Friday, 22 May 2009

The Unbook

The new Books from Finland WordPress-powered magazine/blog/website continues to grow and expand. In the latest batch of posts, features and articles, Finnish poet and literary critic Teemu Manninen explores the world of print-on-demand (POD) publishing, which makes it possible for publishers and authors alike to keep their books in print independently of the vicissitudes of the book market. Indeed, using this new Web-based service, authors can bypass publishers altogether if they want to.

Getting one's own book out without the help of a commercial publisher used to be known as "vanity publishing", and was generally frowned on by authors. Nowadays, however,the "papernet" and "podism" have opened up new horizons -- minority genres like poetry can now find a way to reach readers without the constraints imposed by sales figures and publishers' desire to create a brand or image. And the trend has put new life into the old-fashioned "paper book", which many had thought might be dying.

Above all, POD is potentially interactive. Manninen describes the recent phenomenon of the "unbook":

The concept was invented by Jay Cross, an internet consultant known for his work on informal learning and systems thinking, and Dave Gray, the founder and chairman of XPLANE, a ‘visual thinking company’, although both imply that they are only describing practices which already exist.

Whereas a traditional book is published in editions whenever it gets revised (or it has sold out), an unbook is released in versions (1.0, 1.13, 2.0 etc) which are never finished but always open to feedback from readers. Both Cross and Gray have written books by bringing the readers along into the process of editing their content even before publication. As Gray says, ‘the dialogue is critically important to the development of the ideas, and now that I have tried this approach I can’t imagine doing a book any other way.’

Read it all.


Eric Dickens said...

Several issues here.

Unbooks (I keep thinking of the "undead") and POD do, of course liberate the author and reader from a certain amount of control by middlemen. So that you can translate that novel you've always wanted to from Ruritanian and post it up on the internet where it can be read, either for nothing, or by paying the author and translator a statutory sum.

But, of course, publishers can also act as a quality filter (or censor!). If you have to wade through masses of garbage and vanity on the internet before you hit nuggets of gold, you may be glad of others doing the winnowing. That is how our parliamentary democracy works (when it works): delegation. We readers delegate choices to publishers. And it cannot be denied that publishers have experience as to whether a book is likely to be read or sell.

One thing I already miss with buying books online is flicking through them first. This could be substituted by Google's idea of a sampler for each book, but this exercise is still highly controversial.

If you print PODs out at home, and off-load them onto a second-hand book dealer when you're fed up of them, this could be a way of secondhand bookselling joining the 21st century while retaining all the thrill of the chase when browsing through dusty shelves.

David McDuff said...

Eric, surely POD isn't a break with the "quality filter" you mention - after all, publishers like Faber in the UK now use POD to keep more of their backlist in print. Copies are printed and distributed to the bookstores when orders reach a certain level.

This is distinct from POD used as a means of self-publishing - but even in that area POD providers like Xlibris handle things like royalties and listings in online bookstores - so what Xlibris produces is probably (though not, I agree, inevitably) going to be at least saleable. It's likely that when Google Print is more widely used there will be even more opportunities for self-publishers to advertise and market their own work directly on outlets like Amazon.

As I see it, the point of POD is not digital publishing with the aim of reading books online, but rather the creation of a digitally enabled path to conventional "hard copy" publishing.

By the way, it's quite possible to "flick through" books on Amazon - many titles have a "Look Inside!" option, which allows one to read a book's table of contents and also a certain number of pages. There's also a search function, and if one knows what one's looking for, one can open the book at any page one likes and read a few pages before and after it. While it's true that some publishers still haven't signed up for this option, more and more are doing so.

The "Unbook" that Teemu Manninen writes about is something else again - a collaborative ongoing project with a book as its format, but not its aim.

As you say, there are several strands in this topic.