Thoughts on BookCamp Toronto 2010

This past Saturday a bunch of local and not-so-local book folks got together for BookCamp Toronto 2010, an “unconference,” which I think is a buzzword for conferences that have seminars rather than lectures or presentations. Most of the sessions were like that: lots of conversation around a particular topic with a moderator (or moderators) keeping things moving. I was a little rusty, but felt at home in almost no time at all. Most of my university courses followed that format, and I was very, very good at university (much better than at this whole grown-up, working-for-a-living thing—that’s why I was so gung-ho about becoming a professor—some people can work a party, some people can work a phone line or a sales floor: I can work a classroom). But in all seriousness, I hope that I was able to add something to the discussion for others. I attended the following sessions:

I hadn’t originally planned to attend the Literate Video Games session, but I’m glad I did. Tim Maly turned out to be an enthusiastic, entertaining moderator (his blog is great too), and while I’m not entirely sure if anything practical was achieved, I feel like I learned quite a bit, and I know that my perspective on gaming has shifted (for the better). The takeaway soundbite was “games explore: books tour” (I’m still thinking about that one; it sounds like it should be right, but I’m not sure my relationships with books or games would always fit into either of those categories, never mind in that particular configuration), but I did take other notes. Probably more notes than in any other session, actually. Most of them were inside baseball ways of talking about gaming concepts (like hard limits and soft limits), different methods of forking narratives (I particularly liked the idea of making it appear as though the players could make extremely granular decisions, while making it functionally impossible to make those decisions alter the overall narrative), and the variety of narrative categories that most existing games fall into.

Tim (I got drunk with him and Mojgan Fay at the pub aftewards; I’m calling him “Tim”) did a show and tell of a number of failed experiments fusing books and games, and a few that, though I haven’t looked very closely at them, seem like perhaps had some limited success. Most of the rest of the session was spent discussing examples of books and games that seemed (to us generally less game-savvy participants) to cross boundaries and push the limits of how mature narrative and interactivity can coexist. I think there were a lot more places the discussion could have gone, especially on a philosophical/theoretical level, but it was simply too early in the morning. Later at the pub Tim said he had been hoping for a later slot for his session, so that folks who had spent the day talking about ebooks could be refreshed by a change of pace, and while I agree that it could have benefited from a later slot, it was one of my favourite sessions.

Taddle Creek editor Conan Tobias was supposed to be one of the moderators of the Literary Publications: the Grassroots session, but he was unable to attend. I was a little disappointed by this session, largely because it seemed to lack focus. I remember Stuart Woods and Clelia Scala spending so much time introducing themselves and their respective publications that I lost track of what the session was supposed to be about. (A quick glance at the official schedule tells me that it was about how (or if) changes in delivery methods and revenue streams are affecting the role of literary magazines and industry journals. There was a lot of anxiety about revenue streams and free or online-specific content, but aside from Clelia Scala (who works for an online-only publication) not everybody seemed to have a clear idea of what their digital presence was for, and I made a point of mentioning it. (You wouldn’t publish a magazine without a clear idea of what you wanted to accomplish; why would you have a website or app or similar without being able to answer the same kinds of questions?)

There were some interesting comments about how certain kinds of magazines will have more success with different approaches, such as paywalls, if they have a built-in audience, such as professionals who require specific kinds of information for their jobs. I was also interested in the idea someone floated that literary journals might be intimidating to those who aren’t “hardcore” book people, or writers themselves. I can certainly identify with this, as I was very intimidated by literary journals when I first discovered them (and to this day I find Brick incredibly condescending and cliquish), but it’s something I haven’t thought much about in a few years, and so have mostly ignored when thinking about how they project themselves online.

The Book as Object session started a little slow. The books—objects—that Stewart and Collings brought with them were beautiful, and I was fascinated by the inside baseball (a phrase I will use as much as possible in this post, expressly to irritate Mr. Beattie) quality of their discussions of paper and binding, but I didn’t go to BookCamp for a show and tell. I went for discussion. But there was discussion! They handed out some lovely blank BookCamp-themed Nice Work notebooks, and we eventually got down to business.

I kinda wish that this session had been closer to the Beyond the Text session on the schedule, because in retrospect some of the ideas from this session would have applied there, and they had completely slipped my mind by then. There was talk of canonicity, the unity of presentation and form (a meta-textual issue), but what really mattered to me was when the issue of context was raised. Stewart and Collings made a point of saying that, despite coming from a pro-books-on-paper perspective, they weren’t there to present an “us versus them” argument (and they didn’t, though it was clear their hearts would never be in electronic books). But they raised the point that, while electronic books are capable of adding context to some experiences (I’m extrapolating quite a bit from what was said, but I’m thinking about things like integrated GPS in readers like iPhones triggering, say, updates and add-ons to travel guides), what they do is strip context away from certain kinds of texts. I see this quite a bit at my day job, actually. Every day I work with books that are decades, if not centuries old. The quality of the binding and the paper, the care that’s been taken to preserve the book (or the evidence of frequent use) can say a lot not only about how the owner of the book felt about it, but how the publisher saw the book. Was it intended as ephemera, or was it some kind of prestige edition? If electronic books truly do come to dominate the marketplace, it will be much more difficult for scholars (or anyone else) to rely on meta-textual cues to determine the place a book has (or had) in society. This swings around to my arguments about tacit and selected knowledge from the other day, actually. What judgements will we be able to make about texts the longer they stay in the network, and what tools will be available for us to make them?

We also discussed Charlie Stross’ idea that the 20th Century will one day be seen as a kind of dark ages. Up until fairly recently (in relative terms), books were a millennial technology. If well made they could last for hundreds, if not thousands of years (when in Cairo in 1997 I saw codices made from papyrus that were thousands of years old), but the vast majority of the books printed in my lifetime will not survive much beyond me, if they make it that far. And I can guarantee you that other common forms of storage, like tape, optical discs, and magnetic hard drives won’t last even that long. Stross predicts that there will be technologies, like memory diamonds, that will allow us to store an entire lifetime of data in absurdly small and impossibly robust artifacts, but we aren’t even close to being there yet. Digital preservation is part of what I do for a living, and even I know that right now the best technology we have for long-term data storage is the printed book.

Though the future isn’t entirely clear, and I’m slightly pessimistic about some of the larger publishers, I left this session feeling optimistic that there will still be a place for small-scale, bespoke printing presses and publishers.

The CBC’s Canada Reads session was, despite the more structured format with a panel at the front, one of the most light and informal sessions. It was mostly a way to give face-to-face feedback to some of the folks behind Canada Reads‘ online presence, with the folks behind a couple of the homespun responses on the panel as well. The panel introduced themselves and each gave a spiel about who they were and what their roles were, with Jen, Kerry and Steven talking about the various reactionary projects. There were heartfelt stories shared about what Canada Reads means to listeners, families bonding over it, etc. All very pleasant. Some of us who run blogs spoke about what got us involved this year (I originally wanted to publicly trash Generation X because I promised Rebecca Rosenblum that I would explain what I thought was wrong with it, but the CBC’s willingess to engage with feedback from the public—both positive and negative—is what made me decide to do the whole shebang), and my “direct, refreshing and a little curmudgeonly” comments, which included some not very flattering statements about the Ceeb’s site layout, have caused Bronwyn Kienapple to wonder if I might be the next Steven Beattie. There was a lot of debate about the format of the show, which I think provided both useful and not so useful data to the folks from the Ceeb about what works and what doesn’t. I enjoyed this session, but I don’t think I got as much food for thought out of it as I did from some of the others.

One of my very favourite sessions of the day was Venturing Beyond the Text, moderated by Ian Barker. I wasn’t sure what to expect based on the session description, but there was a lot of very interesting discussion on more theoretical/philosophical issues than most of the other sessions. I wish there had been a bigger turnout for this session, because it certainly deserved it. Barker talked about how the linearity of most content “infected” our concept of what an electronic book could—or should—be. I thought that was a very useful way to phrase it; ideas enter the networks that are our worldviews, and are either repelled, or absorbed and allowed to replicate to the network as a whole. It’s how memes work; it’s how we develop the individual biases that determine how we move through the world, and create the things that we leave behind us. Have we not, as readers as much as writers and publishers, failed to take advantage of the special properties of electronic books, such as their special potential for non-linearity? We’re not capable of seeing past the concepts that have already taken root. It’s why we’re finding that simply transposing printed matter into ebook formats isn’t working (at this point I’m hearing echoes of the complaints about Zinio and ebooks distributed as PDF in the Grassroots session).

Looking over my notes from this session I realize there’s enough good ideas for a whole series of blog posts (and I already have one in the works for the class/access issues that were raised—I admit that I was disappointed that there was essentially zero class awareness at the conference in any of the sessions I attended but this one, and it only came up because I brought it up, but that in itself is a whole other post). There were even some useful things said about how publishers can adjust the way they fund projects internally to make electronic revenue streams more viable (see? you practical-minded people missed some good shit).

The biggest takeaway for me was that the “culture” of/around books is as much about what we do with them as it is about things like academic discourse, traditional booksellers, or the printing press and publishing process. Rather than asking ourselves, “what things are ubiquitous in the ebook space?” we have to ask “what things should be ubiquitous in the ebook space?” That means paying more attention to what the audience needs from ebooks than from what the publishers need, and I’m not really talking about the money problem. Electronic books need to be fast to access and move through. Tim Maly spoke at the pub later that night about how sluggish the Kobo felt when moving from page to page, and how agonizingly long it took to go from deciding to read a book to actually having the first page open to read. Those problems need to be solved. One of the best things I’ve read about over the last few days is that there are no ebook readers that allow you to have more than one book open at once, using something like a tabbing system. That kind of access to multiple texts is integral to how scholars and students work with books. In fact, when writing my last blog post, I at one point had six different documents open at once, some books, some downloaded research papers, some web pages. Sharing is currently integral to the culture of books. Also, we tend to think of reading as a kind of extension of speech, a kind of formalized oral culture (it’s really the poets who tricked us into believing this nonsense), but it’s a visual medium, which means that spatial awareness and sense memory come into play. Doing boolean seraches and what not is certainly handy, but it assumes that one always knows what what one is looking for in a given text, and long experience has taught me that straight up isn’t true. Often as a student I would have to go back to a book knowing there was a passage in there somewhere—an idea I didn’t think important enough to note my first time through—that was now essential to what I was working on, and all I could remember about it was where it was in the book. What side of the page it was on, how far down, and about yay far into the book. I ask you: how do I find that kind of information in ebooks? I’ve got certain tricks for finding web pages I’ve visited that way, but it’s actually hugely time consuming and cumbersome. Barker asserted, and I agree entirely, that these basic, simple, bog-standard elements of book culture need to be made bulletproof before we move onto the bells and whistles in order to be sure that electronic books really do live up to their potential. Now don’t you wish you’d been there?

I was exhausted by the time we came around to the last panel (Building and Sustaining a Community of Readers Online), though it was the one that attracted me to this year’s lineup in the first place (well, okay, so did reading last year’s twitter feed and roundup blog posts). The best assessment I’ve seen of this session so far is this one by Charlotte Ashley, so definitely read that, but I do have a few thoughts. First: nobody was ever really able to give a clear definition of what they meant when they used the word “community”. I’ve been doing this whole online community thing for at least a decade now, and in my opinion Facebook and Twitter are networks, not communities. All three panelists seemed to be using the word “community” as a catch-all for several different levels of online social interaction, with no clear idea of what made those layers distinctive (or at least, none were presented when I asked about it). I did my best to keep my questions focused on the professional/marketing implications, because most of the folks there seemed to be in the industry, and that’s the level that appeared to be interesting them the most (not necessarily what interested them the most as people, but in terms of why they were at BookCamp to begin with), but I really just wanted to scream out that we’d been having the debates of what community meant online and how to keep them functioning for years, and largely the secret is that the ties that bind must be human rather than economic; it doesn’t matter that you brought them all together to sell them things. They won’t stay together if they can’t make human bonds with each other independently of what you want from the community, and those reasons must be their own, and not part of an agenda, or there will be tremendous resistance. I have seen so many communities fall apart because the folks who pay the bills weren’t able to let go of their agenda for five minutes. But at the same time, I’m still an industry outsider, and as curmudgeonly as I am, even I can find the idea of tromping through somebody else’s livelihood with my size twelve combat boots more than a little daunting. I got the impression from the Canada Reads panel that Kimberly Walsh would have gotten it, but I wasn’t getting that vibe from Tan Light, and to be honest, Meg Mathur is a little intimidating. But anyway, read Charlotte Ashley’s post about the session.

The gathering at the pub was pretty great. I had some excellent French fries, far too many whiskey sours, and a lot of great conversations, especially with Mojgan Fay and Tim Maly. I guarantee you more than one blog post will come out of those conversations. For anyone interested in going to next year’s, do it. I met some amazing folks. Many thanks to those who put in all the hard work making this thing happen.

For further reading: Mark Bertils has collected links to the post-BCTO10 coverage all in one post.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

3 Comments

  1. “…I left this session feeling optimistic that there will still be a place for small-scale, bespoke printing presses and publishers.”
    We’re feeling optimistic that way, too. Thanks for covering our session. We were initially nervous about being the only p-people in a distinguished schedule of e-people…but we had a wonderful time and came away with much to think about.
    I wish I had attended Ian Barker’s “Venturing Beyond the Text”, so thanks for covering it. I’ll look forward to your promised future posts on it.
    Your comment that reading is really “a visual medium, which means that spatial awareness and sense memory come into play” rings true to me. You give the example of searching for a particular passage in a book based on spatial cues. More often that I’d like to admit, I’ve forgotten the title, and the author, but managed to find a book I needed because I remembered the colour of the cover and roughly where it was in the library. I completely agree with your assessment that e-books won’t be all they can be until they can duplicate that sort of human-factors requirement. (Apparently I am not alone in my need for a library catalogue that can be searched by colour: http://www.daveyp.com/blog/archives/170)

  2. Thanks for the round up! I wish I’d gone to Venturing Beyond the Text. I agree that the Canada Reads session was fun but there was no real takeaway to be had and that the Online Communities session seemed slightly fraught with agenda. Relationships before business, always. Sorry didn’t catch you on Sat but I’m sure we’ll run into each other soon!

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