I was talking about The Institute for the Future of the Book (IF:B). The IF:B website is here.
The Institute is a project of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California and is based in Brooklyn, New York." The Institute is funded by two very large foundations: MacArthur and Mellon.
I explained that the Institute is working on its own vision of the future; a vision that it calls Sophie.
Sophie is no less than a plan to reinvent the book. Not satisfied with an electronic book that can be read on a computer screen, Sophie is a social engineering experiment as well. Recognizing the success of such websites as My Space, Sophie is an attempt to create documents that could live and breathe on the Internet and where readers could interact with each other and with the author.
Last week on June 5th here, the New York Times had an article called "Digital Publishing is Scrambling the Industry's Rules." As I read it, I thought of Sophie.
The article opens describing a book called Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski. During his editing process, Danielewski created a private forum on his website so that fans of his work could read and add suggestions online. When the book is published in September, those hundreds of margin notes will be included in the finished product.
Such interaction between a writer and readers would not have been possible a decade ago. Now the social networking possibilities related to reading a book seem limited only by the imagination's boundaries.
The Times says:
Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry, where digitalization has started to displace the traditional artistic and economic model of the record album with 99-cent song downloads and personalized playlists. Total album sales are down 19 percent since 2001, while CD sales have dropped 16 percent during the same period, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Sales of single digital music tracks have jumped more than 1,700 percent in just two years.
Most writers and publishers live in fear that technology will rob them of revenue. Others, like thriller writer Lisa Scottoline, are learning to make the latest developments work for them. Scottoline provides the first chapters of each book on her website to tantalize readers.
Despite the doom and gloom of people like John Updike, who insist that technology will lead to the breaking up of books, others are not so fatalistic. Yochai Benkler, a Yale University law professor, believes that, "The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay." He believes low prices will still attract readers and that "without the costs of paper and physical book production, publishers could afford to give authors a higher cut of the sale price as royalties." (NYT)
Benkler's stance is, of course, what has been going on with e-books for some time. Writers working for e-publishers are making between 35% and 40% in royalties compared to the traditional 7% to 15% in print books.
IMHO, the most important thing to remember is that technology is never stopped by opposition. It may be slowed down or diverted, but only for a short time. Technology always wins out in the end. We as writers can choose to establish a new beachhead, or be swept away by the tides of change.