Books in Browsers

4 November 2012 in | Comments (0)

Books in Browsers has been running for three years now, curated by Peter Brantley, an expert in digital publishing and the digital future of libraries, and co-hosted by Oreilly Media.  The conference takes place in the Internet Archive, San Francisco, where Brantley is based.  Housed in a grand, white, colonnaded, deconsecrated Christian Science church, the archive was set up and is funded by Brewster Kahle, one of the early Californian internet entrepreneurs (he helped design WAIS, a precursor to the world wide web).  Books in Browsers 2012 took place in the IA’s Sanctuary, a congregational space, with wooden pews, an organ, and, at the back, banks of servers on which tiny blue lights flash whenever anyone anywhere uses the archive.  The IA is best known for its vast archive of the internet itself, accessed by most people via the Wayback Machine.  But it also houses a large film archive - the Prelinger Archive, run by moving image evangelist, Rick Prelinger – and has undertaken to scan, digitise and store a copy of every book ever printed.  The dates for Books in Browsers coincided with a celebration as the archive passed the 10 petabyte mark, which means it now houses 10,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of data.

As per usual, I was the only fiction writer invited to speak at the conference, though there were other writers and journalists attending.  The focus of Books in Browsers is on, well, books in browsers – the inevitable progress of books from print to ebook to webbook – ‘containerless content’ and what it means for books to exist primarily online.  Most of the publishers and start-ups present at the conference work at the cutting edge of digital publishing, far beyond standard industry discussions around digitisating workflow and ePub formats.  Companies like Safari Books Online and AerBook allow for the creation of complex multimedia content; start-ups like London-based Valobox, Enthrill Books and Inkling focus on finding new ways to sell content; others (Bibliocrunch) exist in the vast proactive realm of self-publishing, while a whole raft of companies deal with creating and curating reader communities. There was one games start-up presenting, Simon Fox from Playlab London; he will be a good contact for a potential collaboration with students.  Kassia Kroszer (@booksquare) helped to end the conference with a beautifully put reader’s manifesto, ‘What Do Readers Want? Books! How Do They Want Them? Every Way Possible!’

For me there were two revealing and fascinating aspects of the conference. Firstly, several speakers came from start-ups who’d failed to find ways to collaborate successfully with mainstream publishing companies, despite Herculean efforts, vast amounts of brain-power, and great ideas. Kevin Franco of Enthrill, Hugh McGuire of PressBooks, and Peter Collingridge of the now defunct London start-up Enhanced Editions, all delivered harsh mea culpa’s regarding providing elegant solutions to problems that don’t really exist.  Secondly, while Laura Dawson of Bowker talked about how publishers must learn to respond to the way that readers search for books online – ‘search is the new bookstore’ was a conference mantra - it was during a between-sessions conversation with consultant Charlotte Abbott where I had my biggest lightbulb moment. Charlotte talked about the importance of reader-centric tagging in metadata, to aid search, and how she fears publishers are persisting with cultural blindspots in metadata.  For example, while a publisher would put together metadata for a title like ‘Twilight’ using a set of standard keywords such as ‘YA, paranormal, romance’, a teenage reader is more likely to search for the book by typing ‘vampire novel for teens’ into a search engine.  More seriously, if publishers aren’t using keywords that communities like African American readers, or gay readers, use to search for books they want to read, then these books are effectively rendered invisible – unfindable - to that community.  While reader-focussed tagging is emerging through big online reading communities like GoodReads, writers also need to be thinking about this, and collaborate with their publishers to make effective use of metadata tagging for search.  Given that one of the themes of the conference was the impossible situation faced by mainstream publishers (and there were several present at the conference),this seems as likely to happen in the current climate as all the thousands of homeless people in San Francisco suddenly finding nice friendly places to live. 

A log of the twitter, blog, and photo streams provided by conference attendees is available at Epilogger.
Peter Brantley’s write-up of the conference, for Publisher’s Weekly, is here.