The Limits of Books

Maria Farràs (K Team)

17 February 2015

What opportunities are being offered by the digital environment to expand stories? Why is the printed book resisting being substituted by the eBook? How do the great publishing mergers and international sales platforms coexist with the boom of new publishing companies and local bookstores? Can we all be authors? What happens with the reader’s rights? It is this whole new ecosystem, in contrast, that we want to talk about during the new edition of Kosmopolis BookCamp.

After the journey through scrolls, codices, manuscripts and the invention of the printing press, the birth of the printed book, represented for many humankind’s triumph in resolving two problems: transmitting knowledge across space and time, and preserving it. Over the course of the 20th century, a series of technological advances allowed the birth of what became the Internet as we know it today. These included the development, in 1971, of the Gutenberg project, a global endeavour to make books and documents in the public domain more accessible through a wide variety of digital formats. Some consider this the birth of the eBook. In the year 1995, Amazon began to sell books online and in 1998 the first digital book reader was put on sale. In the year 2002, Random House and Harper & Collins were just starting to commercialise electronic versions of their books online, and in 2003 Henry Jenkins started to talk about Transmedia Storytelling then in 2004, Google announced that it would digitalize the collections of various libraries.

The snowball was unstoppable as it gathered momentum, surrounded by a variety of opinions, both enthusiastic and apocalyptic, that predicted, among others, the end of the printed book or of libraries. But reality, as always, outstrips fiction, and just as we still don’t have any flying cars or hoverboards, the printed book has not yet disappeared: quite to the contrary. What we can affirm, however, is that the digital environment has triggered a series of reactions that put the limits of books to the test.

From paper to pixel

In addition to the capacity for preserving and channelling author knowledge to the reader of the printed book, the eBook incorporates the possibility of exchanging information and makes it much more accessible (for author and reader alike). Despite this, the printed book continues to be a more resistant object with a longer-lasting battery, that may come to bore so-called “digital natives”. All in all this is making the sector, and society, tremble, as portrayed in the documentary “Out of Print”:

In the article “From Papyrus to Pixels. The Digital Transformation of the Way Books Are Written, Published and Sold Has Only Just Begun” (2014), The Economist reviews the evolution of books and analyses the coexistence of analogue and digital formats. According to the report, those who five years ago predicted that the international book market would soon be completely digital, were wrong. In the USA, digital business has reached 30% of generalist publishing and seems to have come to a stop. Meanwhile in Germany, the largest European market, it hasn’t yet reached 5%. The main publishers continue to expect that their main profits will come from sales of printed books; in fact, the technology of the printed book is more durable and resistant, and many readers still enjoy the eroticism of paper. It is a market with slower growth and more filled with uncertainties; the e-reader (the device) seems to have little future, and digital reading today is aimed mainly at tablets and print-on-demand. It seems that publishers have still not known how to take the most advantage of the possibilities of the eBook, and now big data is making its appearance in the business: the preferences of the customers of online bookstores could be taken advantage of by publishers to configure their catalogues.

According to Javier Celaya, there is no turning back, and at the BookCamp he will be explaining ideas to tackle this supposed stagnation and encourage demand for eBooks and of readers for them. There will also be a workshop by Margarita Guerrero (Bookwire) on strategies for the distribution of eBooks and by Pepe Verdes (Manuscritics) on big data-based publishing.

The book ecosystem

The transition from paper to digital format occupies a large part of the debate on the transformation of the book world, but the process is change is much more complex. Besides the stagnation of the eBook, the sale of printed books has slumped and this is a matter of great concern for publishers. There is talk of a possible publishing bubble that burst partly due to the outdatedness of a centuries-old business model, due to technological transformation, due to the change of cultural consumption habits and due to the economic crisis. The change of paradigm leads to the concentration of publishing companies and allows the renewal of the sector with new imprints or bookstores given the voids that are left unattended by the big names. This means a resurgence for the artisan publisher and specialised, attentive bookseller. Precisely, at BookCamp we will be talking about new business models in the publishing industry with Carmen Ospina (Penguin Random House Publishing Group) who will talk about her experience and explain the challenges, on both an international and a local level, that the industry is facing.

Of the different sectors linked to books, bookstores are perhaps in the worst situation. Their main rival, Amazon, uses books as a doorway for consumers to buy other products; and it has squeezed publishers and pushed booksellers to promote enormous discounts. Also breaking onto the scene are other reader subscription services, or “Spotify for books” as some call them, despite it being said that the music market can not be taken as a model. Julieta Lionetti (24 symbols) will offer a workshop on how to make the most of reader subscription services, given the diverse models that exist. In fact, it may be that some of the bookstores that have closed, did not know how to adapt technologically to the new times. As commented by Damià Gallardo (from the Laie CCCB bookshop), the challenge is “attracting the customer, not waiting for the customer to appear, and working on quality and distinction.” Fortunately, many new bookstores are emerging and the fact is that the book cycle is being renewed: new bookstores appear, others disappear, others change or adapt.

Amplified narrative

What would happen if a book didn’t finish on the last page? If we could extend the narrative universe of a story much further, decide the order in which to read it or even what the next step taken by a character should be? Precedents exist in classical literature on paper, but the interactivity and fragmentation allowed by the digital environment allows a leap beyond fiction to be taken.

The publishing industry is desperately seeking new narrative forms to compensate the fall in sales of printed books, partly compensated by the sale of eBooks and self-publishing. And these new forms of amplified narrative could represent a new market for the book industry. Thus we find that some of the major publishing companies are investing in the digital future with departments devoted to designing new formats and products. Such as the interactive version of the poem by T. S. Elliot, “The Wasteland” by Faber & Faber, which makes the poem much more accessible with notes and audios; or “Black Crown” by Random House, an interactive novel in the form of a multi-player game. Or the latest project from Penguin Random House “Your Fry. A digital storytelling for everyone” which invites readers to share re-readings of the memoirs of Stephen Fry, based on material that the publishing company has placed at their disposal and in whichever format is preferred: text, video, app, videogame, etc.. The person specifically responsible for this project, Nathan Hull, will be talking to us about innovation and digital narratives for writers and publishing companies.

In the article “Superbooks: high-tech reading puts you inside the story” we find many experiences cited, such as the case of Inkle Studios, created by two videogame developers, with experiences such as the app “Poems by heart” for learning poems off by heart; or the recent 80 Days where we have to retrace the adventures of Phileas Fogg based on our own decisions. Jon Ingold, creative director at the studio says “Gaming is a young medium for telling stories and has a major problem in creating realistic characters that you can empathize with (…) Books are great source material because they are deep and intricate; we can bring in rich, meaningful characters from literature.” And the truth is that we cannot forget that a good story is the basis of the reading experience. Terms such as immersion, transportation or simulation are those that have been used to describe the mental journey in the world of the novel, and that aspire to perfect these expanded narratives. We will be talking about why we like stories, with José Valenzuela Ruiz, who will offer a reading from the viewpoint of neuroscience of the reading experience, offering a genealogy, the characteristics of each type of reading and comparing reading on paper with digital reading.

Projects like these make manifest the birth of a new discipline: interactive writing. They also raise questions about the languages and formats for telling stories, the process of creation of this kind of narrative, the roles of the publisher, the reader and the author, or how to commercialise this kind of work. Anna Giralt ( will offer a workshop where she will present tools for developing this kind of project and at the workshop for the creation of enriched digital books, Ferran Adell (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) will offer an overview of the most outstanding local studios and productions, with basic guidelines for self-publishing and the publishing of products.

Intellectual property

If it is true that the fall in the sales of print books has finally stagnated, as inferred by Jordi Carrión, then with time we will come to know how much of that was due to piracy, the great complaint of Spanish publishers (according to CEDRO, 43% of internet users watch pirate copies of films, but only 15% read pirate copies of books, which are above all bestsellers). The conception of intellectual property on the European content is based essentially on the original 18th century notion of genius. Taking into account how forms of literary production have changed, are the concept and the legal framework still viable? And bearing in mind that there are increasing numbers of cases of collective creation: What is authorship? Pascual Barberán will be talking regarding the challenges that digital technologies pose for intellectual property and the gaps that exist in the law.

The increase in self-publishing tools and online platforms has led to some authors deciding to do without the traditional circuit. Some of the arguments offered by authors are the low remuneration offered by author royalties and a lack of, or zero control over their work. For the self-published, the challenge continues to be the book’s distribution and sale. At the workshop “The Contract You Should Never Have to Sign”, Carmenchu Buganza (Aequitas Abogados Asociados) will talk about the clauses of a publishing contract.

Distribution of the money from the sale of a book.

Distribution of the money from the sale of a book. Data from El País.

The value chain of books has witnessed the emergence of new players and the adaptation or disappearance of their traditional counterparts. From the point where a book starts to be written by an author and up to the point where it reaches a reader, it passes through different agents that intervene in the process of creation, advertising, production and distribution, a chain that is currently under threat, given the numerous initiatives that are using alternative routes. Fiktion is a project that will be presented by Ingo Niermann at BookCamp, an experiment in new forms of digital distribution that explores questions such as copyright, distribution, reading habits and communication processes, a signature publishing house that publishes carefully presented books and offers them free of charge in digital format. Then, books can be published analogically, in accordance with the desire and possibilities of the authors and the possible interest from publishing houses. Roser Herrera (Letras Propias) will explain the new functions of the literary agent, a traditionally unknown role. Readers have even taken over spaces that traditionally were allocated to publishers, critics and journalists.

With the fourth edition of BookCamp, Kosmopolis proposes to map out this ecosystem in transformation. A programme of conferences, workshops and round tables that aim to kick off a debate regarding this new panorama that we have the exciting task of exploring, and that we will publish in the near future. And while we await the arrival of 19, 20 and 21 March, to put the debate into context, in the coming weeks we will be publishing in the LAB Blog posts that contextualise each of the lines proposed for analysing the limits of books.