Geeks and Greeks

Sifting through coverage of Book Expo America (BEA), held over the weekend in Washington, D.C. – I stayed home, in the warm, sticky-fingered embrace of my family – it seems that a main topic of conversation was Kevin Kelly’s recent article “Scan This Book!” in the New York Times.

Kelly is the “senior maverick” at Wired, and his vision is of a modern version of the Great Library of Alexandria, where all texts known to humanity are not only available online, but are extensively tagged and hyperlinked – a chance for the geeks to one-up the Greeks.

I’ll leave it for others to explain and argue the merits and demerits of copyright law vis-a-vis Google’s ambitious book-scanning project. The topic has been well documented in both online and print media. But one aspect of Kelly’s argument resonates with what I was writing about yesterday. Discussing how the publishing industry might change in response to the rise of niche markets, I made an analogy to how a grassroots approach is changing the music industry.

Kelly, writing about what might happen as copies of books are devalued by digitization, also makes an analogy to music. If books are scanned and easily swappable, as has happened with ripped songs and filesharing, this new universal library might work something like an iTunes playlist:

At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves. Just as the music audience now juggles and reorders songs into new albums (or “playlists,” as they are called in iTunes), the universal library will encourage the creation of virtual “bookshelves” – a collection of texts, some as short as a paragraph, others as long as entire books, that form a library shelf’s worth of specialized information. 

As somebody desperate to carve out fifteen minutes of “me time,” I think I’ll have to rely on others to create these bookshelves (I don’t have time to organize playlists, either – I either listen to albums or hit shuffle), but it’s a nice idea. If you were interested in, oh, say, pool and billiards, wouldn’t it be nice to stumble across someone’s carefully researched reference library? Unless, of course, you had written a book on pool and found your effort available for free download.

Addressing writers’ need to make a living, Kelly again draws, I think, on what’s happening in the music business. As filesharing chips away at the primacy of the CD, some artists – who didn’t get much money from royalties anyway – have released their hold on copies of their music, retooling their business models to make the bulk of their money from concert tickets and T-shirts. Writes Kelly:

As copies have been dethroned, the economic model built on them is collapsing. In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them. They can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables. 

John Updike, for the defense, disagrees. And it’s true that there is a key difference. Musicians have always charged money for performances in addition to recordings and merchandise. Writers traditionally perform for free in order to promote sales of their books. Kelly’s idea that “users will earn prestige and perhaps income” for “curating an excellent collection” of articles and book pages might be upsetting to some of the people who have actually written those articles and book pages.

But to Kelly, lost sales are only the problem of a few elite writers:

While a few best-selling authors fear piracy, every author fears obscurity. 

Probably true, but not every writer has the time to explore and establish alternate revenue streams. Most writing pays poorly already – must it now be pro bono?

If you haven’t read Kelly’s article already, you should. Whether you’re enraptured or enraged by his vision, it’s something we should all be talking about. It’s quite possible that, just as with the Great Library of Songs, the new Great Library of Pages will happen whether we agree to it or not.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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