Books in Browsers 2012 – A Watershed?

I wanted this post—which is my reconstruction of what I saw and thought while at Books in Browsers last month in San Francisco—to be short and pithy and thematic. But it isn’t… my attempts to get it all down in writing have instead produced this rather long and meandering narrative. For posterity’s sake then, if not literature, here’s my report.

BiB12 felt like a watershed moment. It felt like the day the universe changed. In hindsight, I’m now less sure how much of that feeling was due to what was actually presented onstage and how much was more about the place, the atmosphere, the light (more on that in a bit). You must understand that news of the Random House-Penguin merger was released on the morning of the first day of #BiB12, and the way that news was received there—with a kind of bemused sigh—tells you something about the event.

Books in Browsers is a “future-of-publishing” conference. It is arguably the future-of-publishing conference right now. As the name suggests, it is loosely arranged around the idea that the future of the book is wrapped up in the future of the (Web) browser. The people who are at least somewhat comfortable with this idea are the people who go to BiB, a smaller (<200) crowd than O’Reilly’s mighty Tools of Change to be sure but with a fair bit of overlap with that conference, especially in the ‘startups’ sector. I like to think of the BiB crowd as the people who are most likely to actually reconceive and rebuild publishing in the 21st century. It is not a conference heavily attended by representatives of New York houses; without wanting to make too much of the cultural contrasts, it’s a San Francisco event.

BiB has a single conference track consisting of 16–18 sessions per day, over two days. It’s pretty intense, and I felt completely exhausted at the end of each day after so much thinking. Organizers Peter Brantley and Kat Meyer did a stunning job of orchestrating something resembling a narrative arc out of all those sessions—or at least the illusion of an arc. Let me see if I can tell it.

While Craig Mod’s was technically the first session, it felt to me that Brian O’Leary was the opener, setting the tone for the discussions to follow. In “The Library Within Us,” the 3rd (annual) installment of O’Leary’s big-picture analysis, his tone was ominous:

A year ago, I was optimistic that publishers and supply-chain partners would soon see their mutual need for a data-driven reconsideration of why publishing exists and the purposes it can serve. I’m no longer optimistic.”

Far from plotting a course for the digital renewal of publishing as we know it, O’Leary paused, and suggested that “the opportunity in abundance will not accrue to the incumbents.” The inertia of business-as-usual and unfliching faith in publishers’ traditional role stands in the way of the traditional industry’s capacity to serve a new “network publishing” that is driven by what customers already want, and what they can already themselves do.

The inadequacy of current approaches to digital technology in publishing was underscored dramatically later that morning by Laura Dawson, Manager of ‘Emerging Identifiers’ at Bowker. Dawson’s talk, “When A Book is Not A Book,” began by noting a 3600% increase in the number of active ISBNs in Bowker’s database in the past decade or so—not merely because it is easier and easier to create and publish new material, but also because “with the web, nothing goes away – it only accumulates.” So the current industry obsession with “getting metadata right” (something with which Dawson herself has been instrumental in recent years), while noble, is just not going to cut it:

…that’s lovely and all of these are worthy goals, but at a rate of increase of 3600% over 14 years, I’d argue that publishers who are thinking in this very linear way might as well be chiseling books in stone tablets. Because that kind of thinking is inadequate to the environment we’re in and (barring apocalypse) will be in forever.”

In a rapidly expanding universe of “containerless, abundant, persistent content,” Dawson argued, “the only way to instill any order or sense on this information overload… is to create links in it.” That is to say, the old model of data and business management, to catalogue and gain top-down control of information and data flows, is not going to be enough. The only model we have for dealing with the kind of abundance the Web brings is the Web itself.

“Creating links in it” opened the way to a half-dozen sessions over the two days that probed the problems presented by the current notion of ebooks as hermetically sealed containers for content. Liz Castro, who “wrote the book” on creating ebooks (along with a long, long string of computer and digital publishing books over the years), spoke eloquently about the virtues of creating ebook content in small, timely, modular offerings rather than, er, monographs. Anna Lewis’ startup, Valobox unveiled a new business model for accessing and addressing specific content within ebooks, thereby allowing linking in and out of books. Mobnotate’s Ricky Wong demoed a stunning algorithmically cross-indexed mash-up of Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography with Steve Wozniak’s iWoz, allowing a reader to jump back and forth between the texts, topic-by topic.

Stefanie Syman of The Atavist spoke on “our new reading habits” in light of a decade of mass Web use—habits which now include the assumption of on-tap reference material like Wikipedia, mass-scale on-tap image libraries (provided by Flickr, Google, Tumblr, etc.), and ubiquitous mapping and location-aware services. We expect these in our reading experiences, she argued, so where are they in the books we read? Syman’s “reading habits” was echoed the second day by Kassia Krozser’s plea for a recognition of “real readers” rather than the industry’s notions of the (platonic) idealized reader.

The bons mots on the notion of escaping from the self-contained ebook came from GG-winning novelist and hypermedia author Kate Pullinger, who coined a term: “my digital fiction projects have succeeded at least in part because they are spreadable.” Pullinger also evocatively acknowledged the parallel “influence of Hugh McGuire and Henry Jenkins.” Nice pairing.

Lightweight tools and workflows

A second major theme was kicked off first thing Thursday morning by Craig Mod’s championing of what he called “subcompact publishing” in contrast with the heavy, expensive attempts of the magazine industry love affair with the first wave of iPad apps. Mod spoke of the power of simple markup, small files, and miminalist UI.

“Lightweight markup” proved to be a recurring theme, alluded to by many a presenter. A thorough treatment was provided by O’Reilly Media’s Adam Witwer, who outlined the company’s new ‘Atlas’ workflow, a system front-ended by the Markdown-like AsciiDoc as an authoring environment. My own session, “The Webby Future of Structured Markup,” followed Witwer’s, taking more of a historical perspective. But the best quote on the topic came from Safari Books’ Liza Daly: “Authoring tools need to become invisible. Nobody’s going to learn your markup language.”

Late in the afternoon of the first day, Peter Collingridge (formerly of Enhanced Editions) gave a passionate address-“Failure is an Option”—in which he provided something of a bookend to Brian O’Leary’s fading optimism moment from the morning. Collingridge lamented Publishing’s tragic lack of agility (my word, not his), and the “soul-crushing” experience of trying to introduce real innovation, digital marketing, and data-driven decision making into traditional publishing environments. He quoted one of his investors as saying, “Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”—and then Mark Zuckerberg: “the only strategy guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” Collingridge is with Safari Books now.

“The shredded, still-throbbing bleeding edge of what’s possible” – @ljndawson

Books in Browsers is known for showcasing mind-blowing new stuff, and this year was no exception. In roughly chronological order:

Ben Moskovitz from Mozilla showed Popcorn, an HTML5 platform and javascript library that demonstrated how video and text are—practically, now—of the same stuff and can be treated somewhat interchangeably. Popcorn is capable of some pretty cool transcription/video interaction; the most amazing was the possibility of editing video clips by editing their transcripts. Text and other media are not separate realities anymore.

Liza Daly & Keith Fahlgren nearly pulled off a live demo of real-time voice-recognition+live editing+twitter-commentary (got all that?) in a Google Doc. In a sense, this showed a flip-side of Ben Moskovitz’s Popcorn presentation, this time with voice recognition providing the core text which is edited and added to by a number of people collaborating in real time—what they called “distributed marginalia.” The future is so much more collaborative (and effortless) than we generally imagine. Workflow becomes radically parallelized; “All the world’s an editor.”

Blaine Cook & Maureen Evans unveiled their new project,, which is a whole new way to look at editorial that harkens back to the way copyediting used to be done: with a red pen on a double-spaced hardcopy, and with the goal of conducting a conversation with an author. recreates the red-line copyediting experience in a web page, with the benefits of the Web: shareable, collaborative, in real time, with multiple participants. The presentation provoked astonished gasps as the people in the room recognized an older model of editing, where the text is encountered apart from the writing environment that produced it, and where the careful consideration of the words creates an ongoing dialogue between author and editor, a relationship based on communication and trust. By putting this model in the browser, the old meets the new. “Everyone writes… everyone edits,” says Maureen, opening up a whole new mode for web participation. “What we’re trying to create is a sense of joy.”

The last mind-blower for me was Adam Hyde’s Booktype, presented in the guise of a talk on collaboration in writing. Hyde is perhaps best known for the “book sprints” idea, where a group of people get together to write a book (often an educational text) in a matter of a few days. What I didn’t know was that underneath that phenomenon is a growing collection of open-source tools—an entire platform, really—for publishing. Near the end of his talk, he very quickly demoed a book typesetting system that runs in the browser, in Javascript. Here, truly, are books in browsers: not just for reading on screens, but potentially all of a book production process happening within the Web’s seemingly boundless horizon.

Is that enough?

That’s a small representation of the kind of sessions that went on in San Francisco in October. I cannot, however, begin to represent BiB12 without also talking about the physical location. In sharp contrast with the typical darkened hotel conference space hung with heavy velvet curtains, BiB took place at the Internet Archive, a converted Christian Science church. The church’s huge square hall features a domed ceiling and massive panes of golden glass on the sides, and the warm light shining through on the assembled audience was nothing short of glorious. How could one fail to be optimistic about the future of books in such a place? The Internet Archive also proved to be a great conference host, with live music in the interstitial times in the schedule, lunch out on the wide stone steps leading to Funston St, and the ever-present hum of the Archive’s servers. I must also acknowledge the little people—the Terracotta Archivists—who filled the pews on either side of the room. I could go on… but I’ll leave it at that.

Some Takeaways

The zeitgeist of BiB12, if I can speak for it at all, is about moving on. Brian O’Leary’s claim that “the opportunity in abundance will not accrue to the incumbents” means that change—and the future of books and publishing—likely won’t come from within the established industry, but from beyond it, and beside it, and amidst it. The people assembled at BiB12 are all pretty close to publishing; many are ex-insiders, many are entrepreneurs working with publishers, and a good number represent newer, mostly smaller-scale publishing firms.

Peter Brantley wrote (obstensibly citing me, though I don’t recall saying it this well) that we witnessed a “transcendence of contemporary publishing… not trying to repair or modernize publishing, but … designing new solutions for a world in which storytelling takes advantage of networked tools for sharing insights and art.” That sums it up pretty well for me. I see this not as a turning away from the traditions, the craft, the art of books and publishing, but a moving beyond.

In a later follow-up post, Laura Dawson wrote of “Rhizomes and Disruption”—invoking Deleuze as well as her own garden—“taking the rhizomes of what we know—storytelling, expression, documentation, encoding, promulgation—and breaking them up, replanting them in a different way.” That sounds like what BiB was about this year.

I will end with my favourite quote of the conference, from Blaine Cook (while onstage with

“The logic of river is expressed by its banks… The friction between the river and the landscape creates what is lasting.”

Some other BiB coverage:

Video of most of the BiB sessions (a YouTube channel):