On the changing roles of authors and readers

The author’s community, originally uploaded by dgray_xplane.

There’s been a flurry of conversation around the unbook, ranging everywhere from approbation (I love it!) to apathy (There’s nothing new here!) to despair (It’s the end of the book as we know it!). There’s an interesting discussion thread that covers most of this territory here.

Adam Greenfield calls the unbook “a container for long-form ideas appropriate to an internetworked age… the notion allows such works to usefully harness the dynamic and responsive nature of discourse on the Web, while preserving coherence, authorial voice and intent.”

Several have commented “I don’t see how an unbook is different than a wiki” (I have attempted an answer to that question and look forward to a continued dialogue on that subject).

Henry Quirk predicts that “most of the ‘unbooks’ that pop up will never see a version 2.0. the ‘authors’ of such things — having attention spans less impressive than a mayfly’s life — will move on to the next awkward, flash-in-the-pan, internet/real life hybrid as soon as such a thing rears its ugly head. Unbooks — as a concept — will end up as a cultural cul de sac: a curious artifact of a misguided desire to see ‘the people’ empowered beyond ‘their’ competence.”

I think Mr. Quirk also speaks for a lot of people when he says “committee work tends to lack innovation… there’s a dulling homogenization with multiple hands in the pot. Seems to me: the ‘unbook’ reeks with the b.o. of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.'”

This comment has been echoed by many others in various ways. People seem to see the unbook as a book created by a committee of multiple authors that can only result in a watered-down, tepid product that attempts to satisfy everyone and in the process satisfies no one. This is an absolute misconception that I need to correct.

I think a lot of it has to do with the idea of sharing control, and some fears that many artists and writers have about opening up their process to public scrutiny. Artists and writers are in many ways like magicians: they create an effect for their audience, and like magicians, many creative people feel that to expose their process would ruin the magic and educate competitors at the same time. This has some truth to it.

Authors have as many ways of working as you could possibly imagine. Some work in solitude and feel the need to protect their work from early criticism, just as a newborn baby must be protected from the elements. Others engage in dialogue with a small circle of friends as a way to work out their ideas. Most writers collaborate with an editor or get opinions on early drafts from colleagues. Writers will sometimes solicit contributions (a section, a chapter, an essay) from people they respect.

Eventually, however, if the book is to be published at all, a wider dialogue emerges, involving critics and a community of readers. After all, what is a book without that community? Authors make book tours, they give readings, they are interviewed in talk shows and on the radio, all in an effort to share their ideas and build that community of readers.

J. K. Rowling is a wonderful writer who has captivated a whole generation with her stories, but does anyone really think that the seven books in the Harry Potter series, written over ten years an amidst a firestorm of public adoration and attention from the press, were not influenced or informed by her ongoing conversations with readers?

The fact is, like many things we like to call “new media,” the unbook is really a recombination of things that already exist. There’s nothing the unbook does, or proposes to do, that doesn’t already happen in some way in the publishing world. The unbook — like a lot of new media concepts — simply changes the dynamics by making manifest and obvious things that already existed, offline.

The roles have been there forever: the author, the editor, the contributor, the critic, and the community of readers. The unbook does not fundamentally change the process but makes it more transparent and adaptive by “webifying” it.

1. The unbook makes the boundaries between a writer’s inner circle and the public more porous. By connecting through social networks and online technologies that enable larger community discussions, the author can, if he or she so chooses, expand the diameter of the inner circle, inviting more people to engage in the early phases of creation.

2. The unbook makes it easier for the author to explore different form factors — sizes and shapes — for the physical book itself, and try out things like full-color, embedded diagrams and other innovations, to see what works best for readers without taking on a major expense.

3. The unbook, because it accelerates the process, makes it far more adaptive to change. More people can participate early in the process, and criticisms or challenges can be addressed immediately within the text.

Thus the unbook is not revolutionary so much as evolutionary.

The traditional book-authoring process contains many risks: The author has to make many guesses about what readers want, what they will say, and anticipate criticism, before the book is published. And because the published book is sacrosact (so much work has gone into it, and it’s typically presented as a finished creation), the author is forced (or feels obligated) to defend concepts from criticism even when they are thoughtful and insightful. The dynamic is adversarial rather than collaborative.

There is also the publisher to consider. The publisher of a traditional book usually has taken on considerable risk in the form of advances against royalties, marketing, printing, warehousing and distribution costs. All these things together can put tremendous pressure on the author to deliver results.

An unbook relieves many of these pressures. The author can engage readers earlier and respond to criticism faster. A publisher becomes an option rather than a necessity.

An unbook can be all these things, and an author does not have to relinquish any control to have them. There is a fundamental difference between an open process and a collaborative process. My unbook, Marks and Meaning, has only one author: Me. And just like many authors before me, I happily retain an iron-clad control over what is in or out of the book. At the same time, much of the process is open because I invite comments, criticism and contributions from readers. Sometimes they change my opinion, sometimes they don’t. But in my case the dialogue is critically important to the development of the ideas, and now that I have tried this approach I can’t imagine doing a book any other way.

At the same time, if an author wishes to open up the process entirely and share control with others, that’s also possible. But it’s not the only way.

Mr. Quirk may be right, that “most of the ‘unbooks’ that pop up will never see a version 2.0,” that “unbooks — as concept — will end up as a cultural cul de sac.” But it’s also possible that some new authors and voices will arise that thrive in this new medium; that — were it not for the unbook — would never have been heard. And it’s also possible that they have something of value to say. I hope so.

12 Comments to 'On the changing roles of authors and readers'

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  1. henry quirk said,

    as i posted over at warren’s site:

    dave, i reviewed your response (here) at theunbook.com

    indeed: i do have some comments…however: allow me time to organize them before committing them to your fine site

    thanks… –hquirk

  2. Dave Gray said,

    Hi Henry!

    Very glad to see you here and I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Regardless of what you call it, this approach or method seems to be an emerging trend and the more dialogue we can have about it, the more we can begin to understand what’s happening (or not happening!).

    Of course I hope that the unbook doesn’t turn out to be unimportant, uninteresting and unpopular, but if the aims can be achieved in some other way and it becomes unnecessary I won’t complain :)

    Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts.


  3. henry quirk said,

    okay…it’s been a little while since i promised to respond.

    a question: is the ‘unbook’ still a viable concept, or, has it been supplanted by the ‘next great idea’?

    i’m being only a little facetious.

    the ‘net has, it sometimes seems to me, a turnover rate for ideas measured in days and hours.

    so: it’s completely possible the ‘unbook’ may already rest in some virtual graveyard.


    assuming it does not…

    as anyone following the multiple threads, on multiple sites, may know: i’m less than impressed with the idea behind the ‘unbook’.

    it’s taken me till now to fully understand why.

    previously: i referred to the ‘committee’ nature of the concept and that — with fiction at least — such an approach threatens the idiosyncratic expression of ‘one’ in favor of ‘the many’.

    my distaste gelled for me when, last night, i had a sudden realization.

    the ‘unbook’, it seems to me, is very much about castration, the elimination of vision, and the reduction of ‘one’ to mere part in a looming, overarching, process (never mind the ‘one’ is the creator without who there would be no process).

    in short: the ‘unbook’ is about ‘feminizing’, emasculating, and ‘it takes a village-ism’.

    the unbook — at heart — is an exercise in *collectivism which the sensible understand is the ruination of any real endeavor.

    any real progress in any field occurs because ‘one’ exercises him ‘self’ alone, or as undisputed leader.

    to rely on the ‘collective’ as anything other than proxy (a tool) is foolishness and — forgive me — **’female’ (let’s pass ’round the talking stick and cluck about the ‘bun in the oven’).

    now: mr gray insists in other ‘unbook’ entries here in this site, the creator retains control of all aspects of the ‘unbook’, and that the ‘unbook’ is distinctly different from an ‘open book’ because of that control.

    i would argue, at least as it pertains to fiction, every voice, each pair of eyes, every mind, outside of the creator’s is a potential adulterant to the work…for example: fiction is a dicey enough process (one wherein the writer can stumble over himself constantly) without others throwing their ‘good ideas’ and interpretations into the mix.

    certainly: these extra voices, eyes, minds can serve as tools for the creator…but then: that option already exists for the creator…what good purpose is there is codifying a natural, loose, unstructured, event (‘mind taking a look a this for me?’) into an on-going act of management?


    so: have i contributed anything of value to the conversation?

    i’m sure i haven’t.

    in essence: i use my personal preference (i use ‘myself’) to justify a distaste for what may be a perfectly legitimate method for compiling textbooks, non-fictions, etc.

    since, of course, i don’t write textbooks, non-fictions, etc. such a method seems alien and ‘wrong’ to me, so, i’m certain my little protestations fall on deaf ears and blind eyes.

    that i disparage the great idols ‘collective’ and ‘female’, i’m sure, has, or will have, no bearing on anyone’s responses.

    as i am tolerant of a great many inanities and insanities (while never participating in them), i feel secure a ‘agree to disagree’ policy is best when it comes to the ‘unbook’.

    all the best… –henry quirk

    *from http://www.asiansofmixedrace.com/def.htm collectivism: giving priority to the goals of one’s group (often one’s extended family or work group) and defining one’s identity accordingly…to my mind: collectivism is synonymous with cog-ism, that is, the view of the individual as ‘a subordinate who performs an important but routine function’.

    **women are very nice…i like them very much…but: i don’t wanna be one.

  4. Dave Gray said,

    Hi Henry,

    Since I am focused primarily on works that entail understanding and codifying a discipline or field of study, I don’t have much to say about the unbook as a vehicle for fiction. I suppose my aim with the unbook has been far more textbook-oriented.

    Since collaboration and consensus (and divisiveness!) are part of the process by which any group defines and organizes itself, I think an unbook could form a useful and necessary hub or focusing device to help define and codify a new discipline or area of study.

    I am a painter as well as an author, and I can’t imagine a collaborative, consensus-oriented approach to painting would do anything other than dilute my vision and water down the work.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that the author retaining control of an unbook is a requirement — only that it is an option.

    I tend to think that if I wrote fiction it would be similar to the way that I paint — a more solitary pursuit. So we might not disagree as much as you might think :)

    I’m not sure whether the unbook has been supplanted by the next thing or not. Maybe so. I’m planning to stick around for awhile though and hope to continue exploring and prototyping the idea.

  5. henry quirk said,

    I am a painter as well as an author, and I can’t imagine a collaborative, consensus-oriented approach to painting would do anything other than dilute my vision and water down the work.

    (((my point exactly!)))

    (((so: we meander ’round the two sides the mountain to arrive at the same camp in the hills…good on us both)))

    I’m planning to stick around for awhile though and hope to continue exploring and prototyping the idea

    (((i’ll check in from time to time…i have an interest too: a kind of ‘keep your enemies close’ thing… 😉 –henry)))

  6. Adam Smith said,

    fascinating discussion – keep going you two. i am really interested in the concept of shring incomplete free-fall writing between like minded people for feedback – the words that do not exist until they are on display and envoke a response deserve a forum that is creative as well as theraputic – in the sense that the feedback assists the development of the relationship that you have with your self, your self that makes marks on paper or digital media. I will watch and particiapte in equal measure as I am able. (ps read about you in WIRED)

  7. henry quirk said,

    well, adam, as soon as the next ‘improvement’ to the notion of the ‘unbook’ arises, i’m sure i’ll find some peculiar reason to speak against it

    the ball currently is in dave’s hands (as well as other ‘unbookers’)

    one tiny comment: you say, ‘the words that do not exist until they are on display’

    central — in a oblique way — to my distaste for the ‘unbook’ is the idea the words do indeed exist, even in the raw form of preliminary or rough or early draft

    writing is for some, for me, the attempt to pin something down, to give it form, and to keep pressing at the raw material until the form and content of the work matches what’s in my head

    certainly: in the potentially collaborative effort of compiling a text book or other non-fiction, the eyes, minds, and voices of many may have a positive value

    in fiction, however, the eyes, mind, and voice of ONE is paramount…the words (more important: what stands behind the words) exist even if only privately

    of course, dave has already taken the wind from my sails with, ‘I don’t have much to say about the unbook as a vehicle for fiction’, so, my little rantings are rendered useless

    but: insofar, generally, as we can talk about the words (and, more important, what the words stand for) not existing until displayed, i can’t disagree more… -henry

  8. Dave Gray said,

    I do enjoy your “rantings” Henry, and hope you will continue to share them. In fact I believe I agree with you on many levels.

    A point without a valid counterpoint is hardly worth considering, and in my opinion your counterpoints are worth thoughtful consideration.

  9. henry quirk said,

    dave, you are a sensible man

    i wish more of the ‘net were peopled by folks like you

    in my experience: the reactionary and easily ‘offended’ have taken a firm hold in the virtual world much in the same way they have the real one

    i could cite this anecdotal observation with a recent, and perhaps on-going, ‘conversation’ i’m having elsewhere on the subject of the ‘unbook’

    the thrust of my current problem with these folks is my perceived misogyny…the thread itself (about the ‘unbook’) was essentially hi-jacked by an academic (female) and those who sniff at her hindquarters

    this diverting of the focus from the formal topic to perceived personal affront is typical of what passes for a culture today

    i’m pleasantly surprised that you, dave, take my meanings and intent in context of the discussion

    thank you… –henry

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