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.