a commodity to a community, from a product to a process. The same changes that have disrupted the news industry will, inevitably, disrupt the book industry; Public Parts hints at what might come of the disruption. Books as community. Books as conversation. Books as ideas that evolve over time -- ideas that shift and shape and inspire -- and that, as such, have the potential of viral impact.

Can books go viral? Garber asks. Maybe, if they're allowed to be more than books.