Publishing Interview: James Bridle

When I first started closely following the big changes in the publishing industry, James Bridle's blog BookTwo was one of my first stops. And since then I've continued to watch with great appreciation as James has pushed and poked at "publishing." The passion that drives his endeavours - passion for books, for words, for writing, for reading - is inspiring. Not a shred of pessimism to be found, only a boundless curiosity, and even more striking, a curiosity that leads James to do things. James is not just a pontificator; he is a hands-on visionary. There are countless armchair philosophers out there who write about the "future of publishing." James actually practices that future, right now. Below, I asked him what he thinks about this whole book thing.

(Photo by Roo Reynolds).

1. You've been involved in so many experimental bookish projects (Bkkeepr, Bookkake, the Twitter book, Bookseer, Enhanced Editions, Golden Notebook). What are you working on now?

At the moment I'm helping to develop a London-wide digital arts project for the 2012 Olympic Games; trying to find the time to put out some more Artists' eBooks; preparing a new Bookkake collection; building a couple more small publishing propositions; filming and writing.

2. Has Bookkake been a success?

Absolutely. It's proved that it's possible to start what amounts to a traditional book publisher with nothing but a laptop. It's proved that POD can form the basis for a real publisher, that the internet marketplace has levelled the playing field between large and very small publishers, and that good design, typography, editorial attention and passion still matter in the age of the ebook. And it's proved that there's very little money in publishing, but we knew that already.

3. Since the dawn of the web, there has been talk of the new things we could do with text. What's wrong with just starting at the beginning and reading until the end?

I don't think anyone's said there is. But the idea that there are other things to do with text than linear narrative has a pretty impressive pre-web history. Leaving aside the fact that we far, far too often conflate the terms "book" and "novel", writers such as Sterne, Woolf, WS Burroughs, BS Johnson, Sebald, Calvino, Perec, Queneau, DF Wallace, Joyce - in fact, anyone who wrote the barest "experimental" work, or even short stories or poetry - to me seem to cry out for an end to the hegemony of the one true book, the relatively recent invention of an industry in need of a packageable format, not some mythical apotheosis of literary form.

4. It seems like we've had the ability to make "enhanced ebooks" for as long as we've had web pages, but no one bothered. What's changed? Why is everyone getting so excited about enhancing ebooks now?

Mobile and dedicated devices. The essence of the book has always been not that it is made of paper, but that you can hold it in your hand. It is /wieldable/ - a very different thing to reading on a computer monitor. Now mobile technology is more available and more advanced, you can read ebooks on the bus, in bed and on the loo, readership is exploding, and publishers are realising they can stick some extras in there too. Whether they should is an entirely different question.

5. What will a "book" mean five years from now?

The same thing: words, bound together. That's pretty much it, whether you're talking pbooks, ebooks or audiobooks. But perhaps even the most literary readers will have come to include notebooks and netbooks and any number of other things in their thinking too.

6. Are publishers really as clueless about digital as everyone seems to think they are?

Absolutely not. If by "publishers" you mean publishing companies, then they are stuffed full with bright, innovative, book-loving folk who want to do the best by their books and their authors. But they are groups of people, and of course opinions differ on what is best for the industry, and of course there are luddites among them. When I started writing almost five years ago, the publishing industry's overwhelming response to ebooks was to put their hands over their ears and sing loudly. This attitude has now changed, almost beyond recognition, and publishers are learning as fast as they can.

We can berate publishers for making what we think are bad decisions about digital, but to accuse them of cluelessness just inflates a very dangerous animosity. Publishers love books as much, if not more, than most readers. It's one of the very few industries where this is true almost all the way up. And we should be working together for the best of all possible futures for books and authors and readers.

6. If you became the Head Decision-Maker at one of the the Big Six tomorrow, what three decisions would you make by next week?

Running on the pretty definite assumption that I won't, I'd say: (1) All ebooks to be released at the same time as paper release, hardback or paperback (this is not about pricing, which is a different fight, just availability). (2) Bundle ebooks with physical book purchases to grow electronic readership. (3) Stop the in-fighting and present a united front to the retailers, particularly Amazon, because there are very real dangers on the horizon.

That said, I wouldn't expect them to be implemented very quickly...

7. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the "future of books" ? Why?

Optimistic. Extraordinarily, joyously, heart-burstingly optimistic. Because I genuinely don't see why we have to nail literary culture to a single format, or why people who love reading will suddenly stop. All I see is an extraordinary, sustained, over-flowing encounter with ideas and stories, across a multiplicity of platforms and practices.

If the publishing industry is myopic in its definition of its own business, then it may well be in for a turbulent time (although, to be honest, it's always a turbulent time in publishing), but the book - and other definitions of "the book" are available - will be just fine.

8. What depresses you most about the book industry?


9. Who's work in the publishing industry has most inspired you in the last year?

Richard Nash's Cursor project (and Richard Nash). Many, many bloggers, but particularly Booksquare and Teleread. Startups like ORBooks, Zero Books, Cow Books and Muumuu House. We Are Words + Pictures. Book Works' Semina series. Supervert. So many more things that I can't possibly remember.

10. Is the novel dead yet?

Two of my favourite books from the last 12 months include Roberto Bolaño's '2666' and Jonathan Littell's 'The Kindly Ones' - both clocking in at well over 900 pages and selling very well indeed. I've recently read three books out now or forthcoming - Max Schaefer's 'Children of the Sun', Emily Mackie's 'And This Is True', Ned Beauman's 'Boxer, Beetle' - that have each challenged, engaged and delighted me in a different, extraordinary way. The novel is not going to die, the book is not going to die, nothing ever really dies, no energy is ever wasted, all manner of things shall be well. I read that in a book somewhere.

[Up next: Don Linn]

[This article cross-posted at the Book Oven Blog]