Burning the Page - an instant review

I'll be honest, when I saw tweets yesterday mentioning a book from 'Kindle insider' Jason Merkoski I was rather excited. The initial interview on the New York Times' blog offered plenty of tantalising quotes.

The blurb promises a "groundbreaking vision on the future of reading" and breathlessly offers the questions: "Is digital the death knell for print? Or will it reinvigorate the written word?" and more. That was enough to have me hitting pre-order, and later reading a sample.

The introduction makes plain Merkoski's pride at being "in the midst of this revolution from the beginning", winding up with a "big-picture perspective on e-books" having "invented many of the features we take for granted". He is at his boldest here and seems very sure that e-books have much to offer such as "the power to ignite us", to "do things print books never could" and of course the old classic of being able to "fit a library in your pocket".

Early on, Merkoski even had me reaching for a feature both he and I love in e-books—the built-in dictionary. He posits being a humanist as being able to love traditional technology alongside the e-reader. I'm not convinced that's the right term—at best I'd say he views himself as romantically minded—but perhaps he put it better when he wrote "Ink runs in my blood".

As I know myself, it's wrong to paint the people at Amazon, Google or Apple as not being bookish. Indeed, some of them may be as enamoured of print as any in the book trade, if not more.

DRM and File Formats

My first excited moment came when the term 'walled garden' cropped up (halfway through 'Launching the Kindle') and he made some comments about DRM and file formats. His view is that Kindle's file format was proprietary, old and made for poor quality e-books; he labels them  lo-fi, compared to the hi-fi of ePub (which he wrongly states is Adobe's format).

This concept of fidelity he relates to the capability of the format to replicate the execution (in typography, layout and other design elements) of a print book. He admits this then leads to lock-in, but he sees DRM as a pragmatic response to piracy.

I don't know if Merkoski requested DRM from his publisher, but his book certainly is secured with DRM at the moment; each of the quotations I've given have been painstakingly retyped on my laptop. Ladies and gentlemen: BEHOLD THE FUTURE!

Censorship

The topic of censorship was a particularly interesting one to see mentioned in early interviews. Merkoski asks "What moral or literary sensibilities do the executives of Amazon have?" Well, I don't know, perhaps I should ask someone who used to work there… He lists examples of censorship, some he seems to view as good, many wrong, but notes that where there has been a fuss things have been sorted out. Unfortunately, we don't know what we haven't noticed. To me, the issue here is that we are seeing large companies attempt to push a single view of what is acceptable globally. That's not what happened in print.

X For Books, getting social

There were two moments of what I'd call 'X for books' where I was particularly unconvinced:

"In the future, there's going to be just one book, a vast book which includes all the others inside it, which I call the Facebook for Books." Google: a Facebook for Books

No. That's not a Facebook for books, that's the original idea for the web. Actually, this comes up when he's discussing Google. He's very generous about Google and correctly points out their scanning programme was a viable route to being able to cater to readers who have both print and digital in their libraries.

"A better approach than browsing [in a physical shop] might be something like a Foursquare for bookshelves" Bookmark: Book Browsing

No: just no! And actually browsing for books in a digital store is, I'd say, slower than a physical one, rather than just as slow. It is questionable wether you can browse any of the existing digital stores. Perhaps it takes working in a bookshop to know what it's like, but there are many more things you can do in a physical shop with books than any website, providing of course they're in stock.

And both of these are at heart actually problems posited with solutions that are rather blind to the realities of needing metadata to drive them. I would love to see better linkages between books, but this rests more on the identification of books and their contents than a system that links those elements.

As a side note, I actually noted page numbers for the quotes here before I remembered how futile that was for a reflowable book available for multiple platforms. I also dislike this use of language; in my view we have a Twitter for books—it's called Twitter—though I'd love to know what an Amazon for books looks like…

The Competition

"E-book innovation is a game of cat and mouse."

"When Apple launched a tablet, Amazon had to follow suit"

"Amazon is winning the e-book revolution but it may lose the war."

"There's no room for niche players to succeed at just selling books"

These comments come up in 'The First Competitors' focussing on the Nook from Barnes & Noble in the US. He is keen to praise the Nook for what it achieved such as with read-aloud books but then caveats it with:

 "e-books aren't ready yet for children. I think a children's book should be sacred."

In which case his vision of a future where print goes seems a little unlikely. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong in an argument for the future of books wrapped in contradictions. Nothing could be more terrifying than someone popping up now and accurately predicting a single future. Rather we should be proposing a series of possible ways things can go.

Keywords

To use one final feature of e-books, I did some searching for a few of the digital keywords I didn't see much of in the text. Kobo is mentioned once in passing, Agency never, my erstwhile employer Waterstones not at all.

Tax was actually mentioned only when talking of old tax forms (6,000 years old and roughly 20 years old), though perhaps that's more of a European concern with Amazon's digital operations.

I could review Burning the Page for another thousand words, and still have more to say. This book is incredibly valuable. We've not had much exposure to the minds of those driving the e-book revolution, and to have something to engage and in places disagree with strongly is rather novel. There are some very nice idealistic long-term statements in here, and though this is no exhaustive business history we get an idea of some of the thoughts behind the technology.

I cannot in all honesty say I've been blown away by what I've read, but it has given me a more direct perspective on another experience of e-book history. Merkoski's peek behind the curtain is valuable—it will be interesting to see if the conversation goes somewhere new from here.

Jason Merkoski's book Burning the Page is out today.

 

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