Intent and Content: Unbooking the Book

Peter JonesInformation Ecology, Wu Wei

Industrial and communications designers, authors, new publishers, product innovators  –  Everyone is rethinking The Book in 2009. So then who owns the concept of the book, anyway? Publishers? Society at large? Those of us who say so? And if we say so, does said ownership prevent certain types of  innovation? What we don’t know about the book can help, or stifle the uptake of its innovation.  “Ceci n’est pas une livre.” Yes, this is not a book.

“The Book” is an object of cultural invention and centuries of evolution. The print book is the embodiment of a perfect marriage of Gutenberg press technology and the editorial management and distribution of publishing. The Gutenberg Bible was not immediately recognized by those who read it as a “book.” The texts were extremely expensive, and for over a century  printed texts were inaccessible to laypeople. Even so, hand-printed texts were considered the more valuable cultural contribution for some time.

The identity of book accrued over time with its diffusion into culture. People had to learn what a book represented to their own culture, communities (guilds), and class. This learning was socialized over many more years. The early publishers (including the church) created the cultural artifact of the book and eventually the business model which remains today. They had the opportunity to socialize the highly stable business model and the book as an accessible cultural artifact.

All that is changing. When we strip “the book” of its format and distribution model, what we have is the experience of the communication of authorial intent. Once we deconstruct it, can we even locate the editorial contribution? The publication of a book tells us what kind of cultural artifat it is. But the author’s intent determines whether we read a book, or read something else.

The print book remains an efficient delivery system for “bound knowledge.” However, new media affords authors the ability to cost-effectively communicate intent in so multiple and integrated channels of discourse. Before the cost of media production was drastically reduced, only training institutions and self-help gurus produced multi-media expressions of authorial intent and content. Now we can all produce and distribute on demand, with cost becoming ever less of a factor.

Does this emerging publishing ecology change what a book actually is?  Yes and no. If The Book is a cultural artifact that accrued meaning over time, why pin the label to the new forms? The only thing the book and the synthexis of new media communication share in common is intent and some of the content. Book is still form and channel. The current form and content of eBooks maintains and even crystallizes the “old book” as a copy of the print book content and intent in e-form. New Books must be given new names, identities which will accrue cultural meaning over time. We  see plenty of evidence of new authorial content – what about new forms of intent?

To me, the Unbook enables a reversal not of form (which is a variable) but of process and authorial intent.  The author moves from the center to the collective. The process moves from a managed delivery to an open and iterative (semi-agile) process. Form may be expressed by the collective intent, but can also be printed, graphic, electronic or dispersed. It still seems to be, in the main, the idea of a book. But the “new book” may be a new thing, once we have a format that synthesizes new forms of content with new views of intent.

Dave Gray on The Unbook:

A concept like the unbook is useful in that it can help people differentiate between one thing and another. In discussing it with various people I have already seen that the word “unbook” gives people a center of gravity that they can hang ideas on. It has generated a lot of questions as well, such as “What is the business model?” “Will I have to pay for upgrades?” “Why isn’t there a digital version?”

For me the core of the unbook is a process and a mindset — the idea of involving a community of people who share a common interest, who participate in continued development. The book as an object is no longer the product, but a symbolic carrier for the conversation and ideas that unite the community. The community is the real product.

This is very different than the idea of building a web presence and community around a book; I see it as the inverse of that. The two may not be all that easy to distinguish from each other. But it’s early yet; the conversation around this is just beginning.

The Unbook process as shown on The Unbook site:


More on eBooks, Unbooks, and Smart Books at Smarter Books,