"We're going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that's one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing." Craig Mod
Next week I'm going to an event on the future of publishing where my good friend Gerd Leonhard will be speaking. The publishing industry is not exactly lacking in challenges and disruptive innovation right now, with the emergence of self-publishing platforms, rapidly evolving retail models, and new applications and platforms that facilitate an abundance of new ways to tell stories many of which don't require publishers. So it was good to see Penguin re-imagining the forms that the content they create might take as forms of interaction change, facilitated through new technology – in this case the iPad. Good because this requires thinking about the content in its most basic structure and constituent parts and how those parts might recombine to inform, delight and entertain in totally different ways. As Jeremy Ettinghausen says, it's no longer enough to tinker with the ways in which books are sold and distributed – new interfaces (like the iPad) require a rethink of the very structure and form of the content itself, and how people might want to interact with it.
In this excellent post on books in the age of the iPad (HT David Hieatt) Craig Mod talks about the difference between what he calls 'Formless Content' and 'Definite content'. The former, he says, doesn't have an explicit form, is divorced from layout, and can be 're-flowed' into different formats without losing any intrinsic meaning. The latter has a well-defined form which means it might be reflowable but in doing so the inherent meaning and quality may shift. At the most basic level, the former could be most novels (which are pure text), and the latter could be text that is formatted with images, graphics or charts.
The difference between the two is in the interaction of the content with the page in that Formless Content doesn't see the page and its boundaries, whereas Definite Content is not only aware of the page, but embraces it, and shifts, reshapes and resizes itself to fit the page:
"Put very simply, Formless Content is is unaware of the container. Definite Content embraces the container as a canvas…something with dimensions and limitations — and leverages these attributes to both elevate the object and the content to a more complete whole."
The current crop of e-readers can only cope with Formless Content. The interesting thing about the iPad is that the size and versatility of its canvas allows for well considered layouts – in other words Definite Content. And of-course in this context it's interesting to think about the implications for that other print medium that relies heavily on Definite Content – magazines. Magazines are lucky enough to be imbued with non-physical qualities and meaning that are conveyed through their physical form – the thickness, weight, smell, feel of the paper. The act of turning pages. The page as a canvas on which a good Art Director can convey meaning through layout and design, through the use of typography and colour, through the juxtaposition between elements on the page, the flow and pace of reading created by density, length and layout, the signposting, the bits that are deliberately left with nothing on them, just white space.
But it is a mistake to thoughtlessly replicate compositions, formats and layouts that have been designed for print. It may sound like an obvious thing to say but I'd argue that the history of content on the web has proved McLuhan right, that new technological environments are commonly cast in the moulds of the preceding technology (page-turning technology for example – I was never a fan of it on the web, and now there's even less reason to be – it's not the best way to navigate electronic content and imposing artificial 'page-size' boundaries to interrupt the flow of content makes little sense).
Instead we should embrace change. The internet will not kill print. Some forms of print – most likely those where the content has a intimate, inherent, complementary relationship with it's physical form – will live on. Craig Mod argues that Formless Content will go digital, and Definite Content will be split between digital and print. And that when we think about producing a book, we should embrace, exploit and be confident in its physicality. Make books that are built to last. Books that "feel whole and solid in the hands…smell like now forgotten, far away libraries…be something of which even our children — who have fully embraced all things digital — will understand the worth…always remind people that the printed book can be a sculpture for thoughts and ideas." Anything less, will soon be forgotten, ignored, or superseded by the march of digital progress.
Jeremy Ettinghausen paraphrases Buckminster Fuller: "Keep doing what you've always done and you'll keep getting what you've always got". I'd go further. Ignore change and change will ignore you.
Gerd has kindly given me a limited number of tickets to the future of publishing event to giveaway. It's being held on Friday 19 March 8.30am – 12.00pm here in London – if you're interested in going along e-mail me on the link above and I'll give you the necessary details.