'New Kinds of Authors, New Kinds of Books': Four of them
While it's hardly the norm to introduce a book to you at its end, that's actually a good place to start in talking about the author, designer and developer Peter Meyers' Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience.
Scheduled to chair a key panel in December's FutureBook Conference (more information below), Manhattan-based Meyers refers to himself as a content strategist and reader advocate. That latter bit is important. One of the first roles in which I encountered his work was as a judge in the Digital Book World awards, a programme that spent a lot of time studying apps' UX or user experience.
While many of us are relatively new in our talks about "enhanced" or "complex" ebooks — even newer to such ideas as "books in browsers" and "the networked book" — Meyers has been at this for more than a decade. He co-founded Digital Learning Interactive, a multimedia textbook publisher that was sold in 2004 to Thomson Learning. He has written about the impact of computers on mainstream culture for publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, Salon, and the Village Voice. During a five-year stint at O'Reilly Media, Meyers worked in the Missing Manual group — you have to love that name — as managing editor and associate publisher. As a Harvard man, he studied American history and literature, and he has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That's one reason that authors might feel more comfortable with him than with many others who spend a lot of time on form as well as content.
In fact, literature people can't help but feel reassured when they turn or swipe to the front matter of Breaking the Page and find not the copyright page (Meyers has put that at the back) but this quote from Virginia Woolf in "How Should One Read a Book?", a sublime essay set near the end of the 1932 The Second Common Reader:
Wait for the dust of reading to settle;
for the conflict and the questioning to die down;
walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep.
Then suddenly and without our willing it,
for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions,
the book will return, but differently.
It will float to the top of the mind
as a whole.
In Woolf's original, that's prose. I think she might like how Meyers has parsed it on the page — I've copied his version here.
Woolf also writes in that piece, "The standards we raise and the judgments we pass steal into the air and become part of the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work." And authors today inhale an effluvium thick with influences, intended and unintended, as the digital dynamic wafts through the corridors of publishing and across the patios of the independents.
After looking at possibilities and probabilities in terms of the book itself as an object increasingly destabilised — not to mention challenged by so many competing digital entertainments — Meyers reaches the end of his book asking, "What do we gain? What do we lose? What is to be done?"
"And how do all of these new digital possibilities change the art of writing?...What are the opportunities for authors and artists drawn to expressing themselves on screens? If Marilynne Robinson — her skills, her intentions, her artistic practice — is fundamentally tuned to the long-form texts she composes, what kinds of authors match up in juicy ways with pixels and digital media?"
No tease he, Meyers is ready with "a brief description of four types of writers I believe will thrive in this new era."
As we hear this week from Munich the results of Matthias Matting's latest Seflublisherbibel.com survey of independent authors there, and as we discuss in #FutureChat and elsewhere recent comments and concerns about "enriched" ebooks, Meyers is quietly laying out four possible pathways forward.
I'll give you a bit of each, and encourage you to read more fully in Meyers' book to get the complete set of concepts he's laying out here.
The Computational Thinker
Especially adept in politics, economics, sports, and business, Meyers writes, this is a quantitative and analytical writer who knows what to do "when data becomes visual, active, and manipulable," Meyers writes.
This author wants his audience to become a fellow tinkerer — to adjust values in graphs and charts; to fiddle with software-powered simulations; to learn by manipulation.
What do we read from this writer?
“Triggered presentations” — a kind of conditional storytelling whereby the author presents information and experiences only after the audience has encountered a particular set of content or a fixed period of time has elapsed.
Want an example? Meyers suggests the statistician Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com.
Second of four:
The Modern Message Maker
Verbally clever, concise — a genuine crowd-pleaser. These are media hackers who get a kick out of verbalizing and visualizing their thoughts on whatever new tool is at hand. David Byrne and his PowerPoint compositions from a few years ago come to mind, as does Robin Sloan, Hari Kunzru (Twice Upon a Time: Listening to New York), Glen Weldon, and Patricia Lockwood (on Twitter: @ghweldon and @TriciaLockwood). These people often communicate in sync with the dominant spirit of our times: in short bursts. They are status update virtuosos, sloganeering aficionados, hashtag jockeys.
Note this add:
Worth mentioning: all are also traditional book authors.
And what does Meyers mean by "modern messages"?
A modern message is tuned for modern readers — their high-volume media funnels; their unquenchable expectation that more is always available; the fluid line between themselves and their favorite authors, whereby spectator and composer volley and each occupies both roles at once.
Is Meyers talking about tweet collections? No. He's looking at "short strokes of thought-provoking claims," the punctuation of elements that might lie alongside the norm of a traditional text. It catches attention, it's modular, it invites a response, does the modern message, Meyers writes.
And then there is:
Part Zeitgeist-watcher, part compositional artist, part taste maker. These people share many of the same basic skills of their museum counterparts — they identify, describe, and arrange art in ways that benefit from adjacency. Given the compositions made possible by modern digital publishing tools (Storify, HTML5, the iOS SDK), their collections are artistic productions in their own right.
You may not be surprised: Maria Popova, The Brainpicker, is among his examples, which are handily linked right out of the Kindle edition of Meyers' book, by the way. Networked, you know.
I imagine a book from someone with this sensibility would amount to much more than a mere collection of others’ interesting works. Context and continuity are important complementary elements.
The Visual/Spatial Thinker
These are synesthetes. They talk using their hands, weaving motion and the shape of ideas together with the spoken word when you meet them in person. For these people, stories have a mentally visible topography — topics reside in three-dimensional space and hum with movement. A family history, global warming, the essentials of being a great leader — for such communicators, these multivalent stories exceed the capacity of the narrative arc.
The "digital canvas," as he calls it, writes Meyers, introduces:
- Visual-spatial semantics "in which layout carries meaning and perspective conveys hierarchy."
- Content maps, "the visible picture of the story's boundaries."
- Dimensionality, which "enlarges story space in significant, complex ways. In basic visual terms, we move from a composition one a 2D square to one within a 3D cube. Think: the difference between a printed brochure and a live museum."
Even these Euclidean shapes capture only part of what is possible. Physics, more so than geometry, is a better paradigm. The science of motion and time, especially as practiced since the early 20th century, challenges us to imagine that which is neither readily visible nor immediately intuitive...Gestural controls and the touch screen are activators for both creators and consumers who wish to enter these realms. Actions like pinching, swiping, and multi-finger controls permit access to content corridors that are inaccessible via maneuvers like scrolling and pagination. Even seemingly modern document design structures like the web and its hyperlinked page components confine us to information architectures that are conceptual manifestations of a print and paper mentality.
What Will the Future of the Book Look Like?
Meyers is way too smart to fall for that question: "I don't know."
But he knows a lot, and it's good to find some of it in Breaking the Page, a book I'm glad to commend to members of our FutureBook digital publishing community in particular.
A book, in sum, is a chance for an author and her audience to commune — to enjoy the benefits of each other’s sustained attention. In its printed manifestation, books are a nearly perfect form. We as a culture and industry of bookmakers and readers know well this art and its practice. Many new and delightful books come before us, but the form itself and its rituals are one of the most mature creative productions humanity has ever built.
So we move forward with respect. As does Peter Meyers.
In our FutureBook Conference later this year, Peter Meyers will chair a panel on the nature and potentials of content in the digital age, and he is also to lead a special interactive discussion in the outlook for the book and its new possibilities. More details on the conference are to come soon. Mark your calendar for 4th December and plan to join us at The Mermaid.
Main image - iStockphoto: George Muresan