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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Tuesday, September 09, 2008

    Defining e-books and publishing

    In the week in which my 'definition' article - Books in a virtual world: The evolution of the e-book and its lexicon - has finally seen the light of day (Journal of Librarianship and Information Science 40 (3): 193-206; and deposited/soon available on E-LIS & CADAIR), it was thrilling to see a post on if:book by Bob Stein in which he distilled some years of thinking into a 'definition' of publishing in the digital era - a unified field theory of publishing in the networked era. [I found his 'death of fiction' possibility less than thrilling, but the theory does not depend on that!]

    Bob departs from my approach by describing the networked book, not as either a physical entity or as content delivered, but as a social activity - an interaction or dialogue:
    as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed in sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.
    I think this essay may prove to be a very important piece of writing, and I hope that Bob keeps his promise to move it "into CommentPress so that the discussion can be more extensive than the blog's comment field." Of course, this is just a 'field theory' and, on closer examination, the model may not work so he is asking for comments on "which parts need deepening, fixing or wholesale reconsideration." The
    key questions a unified field theory has to answer:
    • What are the characteristics of a successful author in the era of the digital network?
    • Ditto for readers: how do you account for the range of behaviors that comprise reading in the era of the digital network?
    • What is the role of the publisher and the editor?
    • What is the relationship between the professional (author) and the amateur (reader)?
    • Do the answers to 1–4 afford a viable economic model?
    Key to the theory "is the author's commitment to engage directly with readers" - and thus - inevitably, the readers' commitment to engaging with the author. Bob says that
    readers will increasingly see themselves as participants in a social process.
    He acknowledges that there will be levels and levels of engagement, but I think that this may be the weakness in the theory. Will readers engage? Do any but a handful wish to engage in this way? Jumping from author-text to reference material, to images, to primary sources, to Google, to author-notes, etc? Won't most readers who are reading from pleasure either not bother or become lost in the faux-scholarly process?

    But this is a theory, and I like it! I think that as a natural next stage there needs to be work done to support the theory - just as the JISC National e-Books Observatory Project is about
    exploring impacts, observing behaviours and developing new models to stimulate the e-books market
    - we need research - the publishers certainly need research - to see if the model is acceptable to the public at large, a public which still largely prefers books to e-books. Maybe the new reading experience will simply loose people along the way: the unconverted, the unregenerated, who just want to read! Will they ever
    acknowledge the possibility of a flatter hierarchy that displaces the writer from the center or from the top of the food chain and moves the reader into a space of parallel importance and consideration ... acknowledge the intrinsic relationship between reading and writing as equally crucial elements of the same equation
    The theory only works if sufficient publishers and readers buy-in to the model - even after a "transitional period (5, 10, 50 years)" - and I think that some research needs to be done now: more than just "careful listening to users/readers/authors" - indeed, some or all of Bob's thoughts/questions at the end of his essay may well be the basis of the research questions.

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