Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Future of Writing

Nothing says "hypocrite" like making a post about where you think the future of writing is headed right after ripping on someone else's attempt at doing so. So, in order to save some face, I will write the following disclaimer: I CANNOT PREDICT THE FUTURE! Whew! I'm glad that's over with. Now, on to discussing the future of writing.

As already previously established, I'm a self-proclaimed internet professional. Regardless of the fact that I've never quite fully learned HTML (though I know enough tags to apparently make a bolded, flashing text statement), I've followed many of the trends of people more creative than myself. What I haven't adopted, I've at least learned about. As a part of my job, I keep up on the latest bits of tech news, rumors, hacks, and developments as they come. The ones that I want to talk about briefly are the ones that I think (from my experience) will change the future of writing and publishing. Later, or perhaps in the comments, we can discuss what we think this means for the classroom and for our future students.

There is no denying that we are living in a digital age. Everything is going digital. Phones, TVs, music, movies, and even books. The two I'd like to focus on right now are music and movies (books will come later). The music industry has been struggling ever since the advent of Napster in 1999 and later other P2P file-sharing services. Between the years of 2003-2005, the RIAA filed 14,000 lawsuits with many following thereafter. In the meantime, the music industry has struggled with how to do business in a digital age. There has been a lot of discussion about the decline of physical CD sales in the face of digital music, the effectiveness of DRM (or digital rights management) to stop copyright infringement, and the effectiveness of digital stores (like iTunes or Amazon MP3).

It has taken the last 9 years and music companies are finally starting to realize that consumers want digital music. Here's an interesting example. In a recent poll hosted by Nintendo (it's a long story), the question was asked Which do you own more of? CDs or MP3s? The results split down the middle. I found this particularly interesting for two reasons: 1) The question wasn't "which do you own," it was "which do you own more of". To me, this implies that everyone owns an MP3 these days. Digital music hits everyone. CDs are going the way of the VHS tape. 2) The staggering numbers of people who own a majority of MP3s over CDs shows just how fast this changeover is happening. When iTunes becomes the 2nd largest music seller in the world, times be changin'.

Movies? Ditto. On pretty much all counts. The only thing I can add to this as evidence of our new digital surroundings is the new HD format war. Up to about 2 weeks, Sony and Toshiba had been fighting over the new DVD format (Blu-ray and HD-DVD respectively). This came to an end as Blu-Ray sales forced Toshiba to discontinue their HD DVD Player products. Was the fight over? Interestly enough, no it wasn't. Immediately after the press release from Toshiba, Reuters wrote an article talking about the challenges Sony now faces as the world dives further into a digital age. "Sony Corp (6758.T: Quote, Profile, Research) won the home movie DVD format war, but the consumer-electronics giant faces an even tougher battle persuading shoppers to buy Blu-ray discs in an industry which is looking to the download era." Many companies (like iTunes, Blockbuster, and NetFlix) are offering downloadable videos as an alternative from physical video discs.

OK. So where does this put books? Well, it shouldn't be surprising--given that two other major media types have gone digital--to see that books have already attempted to join in on the fun. eBooks have been around since the late 1990s (back when we were starting all of our new inventions with "e" instead of "i"). Additionally, the PDF format has been taking over in both the business and academic worlds for storing and creating documents. I would venture to say that you would be hard pressed to find a scholarly journal these days that doesn't have a digital copy that can be accessed online (with a fee of course). The problem with digital literature has never been the format. That has already been long since decided.

I don't quite think we've moved to the digital landslide with printed works as we have with other media formats and that's where the problem is. With music (and, later, video) we have the iPod. Apple was able to tip the industry by offering an affordable alternative to physical media discs. Similarly, the ever-merging line between TVs and Computers is creating convenience for a digital format in TV and movies. But books? Not yet.

Price is not the issue. Here's a price breakdown on Stephanie Meyer's popular book, Twilight.

Paperback: $10.99 (though Amazon is currently offering it on sale for $6.59)
Hardcover: $17.99 (if you can find a hardcover copy, anyway)
Adobe PDF eBook: $5.99

That's obviously not the issue. What I find to be the major problem is viewing it. Everyone I talk to says the same thing. Nothing can replace the physical feeling of cuddling up to a book and reading for hours, so they say. I hate reading PDFs on a computer screen, yet I have no problems catching up on my news that way. My wife suggested that this could be due to the skimming nature that most newsreaders have when approaching articles (no matter the media it's on). I think it's both. People want something about the size of a book that isn't going to be a strain on the eyes for long-term reading. Are we there yet? Maybe. Sony just released an eBook reader that claims to take on these issues no problem. Amazon has also recently dabbled in the eBook Reader department.
Newsweek's Issue for the week of Nov. 26, 2007,
highlighting the Amazon Kindle electronic reader.

Whoever it comes from, there seems to be a market for it and authors and publishers are starting to take note of digital formats as a revolutionary part of the future. Here's another fun example. As a member of (albeit not a very active one), I received an email about a recent interview with author Paulo Coelho (The Alchemist) talking about his newest book The Witch of Portobello. Here's an excerpt from that interview:

GR: Tell us about The Experimental Witch. How do you envision the finished product?

PC: I’m an "Internet addict" and decided last year to release one-third of The Witch of Portobello in my blog in several languages. Readers from all over the world could read the first 10 chapters and leave their comments. It was a great experience, and last year in July I wanted to further this interaction with my readers by inviting them to adapt the book for the screen.

Interesting. Not only does he have a blog, but he's turned the worldwide community on the internet for comments and adaptations of his own work! What an amazing thing for a writing student to see! Taking the link above to the blog also shows us that Paulo has offered his book completely free in a digital format to readers who can get to it before March 11th. He's also the kind of guy who would offer another one of his books for free (regardless of what his publisher might think) via BitTorrent P2P downloading. While that's not necessarily suggested, it does show that some authors are trodding out a digital revolution for literature.

So when it comes down to it, our students are living in a different world than the one we grew up with (and that coming from a 25-year-old is saying something). The expectations for writing are in a shift. Blogs and digital publishing are becoming more accepted forms of writing and cannot be ignored. The question that arises (and can't really be answered without proficiency in crystal balls) is what to do with "traditional" forms of writing. How much do we need to understand of where our students are coming from in order to understand what kinds of writing they will be making?


Cherice said...

I couldn't agree more with your comment, "The problem with digital literature has never been the format." One of my professors once told me that you could either be innovative in format, or innovative in content, but not both if you hoped to be taken seriously. I'm curious as to your response to that remark.

Tom said...

I actually kind of disagree with that. I just think it takes a lot more work to do both, so most people don't dive into more than one thing. Isn't the internet about specialization, anyway? Here's an example of both: Adobe Photoshop. Photoshop is arguably the best image editing program on the market; a little overpriced, but still the best. You know you've come up with a good product when you have to tell people to stop using your brand name as a verb. ("I just photoshopped this a little bit.") Great content producing program. But also it's a great format. Before Photoshop, photos tended to be a single layer. Still, digital cameras only take single-layer images and with good reason. Everything we see at any given moment really is a single layer. Cameras can't do multi-layer images any better than our eyes can (note: 3D is *not* multi-layer). Photoshop can. Why does that make a difference? Well, editing a single-layer image isn't necessarily too bad. You can do a lot with single-layer editing. However, you can do a lot more with a multi-layer edit. You can single out certain portions of a photo and place them on a new layer. Then, you can apply global-effects to that layer that won't affect the whole of the image. The PSD file-format also allows you to save these multi-layer images for later use or for transfer to other users. An edited single-layer image (a JPG or GIF) sent to someone else is essentially a finished product that cannot be changed backwards, only forwards. The PSD format has opened up the imaging editing world to a whole realm of possibilities that were previously too difficult to perform. In fact, I find it hard to believe that people were doing any type of multi-layer image editing before Photoshop. They were missing out.

Now, given a good example, there are plenty of bad examples of this out on the market.

Digital literature is struggling for reasons I can't quite comprehend, even though some of the greatest minds and marketers are working on the solution. It's so strange to me that the world is so actively picking up on digital music and movies, but has decided to leave digital books in the dust. The Kindle is doing alright, but it by no means threatens the printed media market. The internet is doing more to kill newspapers and magazines than any eReader could possible dream of. I can only guess that universal, everywhere-at-once internet is what's stopping eLit from being more widespread. More teens are reading blogs and news sites that newspapers and magazines. If they could take that internet with them (without being gouged at least $30 a month for a cell phone data plan), I have a feeling that we'd see a growth in digital readership. Additionally, cell phones need to stop being the only things offering all-the-time internet. If your Kindle could grab you an RSS feed at anytime, anywhere, you might like it more. If you could download the book your friend just suggested to you anytime, anywhere it might happen, you'd probably see eBook sales skyrocket. The problem with the internet is that it's not free and it's not everywhere yet. Lots of technological advances are waiting on that day. Until then, they'll never reach their full potential. Combine this problem with a declining readership anyway, and you've got your problem.

Just my musings on the matter.