Books Cannot Become Mere ‘Content’

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Books Cannot Become Mere ‘Content’I originally wanted to title this article “So What Is a Book Anyway?” as the last few years have seen a shift in what actually constitutes a book.

Taking a step back, when we were children we were taught what a book was by being handed, naturally, a physical book. It had a cover that was hard, pages that could turn, and words that were read (and probably pictures, as well).

In recent years, however, with the proliferation of ebooks, books no longer have to be read in physical form. They can be read digitally over any number of devices.

Moreover, with the surge in audiobooks, a book no longer needs to be read by the reader, as, similar to when we were children, we can now have someone read it to us.

And up until recently, books could only be published and available to a mass audience if gatekeepers (publishers) said so. Now, though, with the aide of self-publishing, those gatekeepers do not hold all the power.

Today, anyone can be an author, anyone can publish a book over multiple formats, and anyone has the power to say what a book is.

So, again, what is a book?

It’s a bit of an abstract question, sure, but it gets at the heart of the issue in today’s world of “content.”

Speaking about books specifically, Porter Anderson over at Publishing Perspectives captures the idea nicely: “There’s a plethora of books, glutted markets choking in over-production, a readership staggered by myriad titles. It’s what I’ve taken to calling our Wall of Content.”

Content, the media we consume, is in abundance. There’s so much content now—both of exceptional and terrible quality—that it’s nearly impossible to even keep track of all the stuff one wants to read, watch and listen to.

We’re not just talking about books here; we’re talking about films, TV shows, podcasts, videos, apps, news articles, feature articles, essays, photographs and more.

And all this content can now be accessed through a never-ending slew of channels, many, if not all, of which are available through a phone that can fit in your pocket. To that end, as I’ve written about before, “reading, to some, [is] merely an app, on par with Angry Birds.”

Reading (books) is just another channel of content—another way to consume information, albeit a potentially more boring, time-consuming and expensive one.

With the ability to purchase books online and begin reading them on a screen instantly, as well as the capability for anyone to author and publish such content, the lines drawn around what constitutes a book are blurring.

This is neither an attack on self-publishing, nor on Amazon. Despite any misgivings I or anyone might have about either, the former has undoubtedly allowed some great books to be published and the latter has allowed readers to more conveniently buy them. What’s more, traditional publishers of all stripes are certainly contributing to the “wall of content.”

This is instead a question about our intellectual values, which is not an area that nestles comfortably with the business of publishing.

A book is different from the other forms of content listed above. At the risk of sound hokey or trite, there is something sacred about a book that there isn’t about any other form of media.

I believe that books have a history that is unique and sets them apart from all other forms of content. They are, in my view, an indelible part of the culture whose importance and status must be preserved.

I don’t know how we go about doing that, or how books will naturally evolve along with “content.” Perhaps, then, this is more of a mindset issue, rather than a practical one.

Regardless, I do fear that if we head in a direction in which we place less of an emphasis on the value of books, and begin to slide them into the realm of mere content, then we will lose something important within our intellectual culture.

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6 thoughts on “Books Cannot Become Mere ‘Content’

  1. William Ockham

    This article is representative of the single most harmful idea afflicting traditional publishing, the confusion of packaging with product. A physical book is a wonderful package for stories and ideas, but only the stories and ideas can be sacred. The idea that books are \an indelible part of the culture whose importance and status must be preserved\ is both confused and deceptive. Confused because it makes no sense on any level while managing to evoke our deepest connection to what is derisively referred to as \content\. Deceptive because it is an argument that is always deployed in the economic interests of an oligopoly that exhibits little or no concern for our shared intellectual heritage.

  2. Richard Bowles

    Certainly there is room for continued existence of the physical package called a book. Wheels have existed in many flavors for years, and will continue to do so. However, some will prefer to employ wheels, as an important technology in transportation, afixed to a jet airliner rather than steam locomotive. Its really about the experience that one wants when consuming content.

    The greater issue is that some believe distributing precious and valuable content in an e-package is somehow worth less than a printed book. And, as we are wrapped around the axle of whether to embrace electronic distribution, many seem to miss the opportunity to increase value delivered via new capabilities.

    Let’s get-on with adding more value for readers. Integration of related content in different media seems sorely lacking.

  3. Lizzie Newell

    The written word is the fastest way to get information and the cheapest to produce. When reading the reader adjusts the speed and knows what to pay attention to. When watching video, the reader is constrained to the speed of the video and receives a high amount if irrelevant information, such as the clothing and makeup of the news anchor. In written for all information is carefully selected. A minute of reading packs in more information than a minute of angry birds or a minute of video news. The usual estimates for screen plays are that one page= 1 minute of play time. The same goes for audio books. But by reading silently the speed can double. This can be the difference between eight hours and four hours to consume the same story. Fiction techniques such as plot and tension increase readers speed. Reading is only boring if these techniques aren’t used or are used poorly. As for cost and ease of production. The only thing needed to write a book is a word processing program, no need for actual cameras, costumes, sets, props, or makeup.

  4. Darryl

    William Ockham has indeed used his razor to cut to the heart of the matter.

    Seriously. Now only a paper book is a book? Good luck with that one. And, like it or not, a book is content. It competes with content. As Reed Hastings, the Netflix CEO wrote:

    \If you think about your last 30 days, and analyze the evenings you did not watch Netflix, you can understand how broad our competition really is. Whether you played video games, surfed the web, watched a DVD, TVOD, or linear TV, wandered through YouTube, read a book, streamed Hulu or Amazon, or pirated content (hopefully not), you can see the market for relaxation time and disposable income is huge, and we are but a little boat in a vast sea.\

    To those who love reading, it does hold a special place. So does music to those who love music, and movies and plays to those who love movies and plays, and dance to people who love dance etc. All have existed in one form or another since the dawn of humanity. Movies just package plays and performances and stories in a different form. All content is part of our culture.

    The so-called \wall of content\ is magnificent and hopefully is with us to stay. I would much rather face the problem of choosing from this embarrasment of riches and avoiding what is still a minority of absolute garbage than have some Oligopoly’s idea of what I should be reading shoved down my throat with no alternative.

    Books are a form of content. Though we may love them, they have no claim to \special snowflake\ status than any other content. Get over it!

  5. fergus day

    /I don’t know how we go about doing that, or how books will naturally evolve along with “content.” Perhaps, then, this is more of a mindset issue, rather than a practical one./

    Two things come to mind here- first is a 30-year-old quote from Douglas Adams;
    “Books are sharks … because sharks have been around for a very long time…and the reason sharks are still in the ocean is that nothing is better at being a shark than a shark.”
    ‘Look at a book. A book is the right size to be a book. They’re solar-powered. If you drop them, they keep on being a book. You can find your place in microseconds. Books are really good at being books and no matter what happens books will survive.’
    The second is in around 1992, when I was working in a large team of people creating very expensive (but very good!) CD-ROMS for a publishing company, and the CEO stood on a desk and proclaimed \The book is dead!\ The same phrase has been uttered numerous times, by different Leaders and visionaries, since the advent e-books and other digital formats.
    So books are nice things. They haven’t been phased out, they aren’t going to die, and we like tactile artefacts that we can bend the pages of and flick through. And I don’t think they’re going to evolve, except in terms of quality and creativity. But that’s seeing Books as Art, which is fine, but as purveyors of information, ideas, and narratives (aka content) they are empty vessels. And really, if you’re going to instead use electronic vessels to lug your content around in, they may as well have a few bells and whistles as well as being more portable, shinier, get it from A to B quicker.

    A poem is still a poem whether in a book, blowing around the streets on the back of a receipt, attached to the bottom of someone’s email, or delivered via instant message. Best to be discerning and don’t read trash in books or online…and both a nice chunky bound stack of paper and a lovely story can be sacred.

  6. DrA

    To quote with permission of the author only for you, the reader here at

    As a steward to the full restoration of a greatly censored, and still popular work of world literature, the magical mystery-comedy of Hamlet, recent changes in PrintOnDemand and e-publishing rules have been wrestled with. These delayed publication and distribution, though these have been favorable. It was the uneven rates of change itself that caused delays, and to paraphrase, \Publication delayed is publication denied.\

    What the Wall of Content chiefly creates is a competitive, rather than a purely capital driven, opportunity to curate content, which once only belonged to the victors, and their successor corporate-state governments. Now a new founder will create a new intuition of service. Instead of focusing on what is dissolving, regard human needs and economies to focus on new opportunities. While the best and brightest minds are at tech’s bleeding edge, Amazon, Google, and Gutenberg are givens in this new transmedia publishing environment. While marketing has been excellent at early adopting and using new technology to market marketing, marketing is other than curating.

    Those losing share to this new reality are observing the spaces it creates as cavities of profits lost to their old systems. Transmedia publication used to be part of innovative promoting of new products: yet who remembers roll outs of the Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, or Disney’s early Robin Hood, Peter Pan, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, 007, or 2001? Collapsed distributing’s singular repurposed redistribution channels like NetFlix have obscured this. When this problem receives the attention it deserves, a new, distributed and competitive service model will emerge.

    The new Curator also creates a demand for another new profession of Reader, akin to a slush pile reader. Between them will re-emerge the profession of Editor. That will require both appraising and mining diamonds found in manuscripts like Hemingway’s, and a communicative sense of integrity that used to be the hallmark of American publishing in the days when every press was independent and many newspapers were yellow papers. What both thin margins and mega-corps fail to support, the broad base of multiple interests in readers, beyond publisher’s Top 40’s, will, given the chance.

    You can engage, entertain, and bet a business on it, and win, if you conceive it correctly. It is in understanding and restructuring word-to-mind communications in this new tech context that riches may yet be found. Both creators and the audience for such content desire it. Ask Steve Jobs.

    (c) all rights reserved 2010, 2016, by atrimpi



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