Jeff Jarvis has a long screed up on books. After the first paragraph I was ready to rant - but his conclusions are no paeon to digital books. This is the part I was ready to pounce on:
The problems with books are many: They are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources. They create, at best, a one-way relationship with a reader. They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors. They tend to be too damned long because they have to be long enough to be books. As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.
That's the opening though - it's meant to rile you up, so you'll read the rest. I had no idea that the number of new titles was declining, but Jeff has stats on that:
Publishing database Web site Bowker reported that there were more new book titles sold in Great Britain last year - 206,000 new titles, an increase of 28 percent - than in the United States -172,000 new titles, a decrease of 18 percent.
General adult fiction and children’s books both showed double-digit declines in new titles, Bowker found.
That gave me pause. Doc has written about how consolidation killed radio by making it universally bland; Dvorak has said the same about newspapers. I've generally liked the existence of big stores like Borders and B&N, simply because selection is better than it was at the tiny Waldenbooks that was the main bookstore where I grew up. However, we might be seeing the same thing in books that we see in radio and news: consolidation leading to a growing mass of same-ness.
I walked into the local Borders last night, in search of gift certificates. I should have taken a picture, because this point would be easier to illustrate that way. Right at the front, there's a table filled with new arrivals, and "The DaVinci Code" is still prominent there. That's not the weird part. The weird part is the next table, which is filled with books about "The DaVinci Code" - Which is a sign of the kind of growing blandness that killed radio, and is busily killing newspapers.
Thinking about this, I realized something about my own reading habits: I've been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, and virtually no fiction. That's a change for me from my younger days; I used to devour science fiction and military thrillers. Now? I'm boning up on the past. I think there's a connection there - as the kinds of books I used to like have all blended into one meaningless melange, I've discovered a rich vein of far better stuff.
I'm not sure that I'm completely down with Jeff on the need to move beyond the book to something that can be updated and annotated; there's value in reading the original thoughts of an author and having them fixed in time. There's also value in having the physical book; I find it's easier to read paper than it is to read screens - at least for long content. I suspect that the problems in publishing have more to do with what Doc Searls has said about radio than they have to do with the format.