Thinking about Books


Disclosure: I am a bibliophile. No, make that book addict. My house is filled with overflowing bookcases. Books are my friends. I never leave home without one.

Nontheless, I am beginning to wonder if the nonfiction book isn't becoming an anachronism. The world flows; books are still.

  • Books end but new insights never stop coming.

  • Books freeze the content but there's always room for improvement.

  • Books don't take advantage of feedback; they assume the author got it right the first time.

  • Giving the author sole authority runs counter to the belief that "All of us are smarter than one of us."

A couple of weeks ago, I completed writing a 100-page document on the metrics of corporate learning. It's a file. I labeled it an "eBook." My promotional copy says, "I pulled together my thoughts on measuring results, added some how-to material, stole items from past white papers, listed the best sources I know, and packed 30,000 witty words into an eBook, named Metrics."

At least one in five buyers sends me a snail mail address so I can send them the book. How can I get the point across? I sense we need a new term for "living book." I never intend to print this book. Several reasons why:

  • My topic is open-ended, so anything I write is but a draft for a better version. The reader who buys the current version receives the next as part of the deal.

  • Readers will make the book more useful, by asking questions, providing examples, and questioning my logic.

  • Updating prolongs shelf life.

  • Commitment to future versions provides an avenue for forming relationships with readers over time.

  • My work will increase in value over time.

  • Uncertainty engages the mind. A few typos improve retention.

  • In time, improved versions will lower the relative value of pirated and stolen copies.
  • Interested in how to measure the results of corporate learning? Buy Metrics. Since I bear no printing and shipping costs, I can sell it for $25.


    In 1970, Uta and I lived in a high-rise apartment building in Wiesbaden, across the Rhine from Mainz. Naturally, we toured the Gutenberg print shop and museum.

    The concepts of moveable type and the printing press bring automation to mind. Seeing a Gutenberg Bible up close brings you back to the reality that medieval times were manual. Printing was but an intermediate step in preparing a bible. Next came the artwork. Color was applied to "illuminations" by hand. Books were revered as art objects. Furthermore, you weren't about to stuff one of these tomes into your pocket to read on the plane. (Paperbacks were not invented until four decades later.)

    Gutenberg Bible, print run of 183 copies, 1452-55

    The Internet Archive Bookmobile

    Contrast this with the Internet Archive Bookmobile. The bookmobile is "a mobile digital library capable of downloading public domain books from the Internet via satellite and printing them anytime, anywhere, for anyone." These bookmobiles are traversing India and parts of Africa. They can download, print, and package any of 25,000 titles for "a buck a book."

    Brewster and his son on tour with the bookmobile.

    What is a book, anyway?

    For most of us, book conjures up an image of a physical thing. The dictionary's first definition reads

      1 a : a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory b : a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume c : a long written or printed literary composition d : a major division of a treatise or literary work

    The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that the physical aspects needn't be books' defining characteristic:

      the very definition of a book as a collection of sheets of paper has also been challenged, as books recorded on audio tape and CD-ROM have become increasingly common and electronic books (small computers designed to display pages of books on their screens) have been introduced.

    What should we call a book o' bits?

    Posted by Jay Cross at December 13, 2003 12:14 PM | TrackBack

Some more musings on What is a book?

Posted by: peterme at December 14, 2003 09:41 AM

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