Welcome to the Age of Living Books

May 4, 2010

There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows a dejected guy, holding a brief case, who has just come home after work, and he’s saying to his wife: “Bad news. Hon. I got replaced by an app.”

As a writer, you don’t have to worry about being replaced by an app. But one way e-books can replace p-(rinted)books is clear. As screens of all sizes are returning our focus from words to images, e-books are reinventing reading and writing for new generations of book buyers.

Computer technology created the greatest revolution in publishing since the printing press. E-books are creating the next revolution by giving you two ways to write living books:

* E-readers connected to the Web can have links to anything that already exists and you and your publisher produce. This is an amazing opportunity for you to use an exploding multimodal universe to provide new ways to enhance your readers’ experience and entice Web-centric readers. Using links for footnotes and authors discussing their books are obvious uses.

* E-books can link to social media, the ultimate book club: a community of readers who can email you links to what they find or create to which you and other readers can respond. This conversation creates living books, endless works in progress that continue to improve and stay up to date.

Groupsourcing with Your Readers

Vook
, vook.com, is embedding videos in a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. But video is only one medium, and you’re only limited by your imagination and what you and your readers can find and create. In fiction and narrative nonfiction, you can embed links to music, photographs, or video to create a sense of the period and setting in which the narrative takes place. You can dramatize part of it to draw readers into your story and use the video as a promotional trailer.

Little, Brown will be releasing David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest with links to the book’s cultural allusions. Imagine how links can bring new readers to the classics by with definitions of words and the explanations of the cultures in which they were written.

Links empower your readers to contribute a video of how they used a gardening book, for example, and show the results. In addition to responding to what readers submit, you can decide whether to make use of what readers send in for your e-book or just let it be part of the conversation. Either way, readers will offer testimonials, which on the Web, are golden. You can also make your e-book interactive by including tests and assessments to which you can provide automated responses.

The author Dorothy Parker once said: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” It’s also the soul of writing on the Web. When you can download anything you want into your book instantly, you will need to build a list of links from something in the text, with one-line descriptions to help readers decide whether to click on them. This will prevent your e-book from becoming too long.

The collaboration between you and your readers can begin while you’re developing your book as a blog and articles, and giving talks. You can test the effectiveness of links as you integrate them into your text and change or add to them as you discover new links. Book buyers will benefit because they will always buy the best version of your e-book, which means that responses to it will continue to be more glowing, which in turn will generate more sales for your book and everything else you create.

Making your readers’ feedback part of a conversation makes them members of your book community. Building communities, online and off, of people you need to help you is essential to everything you do as a writer. And as social networks prove, community is one of the fundamental forces driving the Web.

Your readers will also ask questions and send ideas you can make use of for talks, articles, videos, and books that they will look forward to seeing. They will help you create your career and remain part of it as long as you serve them well. Indeed, everything what you write is your answer to the fundamental question: How can you best serve your writers?

Adding text to your e-book will change the pagination, index, and table of contents, so updates will require planning. But in time, new software will make it easy for you to insert changes whenever you wish.

A New Kind of Book for New Generations of Readers

E-readers and will continue to grow in quality and acceptance. They will become full-fledged computers with voice recognition. Computers will have the same information, whether you’re accessing it at home, in your car, or on your phone. Simultaneous translation of voice and text is coming.

Pricing and technical standards will emerge. But a unique, enhanced e-book that only you can write and that continues to grow in value justifies a higher price than just the text. Prices will also have to reflect the cost of creating and licensing content.

E-books will enable your books to do what only they can: provide the best, newest, in-depth information available in all media. However, don’t despair about p-books. You can list links in the back of the printed book by page number and update them on your Web site, and p-book readers can contribute to the online conversation.
Technology guru Ray Kurzweil predicts devices will be placed in our brains and “the Web will take over everything, including our minds.” But the longevity of technology is unknowable. Books have proven their worth for more than 500 years. As publishing visionary Jason Epstein noted in The New York Review of Books, printed books “will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.

But e-books will bring life to your books by bringing your books to life for new generations of readers. They are one of the most promising signs for your future as a writer. So keep writing and think links!


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