Re-inventing the book: on the papernet, pod and the unbook

20 May 2009 | Articles, Non-fiction

Mind-map: using the papernet to produce books just for you. Photo: Brian Suda

Mind-map: using the papernet to produce books just for you. - Photo: Brian Suda

Just as Books from Finland finally goes online, the brightest minds of the internet are forecasting a return to paper. In the first of a series of articles, the poet and scholar Teemu Manninen celebrates the second coming of the book

Last week I did something I’ve never done before. I uploaded the manuscript of my third book on to the website Books on Demand, an internet print-on-demand (‘pod’) service, chose the format (a large 19×22 cm size with a hard cover), selected a picture for my cover, copy-pasted a poem by Clark Ashton Smith – an American science fiction and fantasy writer – on the back flap and ordered a copy.

The project is a private one; no one else can order the book. You might ask why I would do something like this – however, a more interesting question, I think, is why it feels entirely natural and logical to do it.

These days everyone is talking about the way that traditional print media are dying because of the internet. But the internet itself has not stopped developing, and where it’s going in 2009 is surprising. The tech-wise and internet savvy are suddenly interested in plain old paper. What the most avid minds are talking about now is something called the ‘papernet’: the extension of the internet on to traditional paper media. But what would a papernet be like? Specifically, what would it mean for a Finnish poet working today?

Let me give you some examples. In 2005–2006, I became acquainted with some Finnish poets who were publishing their work on the web. Janne Nummela had been using search engines to trawl up bits of language from the internet to compose his imaginative, superbly funny surrealist collages. Karri Kokko had a project called ‘Varjofinlandia’ (‘Shadowfinland’), where he had been collecting sentences and bits of discourse concerning depression and anxiety to make a ‘confessional’ short novel. Inspired by these poets, I thought, could we go a step further and make the process of writing a poetry book ‘live’: an ongoing, public event available for comment?


My second poetry book, Lohikäärmeen poika (‘The dragon’s son’, 2008), evolved from a blog into a printed book published by Tammi, a traditional publishing house. In the process, many things changed; working with an editor, a graphic design department, and a publishing house with its own ways of doing things inevitably does that. I feel that the book lost some of its immediacy and resonance once it was taken off the net; it lost contact with the sustaining conversation that had produced it.

I do acknowledge the values of traditional methods of publishing. A good working relationship with an editor is integral for me, not to mention the resources for marketing and publicity, which the poetry scene, as a culture defined by an economy of scarcity, tends to want to downplay. Poetry is, after all, a bad investment for publishers. Then again, the amount of poetry this economy of scarcity makes available is only a tiny slice of what could be out there. Also, do we really want a handful of people (the editorial boards of publishing companies) deciding what’s worth publishing?

An answer to these questions came in 2007–2008, when the Finnish poetry publishing scene changed radically. First, the poetry organisation Nihil Interit began publishing poetry books with the pod publisher Kirja kerrallaan (‘A book at a time’), under the imprint poEsia. These books are available as downloadable ebooks or normal printed versions. Then the poet Leevi Lehto established his own pod publishing company, ntamo, with the aim of publishing more poetry than all the traditional publishing houses put together. The visual and conceptual poet Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s Ankkuri is a similar company.

And then one day I saw Karri Kokko, who had made an experimental ‘version’ of his unpublished poems using the internet pod publisher Lulu. We talked about the possibilities inherent in pod publishing, some of these being rather practical, as in simply making a collection of everything you have written to take with you to readings.

But other ideas soon became apparent: what would ‘podism’, the DIY publishing revolution with its new forms of production, circulation and consumption of printed materials, really mean for literary culture?

Enter the papernet: the internet as a platform for producing, on demand, paper products (maps, organisers, notebooks, social travel guides and the like). Imagine, for instance, that your printer had its own email-address, and instead of your newspaper delivered to your door each morning, your printer would print it out for you. Depending on what kinds of feeds you are currently following, your morning paper could be a mix of the best of New York Times, Helsingin Sanomat and Le Monde, for instance. (And I’m not talking about the kind of printers we have now, but much better ones; ones that could print out not only newspapers, but paperback books or broadsheets or even glossy magazines.) Imagine, also, that books were no longer tied to the cost-heavy machinery of traditional publishing houses, which can only produce one book in one edition at one moment of time. If the audiovisual industry is already changing because of electronic distribution, imagine when the same thing happens to books.

Except that these things are not imaginary. They are already happening. Perhaps the most interesting is the current idea of the ‘unbook’. The concept was invented by Jay Cross, an internet consultant known for his work on informal learning and systems thinking, and Dave Gray, the founder and chairman of XPLANE, a ‘visual thinking company’, although both imply that they are only describing practices which already exist.

Whereas a traditional book is published in editions whenever it gets revised (or it has sold out), an unbook is released in versions (1.0, 1.13, 2.0 etc) which are never finished but always open to feedback from readers. Both Cross and Gray have written books by bringing the readers along into the process of editing their content even before publication. As Gray says, ‘the dialogue is critically important to the development of the ideas, and now that I have tried this approach I can’t imagine doing a book any other way.’

An unbook is, then, more like a community project between authors and their readers than the traditional one-way street of author->publisher->reader. Gray claims such a re-envisioning of the book-making process can change many things: ‘The author can engage readers earlier and respond to criticism faster. A publisher becomes an option rather than a necessity.’

It should be clear by now that my own unbook is not a self-publishing or vanity project. Rather, it is an un-book only in the sense that is un-done (I also happen to think that the name ‘unbook’ is a little too coy). What’s central to me is the idea of experimenting with the composition process, but also of taking more control over the material existence of what I write, of trying out ways of graphically representing my work in the best possible way. We writers aren’t usually very good at that; the history of the book trade is a history of outsourcing everything that’s material about writing to everyone else except the author. In the past, this has been necessary, because the technology simply could not be owned or mastered by one person. Now it can be, and you don’t even have to leave your house to be able to do it.

I don’t know if this experiment will lead me to new ways of making books. Poetry is, after all, very different from the kinds of things Cross and Gray are writing: books on visual culture and ‘e-learning’. Sometimes it seems to me that the most I might achieve is an understanding of how to design a book so that it can communicate something by its material form. But all this is so new. We don’t know where the papernet will go.

Sometimes I like to imagine that the papernet could represent a return to pre-print ideas of written communication, where important texts were compiled into ‘commonplace books’, or personal, annotated anthologies. They were singular objects made by their users to fit their personal needs. Text and authorship were malleable, pliant, and much more organic than in our time. What if the poetry books of the future were like that: ‘paper ipods’, or anthologies that readers could themselves compile and print?

Sometimes I’m simply reminded of the aura of singularity and originality surrounding authorial manuscripts as artefacts, something Walter Benjamin, one of the most important literary critics and philosophers of the early twentieth century, argued art lost when the age of mechanical reproduction began – but the manuscripts, I think, still retain that aura. Perhaps the unbook could be a way to let the printed book share some of the hand-written aura of manuscripts?

We must constantly invent new containers for books to burst out of, because they exceed their material form: books are never finished. And that’s a good thing for us readers.

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1 comment:

  1. n Starsmore

    Just very interesting and exciting, the lovely mix of sense, judgement and technology.


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