Writing on the Ether: Toward ‘More Webby’ Books

24 October 2013 BiB13 reception Goethe Institut texted story image

Books in Browsers IV attendees gather Wednesday evening at a reception hosted by San Francisco’s Goethe-Institut.

Table of Contents

  1. Opening Today, 24 October: Books in Browsers IV
  2. Abstracts and Abstractions
  3. And on a Nearby Issue: The Words

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Opening Today, 24 October: Books in Browsers IV

A small summit for the new generation of Internet publishing companies, focusing on developers and designers who are building and launching tools for online storytelling, expression, and art.

Kate Pullinger

Kate Pullinger

SAN FRANCISCO, California — “More webby” is the way London-based “digital author” and Bath Spa University professor Kate Pullinger describes what will become of books in the future.

Pullinger is a speaker in the two-day Books in Browsers Conference opening here today—and the librettist for the Slovak National Theater’s new opera by composer Ľubica Čekovská, Dorian Gray, premiering November 8 in Bratislava.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, Nick Earls

Brian O’Leary

Her “more webby” phrase is a colloquial echo of the seminal “Context, Not Container” essay published by Brian O’Leary in Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. His opening lines:

The way we think about book, magazine, and newspaper publishing is unduly governed by the physical containers we have used for centuries to transmit information. Those containers define content in two dimensions, necessarily ignoring context, defined here as tagged content, research, footnoted links, sources, and audio and video background, as well as title-level metadata.

Book - A Futurist's Manifesto by Hugh McGuire et alIn other words, as long as we envision “the book” as that thing with pages—or its digital descendant on an e-reader or tablet—we’re not giving the original artistry and impulse behind a new body of work a chance to live as the unique content it is in the context of its creation.

One model of this is referred to as a “networked book,” a work that might be described by its connections to other work.

And that gives you some idea why Books in Browsers is among the more forward-looking, distinctive conferences of the publishing year.

We’re hashtagging live coverage from it at #bib13. There is a live stream of the presentations available during conference hours here.

Although the organizers’ descriptor I quote at the top of the column talks of “publishing companies”—and although many specialized startups are represented in its program—this isn’t a standard industry conference kickline of new ventures trying to attract contracts and funding. You don’t come out humming the companies. Instead, you leave curious about their ideas.

At Books in Browsers, the ethos is what counts. More webby. An idea of literature vivified and invigorated by its authors’ express intents, not trapped in automatic applications of traditional forms, functions, containers.

The conference’s name can trip up newcomers who might take it too literally. “Books in Browsers” is the launchpad for formats that eventually may be tied to no one device, design, or delimiting factor we worry about today.

This is a promise, after all, of all this tedious digital disruption:  to make it up to us eventually with something…wonderful.

Kat Meyer

Kat Meyer

The confab, now in its fourth year, is put together by Peter Brantley and Kat Meyer. It’s produced by their respective pedestals, Hypothes.is and the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Major support comes from Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, our host and venue for the affair, and from swissnex San Francisco, which is staging a hackday on Saturday.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Books in Browsers, Internet Archive, StoryWorld, Writer's Digest Conference, Tools of Change

Peter Brantley

On both conference days, Thursday and Friday, we start with a welcome at 8:50a PT, 11:50aET, 1550 GMT.

Other than those typical conference-daily start times, the only thing that might readily link this conference to many other publishing confabs is the fact that it’s in October.

When the industry! the industry! isn’t working up a lather about Amazon‘s latest innovation, it’s busy scheduling conferences in October. An odd fixation on this month creates schedule conflicts, strained travel budgets, “conference fatigue.” Sometimes we even see dueling conferences scheduled against each other on the same day in the same venue, splitting the audience and guaranteeing that everyone misses something.

But even those of us living out of suitcases in October are glad to see Books in Browsers arrive—a chance to remember that the way to reconnect with the oldest instincts of storytelling is not to retreat, but to look for the newest potentials in our trade. 

That’s what Books in Browsers is about, and I’ll briefly highlight a few of the sessions scheduled for the conference to give you an idea of why it makes sense to look in on it, on Twitter or on video, if you have a chance.

Porter Anderson, Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, author, publisher, agent, books, publishing, digital, ebooks, Will Entrekin, Exciting Press, The Prodigal Hour

Baldur Bjarnason

I’ll start with our friend Baldur Bjarnason, who has told me that he hates the program’s abstract for his paper, although “I have only myself to blame since I wrote it in the first place.” Typical Bjarnason.

In fact, the short abstract sets off the questions at hand. His presentation is titled “Interactivity is What You Do.” And it asks, in part:

What if you want to do something more digital? Something interactive? What if you don’t want to do a linear piece all glossed up in fancy magazine-inspired decoration and layout? What if you want to go web-native?

 Find out what is possible; what narrative and design tactics the web lends itself to; what interactive forms, structures, and tactics aid the exploration of complex stories?

This is about, after all, getting “Beyond the Book,” as the issue was posed in Frankfurt by Arizona State’s Center for Science and the Imagination.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, Books in Browsers, Internet Archive, StoryWorld, Writer's Digest Conference, O'Reilly Media, Tools of Change

Philip Jones

As The Bookseller Editor Philip Jones puts it in his post Plan 9 from the interweb about AudioGo feeling pressed and crowdfunding publisher Unbound pulling in more funding:

There are some days in publishing where there is an unmistakable whiff of a paradigm shift. Today is one such day.

Back to Table of Contents

Abstracts and Abstractions

Landing Gear by Kate PullingerPullinger’s own presentation—”Landing Gear: A Writer, A Novel, A Publisher, An API”—is interesting for its examination of a bridge between old and new publishing. From her abstract:

Writing novels and co-creating multimedia digital narratives…have resided in parallel universes, with little crossover between the aging galaxy of traditional publishing and the newly created planet of digital fiction. Until now! Pullinger’s new novel, Landing Gear…will be offered up at BiB’s first ever Hackday as an API, in partnership with Pullinger’s Canadian publisher, Doubleday. In her talk, Pullinger will discuss how this literary novel will become a Writeable API.

Peter Haasz

Peter Haasz

Peter Haasz of ebook and audiobook distributor OverDrive, on the other hand, arrives with a presentation named for a story we know all too well: “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” Its abstract poses a small cascade of questions that could dovetail with Pullinger’s Landing Gear examination:

What if, instead of files, publishers delivered ebooks as fully formed reading experiences via self-contained web services?

 By taking back responsibility for the whole book — which in the print world always included the reading system — could publishers deliver a more compelling experience, more faithfully and efficiently, across different channels?

 Would we see publishers developing better ways of reading special types of content, such as cookbooks, textbooks and travel guides?

Allen Tan

Allen Tan

New York Times interactive designer Allen Tan’s talk is titled “Beyond Intuitive UI: Design Considerations for Attention, Rhythm, and Weight.” From the abstract:

The past year has seen widespread experimentation in storytelling that brings together different types of media with text and interaction.
 Hopefully, these forms will continue to diverge as they respond to the particulars of the content housed within them. What will remain the same, though, are the considerations in designing the reader’s experience. What do “intuitive” and “immersive” really mean, and how do designers manage attention, rhythm, and weight when designing interactive reading systems?

John Maxwell

John Maxwell

And John W. Maxwell, an assistant professor in the Master of Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University, joins Haig Armen of LiFT Studios on “The Craft of the Book in the Age of the Web.” From their abstract:

There seems to be a fair bit of consensus in this community that books need browsers; the bigger question is whether browsers need books? The web is boundless; James Bridle and others have made a compelling argument that tells us that literature has moved beyond the work, and now resides in the Network. But as teachers—John in publishing and Haig in design—we worry sometimes that publishing and the tradition of the book are parting ways.

Haig Armen

Haig Armen

There is a vast and valuable craft tradition in and around the book. Publishing is and has always been a craft–in a special category distinct from both art and industry…Have we lost sight of the craft tradition of the age of the web? If so, what happens to that wealth of knowledge and wisdom? Or is that tradition migrating to new contexts—in which case, what is lost and what is gained in translation?

Back to Table of Contents

And on a Nearby Issue: The Words

With roughly 25 presentations planned for the two days of Books in Browsing, the “hallways” between sessions, during breaks and meals and over drinks, should be stimulating.

James Bridle

James Bridle

In fact, a late add will be of special interest to many:  UK-based James Bridle of BookTwo now is scheduled to present “Network Tense: How to Approach a Contemporary, Technologically-Mediated World” in today’s morning session.

And from another round of “new thinking”—the subject of Tuesday’s Ether for Authors:  Where Is Publishing’s Jetpack? at Publishing Perspectives—there’s an interesting cautionary note not necessarily expected to factor explicitly in this year’s Books in Browsers presentations.

In that column, we heard from the New York Times’ David Streitfeld in his revealing article  This Is War (for a Game Industry’s Soul), featuring the work of Stockholm’s Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment, or DICE (owned by EA). At issue there, in part, was the state of storytelling in the comparatively lucrative world of video- and online gaming.

Dave Morris

Dave Morris

The London-based author and designer of videogames Dave Morris left an articulate comment on the piece in response to what he perceived as an attempt to sidestep a kind of storytelling responsibility.

His work includes the conception and writing of the interactive reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Profile Books and inkle studios. His comment speaks to the primacy of story, and even of text, in the development of authentic work of merit—something many Books in Browsers attendees might agree with.

Morris begins with Patrick Soderlund, a Swedish game executive, asserting to Streitfeld that narrative elements tend to fade in videogame content from Stockholm’s DICE because “storytelling does not come naturally to the Swedes.”


“Storytelling does not come naturally to the Swedes”? This is, of course, utter nonsense. You will find game developers in the UK saying that storytelling does not come naturally to the British. America likewise. The fact is, storytelling often doesn’t come naturally to the kind of person who gets interested in videogame development – but that, fortunately, is changing.

…Our stories are not polished the way a novel or movie ought to be, but they’re not intended to be a spectator sport. Experienced from within, a genuinely emergent story is new and unique and thrilling.

…I have to add that words are still the most powerful medium for telling stories. That’s been true since long before Homer first banged his stick on the ground and said, “Sing, goddess!” – and you bet you could hear a pin drop. Words are more powerful because they create a more personal conduit into the imagination of each reader or each listener. (And to think I say this as a writer of comic books and a designer of videogames.) That’s why, if a discerning fellow in the year 3000 really wants to appreciate Gulliver’s Travels, he’ll do without the sloshing surf sound FX and all that art installation gimcrackery and just go back to the words as Swift wrote them.

Back to Table of Contents

Scratch LogoScratch Magazine: All About the Intersection of Writing and Money

Scratch magazine publishes smart, useful stories about the intersection of writing and money. Scratch is for writers of all genres and trades—and for anyone who wants to know where the publishing and journalism industries go from here. Our free preview issue includes an in-depth report on book marketing by Jane Friedman, as well as an editor roundtable on how websites determine pay for freelance contributions.

Click here to browse the entire preview issue.

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Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.
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  2. Hey Porter,

    Good stuff as always. I’m on the team that thinks the jury is not simply ‘still out’ but possibly not even convened yet. I say that as preamble to a very contrary view on the idea of “reading experiences” that take place via some online medium (the singular!)

    I don’t care for the idea of losing the physical object. I’m a hold out for the book as vehicle reading experience. But I see the value in e-reading that simply translates the physical object into a digital one. Flexibility, space-saving, tons of other reasons to migrate away from paper pulp to silicon and plastic.

    But browsers? It’ll take a lot to convince me that’s a good idea. Clearly it’s happening, and it will continue to happen as people try new things. We’re still waiting for someone to invent the new mode of transportation while we all cling to the seats on this runaway train. :) I just don’t see the experience of using a web browser as comparable or appropriate-as-replacement to the experience of reading a physical object, be it paper or plastic.

    Linked research or tangential ideas, images, videos? In my book? I hate to think of people falling down a Youtube rabbit hole when what I really want is for them to read a story I’ve written, no matter how connected that story is to videos, pictures, or blogs that exist online.

    Color me staunchly skeptical for now. But I’m curious to see how it’ll shake out.

    • @f8089fc9074b34812a8c6b0347bb80ba:disqus

      Hey, Aaron, sorry for the slow response — the travel schedule has been very demanding lately and isn’t very supportive of comment response.

      Just a couple of thoughts relative to what you’re saying here.

      (1) Print books are not likely to go away.

      (2) Any “falling down a YouTube rabbit hole” is digitization gone wrong. If you’re distracted, pulled way from the authentic experience of a book by some sort of sideshow, “bell,” “whistle” or otherwise, then the digital evocation of a book’s delivery isn’t working correctly. What the best thinkers and experimenters in this field mean is that if you choose a digital work (not a print parallel to it, which is just fine for you to choose if you want), then what you should have, as a digital experience, springs so sensibly and readily from the work itself that you’re not left feeling you’ve fallen down some rabbit hole of any kind. In the same way that a print book shouldn’t present you with more ink or paper than is necessary to make the book, a digital project shouldn’t create any “more” or ‘less” in terms of its unique construct than is correct for the intent and potential. Correctly done, a “networked book” or otherwise digitally developed project is its own best case for its existence as such. It’s not about a set of e-add-ons.

      (3) Don’t think too literally in terms of “browsers.” As I tried to say in this story, a digital project in literature can exist in many ways and forms, not just as a Web site. The reason the phrase is meaningful is that it refers to the networked goal and idea of a good, richly developed, meaningfully evoked digital literature project. Not that it has to live in a site or as a site, per se. Right now, my Kindle Fire’s books, for that matter, are networked to some degree, in that notes and highlights made in them can be shared (and detected), my progress in reading and placement of bookmarks can be “seen” electronically, the speed with which I intake one work or another can be monitored, linkage from the text is feasible and workable, and these books aren’t “in browsers.” They’re ebook files. In short, a “More Webby Books Conference” isn’t as happy a title for a confab, but it might be more accurate. What we think at this stage is that digital developments in literature in the near future will evince qualities of a “webby” experience. That’s about as far as you need to go in trying to nail things down.

      (4) Lastly, your skepticism is fine, I think, as long as you don’t let it slow down your availability — your making yourself available — to the best that comes along in the future. What I mean by that is that while you’re welcome to enjoy paper — and to keep enjoying it because it really will be a way books are read for a long time to come, I’m sure — it would be a shame for you to miss the developments of your age because you were performing “staunch skepticism,” lol. People who were staunchly skeptical that a car’s driver could be correctly directed to his destination by a talking system in his car dependent on satellites might be getting needlessly lost right now — because that technology is in place and is working very well, as fantastical as I might have seemed to the “staunchly skeptical” 10 years ago, right?

      Don’t get lost because of skepticism, Aaron. :) You can keep on enjoying print but I recommend you try to make yourself open and available to the progress of your age and era. That progress will be happening, after all, despite your or my or others’ skepticism. It always does. It’s driven both by market forces and by the kind of creative inquiry that’s behind Books in Browsers.

      The trick is to value what you want to bring along while letting new potentials reach you. And in one part of life or another, this can be the job of every one of us.

      A “nearby” example to books; Some people still won’t watch a film on a TV screen, no matter how large, because they think that only the building-wide size of a cinema’s screen is proper for film — they’re staunchly skeptical of anything but that big screen and have not yet understood that either in VHS or CD or stream, the best of film is available to them without the mindless jabber of their neighbors, the popcorn grease, the travel time, the parking madness, the ticket price, the endless and frequently stupid trailers for coming attractions, and the hassle of a schedule not of their own making. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong for liking the big screen, does it? Of course not. It does, however, mean that their skepticism has prevented them from personally comprehending how much private viewing on their own terms, in their own space, on their own schedule, and at a better price can actually offer them in film. It might make good sense for such folks to consider that a film like the forthcoming interpretation of Ender’s Game, for example, really might benefit from the scale of the big screen, while a great many other films that are just as important or more so, may actually be far better suited to other viewing modes — their key criteria may be other than in massive visual impact. Another “space opera” — say Gattaca — may have many values that make it better suited to smaller-screen, private viewing.

      Inclusion is the key. Inclusive skepticism. Eye new things as skeptically as you like. But including them in what you try and consider is always the smartest path.

      I sign off, therefore, inclusively skeptical of your stance,

      -p. :)

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