Future of the Book

Since I started working in earnest on my new book (tentatively titled The Big Book of Christian Mysticism) last month, I’ve written about 13,000 words and have harvested another 10k or so from various parts of this website. That represents a little less than 1/6 of what the total book should be (yes, that’s 150,000 words, like I said, the tentative title has “big book” in it). Of course, all this is first/rough draft material, which will be revised, reworked, rewritten, reorganized, many times before I dare to let my editor see it.

Even though I’m barely into the project (my deadline is 1/31/09, so I still have thirteen months to go), what I’m already noticing is a tension between blogging and bookwriting. Blogging is, to be blunt, more fun. Immediate feedback, questions or criticisms that force me to rethink or more persuasively argue my points, the ability to dance across a wide range of topics, the freedom to be humble and tentative about all my “I don’t knows,” the challenge of always thinking about keeping my entries short enough to avoid losing readers (ha! I’m not very good at that one) — in short, the rules are considerably different for maintaining a blog and authoring a book.

I’ve had a website since 1996 (when I was writing my first book), but didn’t start blogging (via LiveJournal) until the summer of 2003, and for the first fourteen months or so on LJ, I was worse than sporadic. So really, it’s only been since the fall of 2004 — when I began to realize that I was being called to enter the Catholic faith — that I have been regularly blogging. That is also, not coincidentally, about the time that I finished writing my last two books (366 Celt and the co-authored Magic of the Celtic Gods and Goddesses, which were written more or less simultaneously). So, basically, I was a book writer who happened to have a website from 1996 to 2004, when I stopped writing books and took up blogging.

So now I’m going for the Hegelian synthesis, since I want to keep blogging while I write the new book. Much has changed in the last three and a half years: in the summer of ’04 I knew I was in love with Christian mysticism, but I had no connection with the monastery where I now work, I had never heard of the emergent community, or house churches, or even Google alerts. So in many ways, not only am I spiritually in a radically different place than I was at the writing of my last book, but I have an entirely new and different perspective on writing and information as well.

But I’m digressing a bit. Back to the point of this post: in just the past year (and for the first three months of 2007 I was on a “blog sabbatical”) this website has received almost as many page views as the combined sales of all ten of my books. And it won’t be long before my blog readership overtakes my book readership, given how rapidly the hits on this site continue to grow (it looks like December could be as high as 15% above November’s traffic). I suppose this bodes well for the sales of my new book (which won’t be published until late 2009 at the earliest). But on the other hand, why put so much energy into a big, clunky book which is neither interactive nor conducive to ongoing discourse, if I’m already reaching a large and growing readership via the blog? Frankly, the only reason I’m writing a book at this point is because I’m getting paid to do so. I guess my editor should be thankful that I haven’t monetized this blog!

Which makes me wonder about the future of the book. I know this is a big, pretentious, portentous topic, and up until very recently I thought the cyberwonks who are predicting the demise of the book were overblown. But now, I’m not so sure. As much as I’ve loved writing books over the years (and so far, I’m having lots of fun with the newest one, too), I’m beginning to wonder, given the power and flexibility of the blog and the onset of new, eye-friendly technologies like Kindle, if books as we’ve known it really are heading in the same direction as the 8-track tape.

I’ll try to keep you posted on my thoughts re. this topic over the next year, as I continue to simultaneously blog and bookwrite. Meanwhile, this morning I found a blog on this topic that looks interesting: Institute for the Future of the Book.

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  1. One thing you might have forgotten – this is a mighty contentious topic as well. I’ve seen people weep from frustration over the debate. I work in the library of a liberal arts college and the debate looms so large we are often afraid to discuss it (to our mutually agreed peril). Not only are there the harrowed discussions over how to build the collection of the future, but also how to please the classics professors who knew Homer personally as well as the newly minted computer science Ph.Ds. Right now, the profession seems to have agreed that we must remain “nimble” (and it has not been lost upon us that “nimble sounds a bit like “Kindle”).
    In debating the universe that is the printed word, one librarian offered this thought: “no new technology has ever completely replaced another.” Even if the few abaci we keep around exist simply for sentimental reasons, they are still part of the culture (if kept in museums or made by Fisher Price these days). As for 8-track tapes, well, I don’t think anyone ever thought that technology was a perfect and immortal as that of the book.

    And that is the thing about books, as much as an individual volume is unspeakably fragile, the concept that is bound pages seems destined to endure. I think this is especially true when one is writing about mysticism. As much as the Christian mystical tradition is one that dances beyond language into pure experience, it is inextricably rooted in the text of Bible and in the writings of saints who have passed their wisdom on to us. Very soon, I expect things like “Web Hosting for Dummies” will only be a memory on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, but a book such as yours still has a place in the tactile world. It is yet to be seen whether we can establish a relationship with the digitized text on a Sony Reader, but for now there are more than enough of us who need to learn of something as life altering as the Dark Night of the Soul by way of a more familiar vehicle.

    Write on!

  2. I don’t know — there’s something about being able to hold a book in my hands, fan through it and take a deep breath of that “page” smell. And I panic when reading something online, that I can’t go back or forward to where I want to go — it’s as if I don’t trust the ether to put me where I need to be; with a book I can see what I’m doing. But the main thing is, when I have a book, I have it — it’s mine, not just words on a screen.

  3. Fahrenheit 451.

    Books R Us.

    Please write this, Carl. I promise to buy a copy! And you can tell your editors.

    Love, Peter

  4. Reading online and reading a book are to me like the differences between masturbation and making love

    Not that I don’t love online! I loves it, I loves it, I loves it. I just don’t think it’s gonna replace books (but then again, who knows what is gonna happen in the future?)

  5. As always, it’s wonderful to get such great feedback. I think most of you are, naturally enough, arguing for the future of the book from the perspective of the reader. And I agree with all of you 100%, which is why up to now I’ve been so skeptical of all the “death of the book” prognosticators. Still, as an author I have to be honest about my ambivalence about the process of writing a book, when compared to the joy of blogging. This ambivalence may change as I get more deeply into this project. So stay tuned.

  6. On a mundane level, it is possible (OK, maybe not probable, but possible) to make a living as a book-author. To make a living as a blogger, you’d have to turn your blog into something quite different from what it already is and start going after advertisers.

    Also, a book is an object that exists. Blogs exist only in cyberspace. I’ve written some wonderful blogposts that very few people are going to ever read again unless they go trolling through my archives of 300+ blog entries. And some of your best writing, Carl (written during your transition from Pagan to Christian), is no longer available online. I hope it shows up in one of your books.

  7. Certainly, my blog isn’t monetized and I’m not interested in selling my soul to advertisers. On the other hand, blogging is such a new medium that who knows what it will look like, financially speaking, in another 10, 50, or 100 years?

    Trust me: it is extremely difficult to make a living as an author. I’ll grant that a small number of novelists can make a go of it, but without exception every nonfiction author I’ve ever met has had some other source of income: a trust fund, a teaching or therapy gig, a spouse with a successful career. When I teach “how to get published” seminars, I always drive home two facts: 1. Don’t quit your day job, and 2. Try to build an income stream through teaching or speaking. From where I sit, Darrell, since books don’t make that much money and blogs are more fun to write, I have to weigh all the factors. And yes, the “thingyness” of books is a factor in their favor.

    As for the archiving issue, certainly blog archives are more accessible than magazine back issues or out of print books. Granted, as we move more into a print on demand model of publishing, “out of print” will cease to be an issue. But a book sitting on a shelf gathering dust serves the same function as a blog archive (only the blog archive remains searchable).

    As for my Pagan-to-Catholic writing, it’s all still on my LiveJournal blog, but I’ve removed the public settings on them because I got tired of the flames from fundamentalist-minded Pagans. It’s on my to-do list to import them into the Website of Unknowing, at which time they’ll be public and Googlable again. Like you, I also hope some of what I wrote in 2004-2005 will make it into a book someday.

  8. I say follow your creative urge and God will sort out the rest. If you feel called the write this book, as it seems to me you clearly do, this is God speaking to you. It’s not up to you whether the book is a success, is published or anything else. That’s up to God. It’s the process in your own life and between you and the Divine that matters. Follow your calling!

    Wishing you a happy New Year.

  9. I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole question recently, Carl. One or two people have asked me when I was going to “turn the Mercy Site into a book,” and yet at the same time I’ve been finding the blog a great place to explore ideas without the constraint of having to decide when a MS is “finished” enough to send off. I may be wrong, but it sometimes seems to me that I can say and think more, and more courageously, in the blog format than I can writing for publication.

    Like you, I’ve had a fair amount (several books, and lots of contributions in magazines and things) published in the past, so I’ve not many illusions about either making a living from non-fiction, nor the “magic” of having a book in print. We are at a strange turning point in history, and the Internet has changed everything.

    I write a little music, too, and with that I have absolutely no desire to try and interest a “proper” record label. Netlabels are becoming the chief means of distributing (often under Creative Commons) experimental music. A couple of my pieces have been used, under CC, in soundtracks to videos whose producers could never have afforded to use them had they been distributed by a record label. This gives me far more satisfaction than a few pounds in royalties, even supposing anyone were prepared to pay to use my work!

    Am I arguing myself out of paper publication altogether, and into online distribution? Certainly the argument from ecology looks promising, though what is the carbon footprint of a server farm compared with that of a printing press? I don’t know…

    As far as girlwhocriedepiphany’s point about the enduring quality of books is concerned, I wonder if an individual title, in a print run of a few hundred, is all that enduring. Surely in the long run James Bond is more likely to survive than Brother Ramon, just because Fleming’s print runs were so much longer, and so it would be hard for all his books to be lost. The Internet (saving some global EMP catastrophe) is perhaps as likely to preserve material in the long term as print.

    The tactile quality of books? I’ve never been impressed by the tactile quality of mass-market paperbacks – and the “look and feel” of a good website is quite tactile in a virtual kind of way!

    I don’t know. Swings and roundabouts. Let’s keep talking – and praying!

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