By DAVID STREITFELD
Is any form of traditional media under more assault than the book? For half a millennium, it was happily contained between covers: easily understood by a child, disposable, nearly indestructible, demanding minimal energy, a triumph of economy and form. The Internet has upended all that, of course. Yet the strongest impression from several of the sessions at the Books in Browsers conference in San Francisco over the last two days is that while the off-line book might be dying, the online book has yet to be born.
The most basic definitions are still being worked out.
“My stupid question of the day is, ‘What is a book?’ ” asked Eric Hellman of Gluejar. He noted that the traditional virtues of books are permanence, independence and privacy, most of which the Internet seems designed to remove. “An e-book is a Web site that would be better if it were paginated,” suggested Joseph Pearson of Inventive Labs.
The conference was organized by the Internet Archive, a nonprofit digital library, and O’Reilly Media. It was presented in the archive’s 1923 headquarters, a repurposed church. Unlike many Internet conferences, the goal here was less a frenzied pitch by individual firms than a reasoned discussion of a way forward.
One thing that seems clear: In the future, just about everyone on the Internet will be publishing all the time, and the once-rigid boundaries between “reader” and “writer,” already blurring, will disappear entirely. “If there is anything the Web has taught us, it is that consumption is not the only role for a human being anymore,” said Richard Nash, a publisher.
The challenge will be to sort all of that material into ephemeral and semipermanent baskets, some of which might be called, for lack of a better term, books. But at the moment, as Mr. Hellman said, online books are largely stuck in the “pretend it’s print” model. That works for traditional publishers because it offers a model that looks a lot like the past but ultimately depends on a notion of false scarcity.
Mr. Hellman’s own idea, which he is developing as Unglue.it, is to crowd-source the money to digitize individual titles and basically set them free. It sounds like a dreamy but impractical idea, but he added this to ground it in reality: “Have you ever given a book to someone? Have you ever given the same book to multiple people? Would you like to give this book to the entire world?”
Much of the start-up activity around books is eager to make a hermetic activity more social: share your opinions about this book or this sentence. Bob Stein of SocialBook spoke about building a YouTube for documents that would involve both private and public collaboration. Others seem to have similar ideas. But Peter Meyers of newkindofbook.com struck a chord when he cautioned against fixing what is not broken: long-form narrative. “Reading is all about immersion,” he said; successful Internet publishers would preserve that experience rather than dragging you out of it.
The conference was down the street from Green Apple, the city’s best bookstore — a distinction that would matter more if it were not one of the last. During a break, I ducked inside. The traditional book has problems with distribution and pricing, but as a technology it is still hard to beat. I bought a copy of The Review of Contemporary Fiction, a special issue on failure. It reprinted several hectoring letters from the late avant-gardist Gilbert Sorrentino, written to his publisher in the early 1990s.“The problem with writers,” Mr. Sorrentino observed, “is you can’t shut them up.” If only he could see them now.
See online: Books Unbound