A few excerpts from Clive Thompson’s interesting thoughts on digitization last week:

Books are the last bastion of the old business model—the only major medium that still hasn’t embraced the digital age. … Literary pundits are fretting: Can books survive in this Facebooked, ADD, multichannel universe? … To which I reply: Sure they can. But only if publishers … stop thinking about the future of publishing and think instead about the future of reading. … Every other form of media that’s gone digital has been transformed by its audience. … The only reason the same thing doesn’t happen to books is that they’re locked into ink on paper. … Release them, and you release the crowd.

Thompson says that “the crowd” of readers is already at work transforming even print books. He reports on research done by e-Book researcher Cathy Marshall on students buying used textbooks — She has found that they examine books in the bookstore to find ones that have notes by previous readers — high-lighting and handwritten notes on the pages — and they prefer the ones that they judge to have the “smartest” notes. This rudimentary utilization of “the crowd,” says Thompson, is really nothing new: “Books have a centuries-old tradition of annotation and commentary, ranging from the Talmud and scholarly criticism to book clubs and marginalia.” Thompson cites current digital examples of the transformative use of the crowd:

BookGlutton, a site that launched last year, has put 1,660 books online and created tools that let readers form groups to discuss their favorite titles. Meanwhile, Bob Stein, an e-publishing veteran from the CD-ROM days, put the Doris Lessing book The Golden Notebook online with an elegant commenting system and hired seven writers to collaboratively read it.

Thompson closes with this: “Books have been held hostage offline for far too long. Taking them digital will unlock their real hidden value: the readers.”

Eric Rumsey is at @ericrumsey

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