A Computer Ate My Book

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times on 1 January 2005

Books have souls. Or so romantics like me tend to think. Neither the Internet nor computers really threaten the book as an art form. But if we’re to believe the latest rumblings from publishing industry journals, author’s panels, and librarians’ conferences around the world, the book business is in terrible danger. And so are magazines, newspapers, and anything else printed on a page.

According to the defenders of literate culture and their high-priced sociologists, Americans are reading less and, as a result, thinking less. The preponderance of electronic media, from the Internet to interactive gaming, has apparently seduced would-be readers away from their books, to all of our peril.

So why am I smiling?

Frankly, I don’t see the problem, here. So far, the Internet has been nothing but great for my own writing career, and those of just about every other writer I know. Even better, the Internet serves to disseminate our ideas–which is the real reason anyone worth his or her pulp should be writing in the first place. By putting chapters of our work and even whole books on our Web sites, we allow people to get access to our writing who might not be able to afford it otherwise. As a result, our ideas more easily become part of everyday conversation. Our words have more impact, because we let them spread over the Internet, for free.

About 25,000 different people regularly read my daily posts on my blog. No, I don’t have ads or get any revenue for writing it–but I do get to converse with my readers in the comments section, find out when I’m saying something that provokes them, and use my writing to establish relationships with people who may not be able to afford the time or money to read my books. Blogs are also a great way for writers to check in with our readers and for them to check in with us more frequently and immediately than the every year or two it takes to write and publish a book.

Of course, all this additional conversation and reader service only makes our books more likely candidates for school curricula and libraries, not to mention individual purchases. This means we can pay our rent more easily. And so can our editors and publishers. So works the “gift economy.”

Instead of celebrating this fact, the publishing industry’s decisionmakers are quivering. My current U.S. publishers still won’t let me release the electronic versions of my works for free. They are afraid of losing sales. And I’d venture their fear is costing them a lot of money, in the long run. The only exceptions, so far, are books about “open source” and “creative commons,” which can’t very well be held back without undermining their very premise.

Most book publishers still look at the Napster phenomenon as an advance warning of what will soon happen to their industry: People will pass around digital copies of books and never pay for them anymore! As a result, according to this logic, there will be no money left to pay for writers–not to mention editors and everyone else who works in publishing-as-we-know-it.

These dire predictions are not unlike those made by silly record executives in the 1930s who, so fearful of the effects of radio broadcasting on their sales, actually forbade their recordings to be played over the radio! That’s right–record labels carried a warning that broadcasting them was illegal! Within a couple of decades, of course, record companies were paying DJs to get their records played on the air.

That’s because media don’t actually steal from each other. They feed each other. Just as hearing a song on the radio might provoke a person to buy a CD, reading text by authors online can motivate people to buy their actual books.

In the best cases, it can lead to a kind of renaissance. Just when it appears that a new medium is going to replace its predecessor, we tend to figure out the true value of the older. Experts thought that the videocassette would put the traditional movie house out of business. Instead, it turned the general public into amateur film historians, while giving cinemas an idea of what they can offer us that videos can’t: giant screens, THX sound, glamorous lobbies, and an evening out of the house. It made us like movies more.

So far, computers haven’t made people read less; they make us read more. Most of the kids I’ve met online have astonishing literacy skills. No matter how visual the World Wide Web might get in its interface, it’s still a word-based medium when you follow anything through or try to glean any real information.

And because Internet users need to type pretty much everything they wish to communicate, they have developed some pretty clever twists on language. Online interaction actually makes a person’s writing better. I can tell when I’ve received e-mail from people raised on the Internet because their sentences are dense with innuendo, compensating for the limited time and keystrokes they can devote to the task. Kids online today write much better than I did at their age. Or at least with greater density of thought.

A new medium only replaces an old one if it does everything better. The telephone does pretty much everything better than the telegraph. Computers can do a few things better than books can. They’re better at rapid searching and retrieval of information, so they are better as encyclopedias, dictionaries, or articles databases. But that’s not everything,

Real books are more than mere repositories for information. They are objects, and they are meant to be experienced as such. The function of a dictionary is to provide the meaning of a word. The function of a book is to provide a reading experience. It’s more than a transmission of data: It’s a transmission of essence.

Not that computers don’t transmit their own sort of essence, too. Narrative computer games from Everquest to The Sims proved so successful because they captured something essential about the seemingly random, user-directed navigational path of a computer world. Everquest was a user-improvised fantasy role-playing experience while the Sims were practically an emergent life form. Freed from the linear constraints of traditional literary fiction, digital storytellers could allow their readers/users to make discoveries for themselves.

I’ve even experimented, myself, canceling a contract for a novel in order to be able to post the entire thing online. I invited readers to comment on the text as if it were an object found by anthropologists two hundred years in the future. Eleven hundred users created their own footnotes to the text, in the voices of fictional anthropologists explaining words like Microsoft and profit to their contemporaries, who had presumably evolved beyond such notions. Eleven hundred strangers, all contributing to the development of a piece of literature, thanks to the Internet.

But just because the word is alive and well doesn’t necessarily mean that the printed page, bound to hundreds of others and glued into a cardboard cover, will survive, too. There are only so many eyeball hours in a day, the pessimists warn, and book reading takes up too many for it to remain a viable format. Digital text retrieval already allows an entire text to be downloaded in seconds, and then read on a palmtop or cell phone. That format is more conducive to the kinds of briefs and summaries that publishers like Harvard Business Press are already favoring over the old-fashioned book-length work.

Luckily, people buy books as much to own them as to read or play them. Books have “object value,” look good on coffee tables, and are a lot easier to lend to Grandma. Plus, they’re a hell of a lot easier to read in bed, or on an airplane, or on the subway.

Books offer a different experience than digital media. This experience has as much to do with the pages and ink as it does with the words themselves. A book has totemic value. Like a photograph or a piece of jewelry, the impression of ink on paper creates physical connection with its author.

This is why the publishing industry, in response to the advent of digital text, has begun to emphasize the design and production of the books themselves. Most publishers now use acid-free “archival” quality paper and devote more time and energy to the choice of typeface and cover art. Smaller publishers create limited editions and “high touch” designs that appeal to many senses. Likewise, we authors are being forced to realize that our books better communicate something more than a Web page does. We have to understand what a book can do and either fulfill that purpose or quit cutting down trees.

Computers have reminded us of the special ability of books to provide a kind of experience you can’t get anywhere else. And although leading book publishers like to blame the Internet for their own waning profits, it is an entirely different set of high-tech pressures posing problems for printed prose.

For instance, the Internet is already changing the way these physical objects are distributed. The book industry’s dominance over the production and dissemination of our works could soon very well be coming to an end. It’s an inefficient, laborious, and time-consuming process that eats up 85 percent of a book’s cover price. They’ve never had to worry about justifying their own existence, because we authors have never had an alternative form of distribution, until now. Enter Amazon.com, Xlibris, and iUniverse.

These services combine to allow anyone to write a book, print to order, and sell it right over the Web. The only hurdle left is publicity. (Ask any author you know how much the publisher actually contributed to the publicity effort for his or her last book. These days, many of us pay for our own tours and ads.) From the up-and-comer’s perspective, the Internet does not threaten print media. It only threatens to disintermediate the dead wood.

But let’s be honest–publishers won’t be going down without a fight. A few of them may still have enough skill in both literature and business to rise to the occasion that the Internet offers. They may be forced to serve authors instead of enslaving them, but that’s a lesson many of them need to learn anyway–just like the recording industry’s worst offenders.

Instead of serving their authors’ need for editorial expertise, the publishers have relegated some of their most vital choices to computers, exacerbating the book’s inevitable slide toward consumer commodity. When sales data and spreadsheet software determine everything from acquisition to distribution, it’s no wonder the short-term stock value of the parent media conglomerate takes precedence over the long-term health of literature. Computers, which could have made the industry more responsive, are instead being programmed to discourage new growth. “Mid-list” titles are shunned in favor of blockbusters, which are actually less dependably profitable, considering the investment required, and make for a less stable revenue stream.

So publishers lose money on higher volume and then blame the Internet for a loss of interest in books. It is not the readers who have forgotten about the soul of the book; it is the publishers. Computers don’t kill books; people do.

Ironically, my own books about new media and cyberculture have themselves been outsmarted by computers. My first book–one of the first books about technoculture–had a cover made of such a hi-tech shiny material that no cash register’s scanner could read the bar code. Sales clerks had to enter the price of the book manually, often without entering the book’s computer-coded ISBN number. Most stores had no record of the sales of my book and thus no automatic reordering of more copies. Until the problem was fixed, every store was out of stock, yet the book had close to zero registered sales. This, in turn, translated into a lower recorded total sale of books and smaller orders the next time around.

Another breathlessly protechnology book of mine, Children of Chaos, had its title changed at the last minute by my U.S. publisher’s sales department, whose computer-aided market research had determined that books with the word chaos in the title weren’t selling as well as they once had. They renamed the book Playing the Future but forgot to tell anyone. The publisher thought if it simply entered the change of title into one of its own computers, all the bookstores and libraries would somehow implement the change, too. Oops.

None of the bookstores, not even the big chains, found out about this new title. Their computers simply waited for the original book to show up in stock. When my retitled book arrived at bookstores and warehouses throughout the United States, most of them were promptly returned to the publisher unopened. They hadn’t ordered a book with that title! Everyone who went to a store asking for my book by its original title was told it hadn’t come in yet. Everyone who went asking for it by the new title was told that it didn’t exist. It wasn’t in the computer, so it didn’t exist in today’s book world.

Two months went by before someone figured out how to reenter the title of the book in the distribution computer networks, but by then it was too late. Ordering programs dictate that if a book hasn’t sold well in the first three months, it shouldn’t be reordered. (Luckily, though it was unavailable in stores, thanks to Internet and computerized sales the book ended up becoming one of the top ten “special ordered” books of the year.) As in any industry, computers only help when they are used by people. The information and analysis they provide us with are extremely valuable but must be contextualized by real people who understand the markets and media in which they are being employed.

So far, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Advances on new books are proffered based solely on sales of one’s last book. So my writing a niche book on ways of reinterpreting Torah in an open source context (not a likely mass market paperback) ends up determining the size of advance I get for my soon-to-be best seller business book. Then again, the sales of my best-selling business book become the basis for the advance on my next cyberdelic novel, so it all comes out in the wash. Still, I’d love to hear that publishers were using a bit of their own decisionmaking powers rather than just depending on the data streams coming from the mainframes at Barnes and Noble headquarters.

Though I’ve been burned by them, I still hold no grudge against the computers that ate my book or any other–just against the people who let them do it.