Friday Five: books, bubbles and boats

A roundup of some of the more thought-provoking articles from the week:

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Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy – by Uri Friedman, for The Atlantic

For the record: Boaty McBoatface is a brilliant name.

The UK Coast Guard decided to try out this thing called “social engagement” by opening up the naming of its new vessel to the community at large. It would let the public nominate and vote on potential names. What could go wrong?

Well, what could go wrong is that the Science Minister didn’t like the winner. Boaty McBoatface won by a huge margin, as it should have. But that entry has been disqualified. Why? Because the name is not “serious enough”.

The US Republican Party should take note: apparently you don’t have to abide by the rules of democracy if the people’s choice is not “serious enough”. Just sayin’.

“What happened to disapproving of what you name your boat, but defending to the death your right to name it? Is democracy a lie?”

A good article, which points out that the futility of democracy does not end with a ship.

“By voting, you can play some role in electing your member of Congress. But you have far less control over which policies that member supports once in office, let alone which policies the government as a whole pursues. Similarly, you can cast a ballot for Boaty McBoatface and help shoot the name to the top of an online poll. But you’re pretty powerless when it comes to what the science minister does with that information.”

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Very, um, festive? Fun? Quirky? A kinetic toy installation made with Hoberman Spheres (I want one!), by artist Nils Volker. Via Colossal.

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Silicon Valley’s unicorn fantasy is collapsing in on itself – by Alison Griswald for Quartz

I include an article about an article, which I normally don’t like to do, but in this case you’ll thank me – the original article, by tech investor Bill Gurley, is reaaaaally long. The Quartz summary is more readable, in my attention-deficit opinion, and highlights the scarily relevant points.

It goes a bit beyond the now-usual “the bubble is bursting” commentary to talk about how Silicon Valley hubris is bringing the roof down on their own heads. On the one hand, it’s a pity, as so many young dreams will be washed away. On the other hand, you would think we’d learn from past mistakes, no? According to Bill, the four main factors in the VCs’ and founders’ own way are:

– emotional biases (the overwhelming desire to be a paper billionaire),

– greedy VCs with more ambition than ethics (who get unrealistic guarantees in the contract, which deters further funding),

– inscrutable financials (greater transparency in the numbers would lead to better decisions and less blind hype) and

– too much money looking for a high return.

“The pressures of lofty paper valuations, massive burn rates (and the subsequent need for more cash), and unprecedented low levels of IPOs and M&A, have created a complex and unique circumstance which many Unicorn CEOs and investors are ill-prepared to navigate.”

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I love this floor:

Image by Bernhard Strauss, via Designboom

Image by Bernhard Strauss, via Designboom

Made with poured resin, by Peter Zimmerman. Via Designboom.

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What books can learn from the Web / What the Web can learn from books – by Hugh McGuire, via Medium

Here we have an interesting look at the difference between books and the web. “Boundedness” on the one hand. “Unboundedness” on the other. Is there a way to bring them together?

“If …

The Web is the most efficient technology we have for creating and distributing information …

And if …

The web is the most efficient technology for organizing connections between bits of information …

And if …

The Web is an open platform on which we can build new tools and services …

And, further, if …

Books represent the (arguably) the most important single nodes of information from human minds …

Then …

Why doesn’t the content inside of books live on the Open Web — where it can more easily be found, shared, read, and built upon?”

We have unlimited information on the Internet, which allows us to build connections, to adapt and to innovate. A book’s reassuring limitations concentrate our attention but at the same time block the creativity of immediate interaction. Online books, without the physical heft, offer the same restrictions.

“So we moved from paper books to digital books, but rather than embracing digital fully, we instead built a system that tries to mimic the limitations of paper. In fact the ebook system we have built in many ways imposed new restrictions: on ownership (since you don’t own your ebooks, you license them from wherever you bought them), and use (you can’t easily lend your ebooks, or give them away; you might be able to highlight and take notes on your books — but there isn’t anything useful we can do with those notes).”

So is there a way that books can retain their advantages, set in the beginning of printing-press time, while joining the connectivity revolution?

“Books can learn from the web how to be bounded and unbounded at once: to keep the circumscribed, portable integrity of discrete content; but to open that content to the platform of the Web. To open the reading experience to being built upon… But I think there is power in the notion of a book, its thingness, and the Web can perhaps learn how to encapsulate, in the way a book does, a discrete thing, a bounded set of ideas.”

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A brief roundup (you’re probably grateful, right?), but it’s been a crazily busy week. Glad it’s Friday. You too, I hope!

Crowdfunding writing: a new page, or is it a new book?

Would you pay for something that hasn’t even been written yet? I would, definitely, especially if it was being written by an author I knew and liked. And possibly even if I had never heard of the author before. Because when we buy books by an author that’s new to us (and we all should, right?), we are taking a leap of faith based on the title (such as my purchase in an airport book shop of “One of our Thursdays is Missing” by Jasper Fforde, I mean, how could I resist?) or the cover or the blurb on the back. True, the pull of any of those elements is based on something tangible or visible, possibly even something that you’re holding in your hand. And, if you’re like me, you probably do peek inside the book, either by opening it and reading the first page, or using Amazon’s nifty “Look Inside” feature. And if the first sentence grabs you, and you like the tone, the balance of encouraging factors swings in favour of you reaching for your wallet.

by Alejandro Escamilla via Unsplash

by Alejandro Escamilla via Unsplash

But paying up front for a writer you’ve never heard of, for work that you can’t yet flip through, and waiting months for delivery? That requires a much bigger leap of faith than we’re used to. Especially when we are spoiled for choice in the traditional or online bookshops.

However, it seems to be working. As with music crowdfunding, literary crowdfunding offers both new and experienced writers the tantalizing possibility of independence, support and feedback. Both are given the chance to finance their creation, without having to run on the cost-heavy treadmill of the publishing machine. Several specialized crowdfunding platforms already exist, and more are on the way, that allow writers to present their idea, and to ask us to help the project get off the ground.

literary crowdfunding: inkshares

screenshot from Inkshares

Publishizer, Pubslush and Inkshares allow authors set rewards in exchange for various levels of contributions, such as:

  • A copy of the ebook
  • A copy of the print book
  • A signed copy of the print book
  • A t-shirt
  • Several copies of the print book
  • Dinner with the author
  • A photograph session with the author
  • A story written just for you
  • A writing class
  • A speaking engagement
  • A case of wine…

With the funds and pre-sales guaranteed, the author can then self-publish, or try to find an established publisher (who is likely to be more interested given the book’s documented demand and probable success, than with an untested new author). Unbound offers, in addition to the crowdfunding, a publishing service, with 50% of the book’s profits going to the author (vs. 10-30% in traditional publishing houses). And, of course, both Kickstarter and Indiegogo have substantial book sections. In Spain, we have Verkami, Pentian, and, which in a forward-looking twist focusses on the number of backers rather than the funds raised. This approach emphasises the community an author can generate, and his or her future economic potential, rather than the money he or she can get for a specific book.

crowdfunding books

screenshot from

Are these new businesses going to replace the traditional publishing houses? No, not completely, and definitely not yet. We still enjoy our bestsellers and our beach reads, and the big name authors will not eagerly let go of their cushy contracts. But freedom and a higher share of the profits do have a strong pull, and more and more of them will be tempted, which will in turn bring even more traffic to these webs and apps. Crowdfunding isn’t for everyone, but more and more of us are realising just how much fun it can be.

One of the big selling points of crowdfunding as a concept is that it market tests products before their production, even if those products are cultural. For a book, movie or album to get produced, enough people have to like it to fund its costs. If the idea is not that popular, it doesn’t get off the ground. Market rules. But is that fair when it comes to creativity and cultural ideas? Is that what we want for our creative world, that only stuff that people want gets produced? Where would the innovation and the novelty and the cutting-edge infamy come from?

That kind of question underestimates our adventuresome spirit, and our willingness to try new things. Not everyone likes novelty at first. But enough of us do to make this form of financing efficient and easy. Furthermore, the nature of this form of production makes innovation almost inevitable. Crowdfunding platforms attract early adopters. They are becoming more and more popular, but they are not yet “mainstream”. The kind of people who fund projects on the crowdfunding platforms are, by nature and in general, open-minded, innovative individuals, and I think that we can be trusted to keep innovation alive through our pledges.  That’s one of the reasons we love crowdfunding, we get to actively participate in and support new ideas.

crowdfunding books with Publishizer

screenshot from Publishizer

Participating in crowdfunded books transforms us from passive consumers of print, to micro-patrons. And that’s a very good feeling. The act of participating, trusting, contributing creates an emotional connection with the project and its creators. Their triumph is your triumph, and to hold in your hand a book that you helped make possible generates something akin to pride.

The authors don’t have the big advances and the glamorous tours that the publishing houses used to provide. But they do have greater independence and creative freedom, and they get to keep more of the proceeds. The increasing number of crowdfunding platforms specializing in books, and the evident popularity of book ideas on the general platforms, is a refreshing response to the precarious state of the industry. Just as shrinking royalty payments and signing fees to musicians encouraged the development of music crowdfunding platforms, so the dwindling book advances from the publishing houses has incentivized the launch of book crowdfunding solutions. The market giveth what the market taketh away. Ok, not quite, but you have concede the beauty of the creative solutions that we come up with to save that which we love. We need writers. Writers need us. And the Internet connects us all in a mutually supportive relationship, in which we end up with a stronger, freer and even more creative industry model than the one it replaces.

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If you would like to read more about crowdfunding and/or books, check out my “crowdfunding” and/or “books” categories, or take a look at my Flipboards:

flipboard books

Reinventing reading

“Go and re-invent reading!” With that, we were off. It was Wednesday, and I was at MediaLab Prado, participating in their first hackathon aimed at re-defining the book in this digital age. Yes, a bookathon. It was done in the bootcamp style: get to work, and get it done on time. There were about 30 of us: editors, writers, graphic designers, web people, illustrators… We were asked to choose an aspect that interested us ­– distribution, design, accessibility, monetisation, participation – and to work on it together with the others who had chosen the same. I was so lucky with my team, great people, very smart and creative, and I think that we came up with a good idea. We all chose “Shared Reading and Annotation”, and our main innovation was an app that brought together readers, regardless of the format, platform, topic or genre. You can see more about the presented ideas (in Spanish) here, here and here.

the Bookathon team

Interestingly enough, I don’t think that anyone actually re-invented reading, or even reinvented the book. Perhaps I’m being too short-term-istic, but I don’t think that’s possible without redefining reading. We did a pretty good job, however, of pushing the boundaries of what’s already out there. All of the final presentations were innovative, creative and most likely viable. My team did its best to re-invent the social side of reading, while others did an excellent job re-inventing book circulation, personalization and presentation.

So why try to reinvent reading? Because change is inevitable. Reading, and what we read, has changed a staggering amount over the last few years, and will continue to do so. We can wait for others to provoke the changes, nudge them along. Or we can get involved. I know which I think sounds more fun.

As I’ve said before, the book isn’t going anywhere. Uncannily and coincidentally, the Economist magazine this week published a special report on The Future of the Book. The online version is very clever, it’s online but with the format and look of an antique paperback (if you choose the “book” option in the upper menu bar – if you want to, you can read it as a normal web page, but trust me, that’s not nearly as much fun). Even the “pages” are slightly yellowed and stained, and you could have a lot of fun just playing with the page-folding graphics. Even if you don’t want to read it, take a look for the art.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.” – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

The key word there is “adaptable”. The book isn’t going anywhere, but siblings and cousins are springing up which give new reading experiences. Book formats will change, distribution will become easier, costs will come down and creativity will never cease to surprise us. I wrote about Olia Lialina’s online story concept last week – we will see more literary work created exclusively for the internet.

future book formats

image from Naxos

The report gets across the message that the demise of the book has long been foretold, yet the book has always proved resilient. The paper book has managed to compete very effectively against the cool, technological digital version: it has very good resolution, it’s as easy or even easier to handle, and it certainly has longer battery life. And human beings generally choose simple, even after playing with complicated for a while. The digital version does let you highlight and change font size and swipe with your finger (I love doing that), but it’s main advantage has been wiped out with the significant increase in cost over the past couple of years. We bought our daughter a Kindle last year, thinking that it would save us money on books (she goes through a staggering amount). It turns out that the digital versions are not very much cheaper. True, you do save on shipping costs, and you get the books faster, but you can’t lend them to a friend very easily.

You can, however, comment and annotate more easily online, which is frustrating for us offline readers. My favourite news and general journalism web sites are Quartz and Medium, for their ease of annotation, in which you comment on specific paragraphs. I would love to be able to engage with other readers about what so-and-so really meant here, where does this statistic come from, don’t you think that this dialogue sounds a bit like the speech in such-and-such? Us paper readers can’t do that.

But, what if we could snap a photograph of what we were reading with our mobile phone, and it would automatically recognize the text and show us, and let us join, web-based annotations from other readers on that same paragraph? Reading offline would no longer leave us out of the conversation. We don’t need access to the entire digital copy of what we’re reading to be able to connect with others. Just the part we want to talk about.

And it’s very possible that the book industry may go the way of the music industry in that, when you buy a physical CD on Amazon, you get the MP3 download for free. You buy the physical book, either in Amazon or in a bookstore (yes! They do still exist!), and you automatically get the MP3 download for free. Maybe books will be printed with QR codes for a one-time download?

That was the gist of the idea that we presented in the Bookathon. Technologically complex, with possible copyright issues and a complicated usability map, but the idea of enhancing the social aspect of reading is a good one. GoodReads is great, but it’s not immediate, it’s not like discussing what you’re reading with your friends, or finding someone who loves the same books that you do. You can communicate and share through GoodReads, but you can’t socialize, it’s still a bit “lonely”.

To quote from the Economist report again:

“Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the Reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as “On the Origin of Species”; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.” – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

I especially love the last phrase, which sums up what we tried to do in the Bookathon: “The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.” There is a book for everyone, and few physical objects have as much power to entertain, transport and even change us. Books take us inward, we discover things about ourselves, our past, our future, our world, that we may want to share with others. In this new sharing and social economy, a traditionally private activity is of course going to become more public. In sharing our reading experiences, we help to shape the reading to come.

Books will evolve online and off, and the definition of what counts as one will expand; the sense of the book as a fundamental channel of culture, flowing from past to future, will endure. – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14


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If you want to go deeper into what the future of books looks like (and why wouldn’t you?), I recommend:

The future of books: the next chapter

Sprint Beyond the Book: the future of reading

– the blog of The Future of the Book (started in 2004!!)

And if you want to see even more articles, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on FlipboardThis is my first Storify attempt, on the bookathon, in Spanish (Storify’s surprisingly fun!):

Storify bookathon