Why can’t country divorce be easier?

In the US in the 70s, divorce suddenly became o.k.. That is, it became acceptable for married couples to say that things hadn’t worked out, and then split up. Divorced people not only began to fill Updike novels, but were, in the course of time, accepted by and large everywhere as perfectly normal, and went about their lives, often remarrying and even having new families, and no one had to wear a big letter D on his or her chest. The legal changes boiled down to one person being enough to initiate a divorce, but of course this wasn’t so much a cause as an effect of a broader social change: women increasingly gaining respect as equals to men, and thus capable of making the decision to end a marriage on their own. Because in most cases, certainly early on in the divorce boom, it was the women who wanted to get out.

Why can’t country divorce be like this? I wonder if what we’re seeing now, in Scotland, Catalonia, and perhaps also – with serious qualifications – Ukraine, is the beginnings of a change in attitudes about what it means for countries to break up. Or rather, for one group of people, living in a contiguous area, to break up with their neighbors, leaving the nation-state they’ve shared and either forming their own or joining another. It seems to me that the 21st century could be the century of country divorce. There may well be an evolution of attitudes ongoing, one that will bring the coalescence of a new set of broadly accepted rules and procedures for these breakups. The key being not the consent of both parties – as in the Czechoslovakia breakup – but rather the breakers-away deciding themselves, by democratic vote, and by some generally taken-to-be-decisive supermajority – perhaps two-thirds “ayes” – to leave.

Not everyone shares the new attitudes, and perhaps some of the folks espousing them are cranks. Separatism of all sorts has traditionally been confined to the margins of politics. But Artur Mas and Alex Salmond are perfectly normal politicians, and in setting up independence referenda and advocating for them, they’ve used perfectly legal means, if pushing, particularly in Mas’s case, into grey areas of the law of Spain. They’ve made arguments that, if perhaps too much colored by the romantic for most contemporary taste, aren’t the stuff of nut-jobs. I would argue they’re something like the divorce advocates of the early 70s, who pushed for others to adopt attitudes that theretofore had been acceptable only among urban libertines, mostly of the larger coastal cities, who were certainly marginal to American society as a whole.

I can’t say anything about anyone down in Crimea, and anyway, given different attitudes about the nation and the state, and the shaky hold of meaningful democracy in that part of the world, this is clearly a very different case from the other two. Also, it must be said, Putin’s methods of breaking Crimea away from Ukraine are repulsive. Hillary Clinton is quite right, I think, to compare him to Hitler and this to the case of the Sudetenland. That said, from what I heard during several years of living in Russia, and from talking to my Russian friends now, I would gather that a truly free vote were held in Crimea – perhaps in a couple of decades, using procedures worked out in Scotland and Catalonia – independence or unification with Russia would win easily.

So of course outsiders can screw everything up, as in Ukraine now. Let’s say, though, that the outsider isn’t a horrid jerk who’s moved into your house without asking and is sleeping downstairs on the couch with your wife, threatening your kids if they complain to the neighbors about the setup. O.k., perhaps he’s a jerk, and yes, he’s had a fling with your wife. But he hasn’t moved in, and if, perhaps, he and your wife have slept together, those things do happen – we accept that now, as an unpleasantness of life for some, as part of a transition to an aloneness or being-in-a-new-coupleness for others. Even leaving one country not to be another, but to join another, might well be, one day, just one of those things that happen. With everyone at least being civil to one another afterward, when they run into each other in the grocery store.

The change in attitudes about such things hasn’t taken hold widely, of course. We can see that in the huffiness, for example, of not only most British and nearly all Spanish politicians outside Catalonia, but also in the pronouncements of various EU officials, who shouldn’t really have any stake in either instance but have made clear they as one hold traditional anti-secessionist views, in their every pronouncement on the forthcoming Scottish and Catalonian referenda. The sanctity of marriage, before meaningful self-determination, for all of them, it seems. Moreover, there isn’t yet anything like an accepted set of procedures to guide the process of secession. But this is always the case with new political ideals, and the procedures for making them real. Think of the popular vote, before the standard procedures for that came to be broadly accepted as such worldwide, in the long aftermath of the Second World War. (These were even honored in the breech, by the fake elections held throughout the socialist world, with the de-democratization largely confined to the stage of choosing candidates, not by having secret policemen follow anyone into the voting booth.) Or think of the system of parties using primary elections to choose their candidates. This is used in only a few countries even now. But the system is spreading elsewhere, if slowly, and I’m sure it will be commonly accepted as necessary to democracy everywhere, within a few decades.

And why shouldn’t secession be available too to states and provinces, counties and district, and cities, within countries – that is, to those who’d form new ones, by breaking off from the ones they occupy now? It seems to me this will be the logical next step. If we all hold as valid the notion that political entities are formed by the active choice of those who inhabit them, how could it be otherwise? Really this is only what follows Locke, at least in my reading. Absent this active choice – which, it seems to me, should certainly be able to be re-made, not made only once – how can any political entity be legitimate? And how can we be that far, I think, from this notion becoming widely accepted, as part of the received canon of ideas, about how people can and should decide how best to rule themselves?

Writing isn’t really about writing

Tyler Cowen notes that the Argentine government is considering giving subsidies to writers, because their work is important, yet they’re so often so poor.

This prompted me to wonder not “Who’ll be the first to game this system?” but rather, “What will be the criteria by which the government will decide whom to subsidize?” That is, “Who is a writer?”

Writing isn’t really about writing. “Writing” is, in the received definition, about shaping a society’s thoughts, by providing some interesting mix of three elements: good analysis of a topic, situation, or cast of characters; a compelling dramatization thereof; and.some interesting descriptions. Writers seemed so special, for so long, because the written word was long the main means of delivering this mix, and first the time and the tools to write, and then access to the means of disseminating writing, were so hard, or expensive, to get.

But now this mix can be delivered in many more forms, which many, many more people have the time and tools both to create, and to disseminate. So writers don’t seem so special. And while writing – indeed good writing – is now everywhere and very cheap to get, book sales and the number of paying writing jobs, traditionally the means of judging the health of “writing,” are way down.

Should we subsidize writers? Because we traditionally equate the state of ‘writing” with the state of culture, many would say we should. But the answer to this question should be the same as the answer to the question, “Did you pay to read a blog such as Marginal Revolution, which contains much excellent writing, and does so much to shape our society’s thoughts?” Or the answer to the question, “Did you pay to read the great fiction and poetry, that you find on sites such as failbetter.com?”

The continued decline of the Times, or…

That’s one possible takeaway from this story, reporting that the Times company’s market cap is down so much, it’s now the smallest corporation in the S+P 500. And certainly, as I’ve noted, the Times is having a lot of problem, like every other big media company, adapting to the ongoing electronicization of publishing. But I think that this might not be the best takeaway. Rather, we should see this development as evidence that media is becoming so fragmented that even the best, traditionally most influential media organizations can no longer dominate the field – either as a business, or as an opinion-shaper. And whatever we think of the Times, that can’t possibly be bad.

Apple will drive ebook priceslower than Amazon would dare

At TechCrunch the other day, Erick Schonfeld posted that Apple, by allowing book publishers to charge what they want for ebooks, is gaining a critical advantage over Amazon in the battle to be the top ebooks retailer. This may well be true, as Apple, by building good relationships with publishers, would be well-positioned to get better terms, i.e. take more per sale, as well as get the chance to sell hot new titles before Amazon can, and so forth.

But will Apple sell more ebooks by letting publishers charge more for them? I highly doubt it. Rupert Murdoch and the lions of print can blather about how Amazon’s pricing strategy “devalues books,” but that strategy is based on a considered recognition of what consumers are willing to pay. Look at book prices – not nominal retail prices, i.e. the sticker on the front of the book, but the prices consumers actually pay. Factoring in returns and remainders, for the vast majority of titles, the average price of each copy printed is far lower than the nominal retail price.

Why don’t book houses simply lower the nominal price, in order to sell more copies, more quickly? They’re pursuing a discriminatory pricing strategy, by getting the “gotta have that book now” people to pay through the nose up front, then, by design or not, allowing the price of the remaining copies to fall, to levels at which other consumers will buy them. (I hope someone at these houses is doing this consciously, balancing the costs of warehousing, dealing with returns, etc., with the money to be made on volume sales, long after publication, at lower prices.)

In effect, by insisting on high ebook prices, publishers might be saying they want the freedom to pursue some similar strategy with ebooks. They could, for example, charge more for new titles, and those older titles in high demand, and lower prices for the rest. But $14.99 (or higher), the figure Macmillan insisted on in negotiating with Amazon, seems far too high a starting point. As Amazon recognizes, new ebook prices can be far lower than those for new print books, because ebook production, storage, and transfer costs essentially nothing, radically reducing the amount publishers invest in each title. Amazon also understands that lower ebook prices will entice readers to move to ebooks, and why wouldn’t that be a good thing for publishers? I don’t know the numbers, but I’m guessing that publishers’ effective margins, on an e-title sold at $9.99, are as high or higher than on the same title, sold in print, at a higher nominal price. So publishers must view the Kindle and the iPad not as a means of reaching more consumers, but as a means of extracting more money from those of their current customers who’ve switched to onscreen bookreading. The problem, of course, is that their strategy is likely to drive many of those folks away from books, and toward cheaper, readily accessible alternatives to much of what’s published in book form – all the free content that’s available on the Web, for example.

Back to Apple and its efforts to make nice with book houses. I share what I think is Schonfeld’s view, that this is aimed at driving Amazon out of the ebook business, or at least reducing its hold on that business. That might work, especially because the iPad, from the look of things, is much more powerful and usable than the Kindle – even if it’s not quite good enough to be anything other than a niche device. But if Apple succeeds in this, do publishers really believe that it won’t use its stranglehold on ebook sales to drive prices down as far as they’ll go? And, in addition, force publishers to offer condensed versions of each title for sale at a bargain rate, and to break up titles for sale on a chapter-by-chapter basis, also at rock-bottom prices? Hello? Whatever Steve Jobs is saying during his “secret” New York meetings with publishers, they should ignore it, and get ready for the era of the 99-cents-per-song strategy, applied to their products.

Not that this will be bad for consumers, or, ultimately, for writers and publishers too. A more sensible pricing strategy should have a huge, positive effect on sales of ebooks, and of other text content, delivered in electronic form. And writers’ and editors’ cut of revenue should be far higher, with far less money spent on production, distribution, and storage – not to mention ineffectual marketing, and pricy midtown Manhattan office space.

Tweetfiction, Thomas Bernhard, and the problem of discontinuity

Rick Moody’s tweetfiction “Some contemporary characters,” currently running on Electric Literature’s Twitter feed, fails because Moody makes no effort to shape his text in such a way as to take advantage of the discontinuous nature of a Twitter feed. Richard Nash made this point, after a fashion, in his critique of “Scc,” which he compares unfavorably to other Twitter storytelling efforts, on the @otolythe, @enoch_soames, and @adelehugo feeds. By their nature – that is, the way they’re both written and read – tweets stand alone, perhaps relating to one another, in an oblique way, but not needing to do so. A multi-tweet narrative, relying on continuity to make sense, be interesting, or both, is also problematic because Twitter clients present tweets in reverse chronological order – that is, latest first. Yes, Twitter is about immediacy, so ideally, everyone reads tweets as they come in, and thus earliest first. But this doesn’t happen very often. “Catching up” is the usual means of reading tweets, which means reading the newest first – and, often, ignoring any that are “below the fold,” whatever that means, on the client and device in question.

Which brings me to Thomas Bernhard. Much contemporary fiction delivers narratives in disjointed fashion, moving from perspective to perspective, or event to event, at breaks between paragraphs, or even between sentences. This has become a standard device in “scene-setting” chapters in longer fictions, for example – just today, I was reading the start of Nicholson Baker’s new The Anthologist, and noted that he does this in his first chapter, with his first-person narration jumping, at the graf breaks, between descriptions of different events in the protagonist’s past. But neither Baker nor any other writer does this with as much gusto, and as much success, as Bernhard. In those of his novels I’ve read, he doesn’t use multiple perspectives, which makes them not quite post-modern, according to the received definition of same. Indeed they’re narrations by intensely self-reflective protagonists, struggling and generally failing to find the single truth that will explain everything about their experiences, or at least make those experiences make some sort of sense that isn’t despair-inducing. But his narrators, each driven into a thought-fever by this search, shift so rapidly, constantly, and jarringly between topics and events, with none treated for too long, and none in a way in which a whole narrative is presented complete, that the effect is quite post-modern. That is, his narrations aim always at problematizing, at every turn, standard notions of how life is lived, and knowledge, including self-knowledge, is gotten – indeed, problematizing them to the point that experiences comes to seem disjointed at its core, and thus living a useful or happy life seems impossible, and the aspiration to acquire meaningful knowledge, silly. Yes, in focusing on, indeed reveling in, this discontinuity, Bernhard was no doubt saying something about the disjointed character of contemporary life – a discontinuity all the more evident in the era of never-offline living, and the continuous Alt-Tab workflow of the continual multitasker. But he was also making a profound philosophical point, one that could apply, I think, to any era.

And why couldn’t Moody have done something like this, with his Tweetfiction? Not that “Scc” had to be filled with despair and self-loathing, though in truth, these are as much his themes as Bernhard’s. But a more enthusiastic Tweetfiction writer would have seized on the medium’s suitability for discontinuous, and thus disjointed, fiction, and perhaps, in doing so, pointed the way toward a Bernhardian aesthetic for stories delivered in 140-character bursts. So too would our ideal writer have done something fun or inspiring or both – think Time’s Arrow – with the Twitter feed’s “forward yet backward” chronicity. One wonders – and wonders too who’ll take up this challenge, and how long we’ll wait to see the results.

Who will write the first true Tweetfiction?

It won’t be Rick Moody. Moody’s tweetfict, the first part of which went live today on Electric Literature‘s feed, shows no feel for the form – that is, in Levi Asher’s words, it doesn’t “feel natural on Twitter… [or] reflect its setting in terms of identity and plot point as well as character-count.” It’s a text that’s been chopped up into 140-ish-character chunks, not one written so as to break naturally into same, and do so with purpose. To the extent Moody writes to the form, it’s by generating seemingly random, pseudo-aphoristic sentences that don’t seem part of any narrative.

And no wonder, given that per HTML Giant, Moody says, of his effort:

“I think my contempt for Twitter is what inspired it, initially. In general, I think the way to describe the world is to get longer not shorter. Twitter, by virtue of brevity, abdicates any responsibility where real complexity is concerned, because it forbids length. This seemed to me like a challenge, then: how to get complex in a medium that is anathema to complexity and rigor. And a challenge is always thrilling.”

So we have a writer who feels contempt for his chosen form, and is thus… doing what, exactly? Trying to show, in a piece he presumably wants us to read, that it’s impossible to write such a work? Showing that only he can write one that works? Blaming its defects on the form, while positioning himself to take credit for any strengths it might have? Hmm…

In any case, this tweetfiction doesn’t matter. What matters is that EL has given a boost to the idea that someone can write such fictions, which implies that someone could do so not just enthusiastically, but well, which in turn implies someone taking advantage of the form, rather than turning up his nose at it. Who’ll do this? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Tweetfiction?

Electric Literature continues to innovate, and create a stir while doing so. In my inbox this morning was an EL missive, announcing that next week, its Twitter feed (@ElectricLit, if you’re keeping score at home) will be home to a new Rick Moody story, “Some Contemporary Characters.” Nice, that, but will the story be good? Moody has shown that he can craft a rich story, filled with little mini-climaxes, each building on the last, to great effect, though I imagine that in this form, his verbosity will get in the way of his pulling off this trick – one that would seem essential to making a multipart Tweetfiction work. More than likely, we’ll get a patented Moody list, a la the run-through-of-the-suburban-70s that made the Ice Storm‘s kickoff either entrancing or aggravating, depending on your taste. (I’m in the former camp.) But even if that’s what “SCC” boils down to, kudos to him and EL for giving it a shot. No, literature doesn’t need saving, but every art needs innovation, and if most of that innovation produces only curiosities, so what.

What might Tweetfiction ultimately become? Limitations have always played an important role in pushing writers to make maximum use of their creative skills – witness much of poetry, from Jonson’s lyrics to the best haiku. Even now, as technology eliminates most traditional limits on both writing and publishing, it also provides new ones, that spur formal innovation, and open new creative possibilities. Witness the unique qualities of cell-phone novels and stories thumb-texted by Japanese writers, pros and novices alike, as well as American Barry Yourgrau, who’s made a name for himself as the gaijin who writes for keitai.

Could Tweetfiction also become a distinct form, giving rise not just to a fad, but a new aesthetic? Why not? Think of the possibilities of the twitstory as micro-serial, with each tweet a mini-prose poem, at once succint and pointed, capturing character and moving plot in the most economical, and powerful, possible way. Again, I don’t think Moody is the one who’ll Tweet the first such story. But someone will, and even if we forget about it in five years’ time, many of use eager litfans will get a kick out of it when we first read it, and RT it to all our Twitfriends.

The short story (still) doesn’t need saving

“Save the short story!” is nothing but a fundraising rallying cry, raised by short-fiction publishers looking to build their subscription lists and grant base. It works, at least to a degree, because short-lit fans, writers, and editors know they’re a tiny group, see the explosion of non-print media, and the collapse of traditional publishers, and draw the logical conclusion that their beloved endeavor is threatened too. But the logical conclusion, in this case, is the wrong one. The short story is more vital than ever, with an explosion of short-fiction outlets, enabled by the rise of the Web, and dramatic fall in the price and difficulty of publishing in print.

True, nobody’s getting rich off any of this – but has anyone, really, ever? In the history of civilization, has there ever been a society in which more than a handful of artists, of any kind, have even made a living off their work? No. Indeed, with the rise of the MFA industry, and mushrooming of university-sponsored journals, jobs for serious writers and editors are more plentiful now than ever before.

So let’s enjoy this boon, rather than wringing our hands about it. And let’s also celebrate those – like Andy Hunter and his colleagues at Electric Literature – who, handwringing aside, are working to bring more great short fiction to more people, both in print and online.

Designing the future of publishing

I recently produced a video conversation, about the future of publishing, between Adobe XD VP Michael Gough and O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly – you can watch it now on Adobe’s Inspire website. O’Reilly did most of the talking – he’s a great talker – and in the course of things, repeatedly and forcefully made the point that in trying to cope with, and take advantage of, the move to e-publishing, publishers need to focus on what he calls their traditional “curatory” role. That is, they need carefully to choose what content to produce for which users, and present it in forms that suit those users’ needs. Just as they always have, he argues, publishers will succeed or fail based on how well they perform this task.

But the e-publishing revolution has made curation much more complex. Customers have many more ways to spend their time and money, and so have become much more demanding, and traditional publishers have seen their markets both shrink and fragment. O’Reilly has done a better job than most of coping with these changes. In large part, this is because, unlike many of its peers, it hasn’t stuck to publishing in one format – in its case, physical books – just because that’s what it knows how to do. Rather, it puts out most content items in multiple media and formats, choosing each medium-format combination to suit the “job” the content will do, for a particular group of users – the jobs being educating, entertaining, or serving as reference material. Following this strategy hasn’t led O’Reilly to abandon books. But now it’s also a leading publisher of videos, websites, blogs, and e-books. And it’s been highly successful in getting content to users via a broad array of conferences and seminars.

Signal vs. noise

O’Reilly’s success suggests that other traditional print publishers will need not just to move into e-publishing, but also give their customers content in a variety of electronic formats. And as they do so, their designers will face an array of challenges and opportunities.

Design has always been a critical component of print publishing. Print designers package and present content in ways that make it easy and pleasant to read and to have. This will continue to be design’s role as print publishers expand their digital offerings – and indeed, that role will be more important than ever. The next few years will no doubt be a period of experimentation in this space – the creation and deployment of all manner of e-reading apps and devices, and e-publication formats for content that’s traditionally been published in printed form. Designers’ contributions will go a long way toward determining which succeed and which fail. And in this, they will play an important part in shaping the future of publishing, both as an activity, and as an industry.

Tim O’Reilly notes that “picking signal from the noise” is an apt analogy for publishing’s curatorial function. Publishing designers do this too, in crafting presentations – most notably, periodical layouts – that feature certain content, with other content smaller and harder to find. The size and prominence of each item can be seen to depend, roughly, on the designer’s estimate of how many users will consider it to be noise rather than signal. Print designers focus too, of course, on ensuring clarity of signal – choosing the most readable, attractive fonts for text, the right margins, the best reproduction formats for visuals, and so on.

To see how this works, look at any publication, electronic or print – consider, for example, the array of type sizes and fonts, and the layout, on the homescreen of the New York Times Reader.

Periodical publishers have already begun to tackle the signal vs. noise problems involved in redesigning their content presentations for electronic media. But book publishers have, in the main, not yet done so. They’re used to designing not just for print, but for a presentation medium – books – that generally contain nothing that couldn’t be construed as signal.

For them, the biggest design challenge, in moving to digital, will be one their industry already faces: dealing not just with noise, but with an exponentially expanding amount of it. With so many available media choices, users are increasingly picky about what content they’ll accept as “signal,” and what they’ll treat as “noise.” For an industry producing products whose use requires a significant time investment, this is a serious problem. This will be even more true as it moves to make those products available via devices that provide users with an array of appealing, easily accessible other means of spending both their time and their money.

Again, book houses will need to follow O’Reilly’s lead, and begin publishing in multiple formats. This could mean converting some of titles to hybrid text-video format, breaking others down into buy-by-the-chapter pieces, and with others, trying out different repackaging and reformatting strategies. But what about titles in those genres – novels, serious non-fiction narrative works, and the like – that still need to be published in text-heavy, book-length packages, meant to be consumed as integral, standalone products? After all, sales of these titles are this industry’s lifeblood. How can design make them palatable, to enough consumers, to enable that industry to transition successfully to the digital age?

The e-reader of the future?

This is more a device-design problem than a software or presentation-design problem. A huge block of text is just that, and other than picking the right text size and font, and providing easy navigation, and such features as bookmarking and commenting, there isn’t much to the basic problem of designing a text e-book, or the software to read it.

Which brings us to the problem of crafting a next-gen e-reading device – a topic about which plenty of people have been spilling plenty of ink, and e-ink, for some years now. Can a device designer, by solving the “signal vs. noise” problem, create an ideal e-reader, and thereby save the book industry?

Our designer would no doubt start by targeting serious readers. These users would want a fairly big screen with clear text reproduction, and those input controls they’d need to load and make their way through e-books, e-magazines, and other text content. Since sustained reading, for this type of user, is the rule rather than the exception, our designer might well go with a black-and-white screen and a minimally functional processor, to make the battery last as long as possible. The resulting device would no doubt look a lot like Amazon’s Kindle – which, for serious readers who don’t mind reading onscreen, delivers a fairly clear signal, and a great signal-to-noise ratio.

Of course, our device would be optimized to suit only one type of reading – of novels, historical biographies, and other content that contains only text, and requires sustained, intense focus.

Moreover, designing a device for readers doesn’t necessarily mean designing it for only the act of reading. After all, serious readers talk with others about what they’ve read, and share books, magazines, links to articles and blogposts. Many are also writers, and like to share what they’ve written, either informally, with friends, or by publishing it.

To meet their needs, our device designer might well go a different route. The result would be a device with a more powerful processor and input controls, to support it doing more than the Kindle. The display screen might be just as big, to support displaying, in addition to the content viewer, controls for publishing and sharing, windows to display metadata, messages from other users, and so forth.

Or the screen might be smaller, on the assumption that even the most serious readers don’t just sit on a couch for hours and read Tolstoy. They also read shorter works, in all sorts of places, and at least some of them would likely value a highly portable device over one with a big screen. And if our designer’s boss insists that most people don’t want to carry multiple portable devices, she’ll also build in a phone and camera, and make sure her processor can run not only an e-reading application, but plenty of other software too.

This device sounds pretty powerful – and at this point, it’s not really an “e-reader,” but an extremely portable computer. In one version, it could be an iPhone or Blackberry, with a larger screen, not to mention longer battery life and more power.

Congratulations to our designer – and to the engineers who’ve managed to build her device. Their product certainly seems to be a dream e-reader, satisfying the needs of everyone who’ll want or need to read on a device that’s as portable as a book or a magazine.

But in fact, it isn’t our ideal e-reader, at least not for everyone. To make it “broadly appealing,” our designer introduced what, for our first group of readers, will be little more than sources of noise, interfering with the signal of text on the screen. Consider too that for these readers – without whom traditional publishers wouldn’t survive – reading is, in many ways, about the pleasure they get from freeing themselves from the noise of life, and immersing themselves in the intense experience of engaging with a text.

Could this sort of reading really be done, comfortably and enjoyably, on a device that affords easy access to computing and communication functionality? No. Distractions become distractions because they’re annoying, tempting, or both – and such a device would be rotten with the tempting sort.

Let a thousand e-readers bloom. And a thousand presentation formats, and a thousand publishers, and…

What does this mean for the future of the e-reader space? Will we see a bifurcated market, with our first group buying gussied-up descendants of the Kindle, and the second preferring tablet-style computers? It’s hard to imagine that this won’t happen. Designers, and device and software makers, can’t create a product that simultaneously includes all the features that keep social and casual readers happy, while at the same time leaving those same features out, to give serious readers the serenity they crave.

What about presentations formats? Will the dominance of physical books be replaced by the dominance of e-books? Not likely. More than likely, book house that transition successfully to digital will follow O’Reilly’s lead, by turning many or even most of their “book” titles into all manner of content items, many of which require the user to invest much less money and time to buy and consume. Yes, novels and so forth will remain integral, and be available in standalone digital form – perhaps with many coming out in print as well. But it seems likely that there will be a myriad of digital presentation formats for text-heavy content, and, at least during a near-term period of experimentation, none of them will be as dominant as books once were.

Finally, the publishing industry’s ongoing fragmentation shows us that there will be no dominant company in this space either. No doubt we’ve seen the last of “publishing” residing in a several square-mile chunk of Manhattan, and it’s hard to imagine that it will suddenly re-coalesce in some other spot. Indeed, with blogs, Twitter, and the like enabling millions to become content producers and distributors, the notion of a “publishing industry” may come to seem almost quaint.

Many publishing traditionalists look at all these changes and see chaos, and worry about what will happen to the endeavor to which they’ve dedicated their careers. But there’s another view of what’s going on in publishing, one that Tim O’Reilly shares. One that focuses on the next few years as a time of great excitement, with opportunities abounding for creative “book” publishers, writers and other content creators – and the designers who’ll shape the way their works are packaged and consumed. While it’s difficult, if not impossible, to say now what their work will lead to, we can say for sure that it will play an enormously important, perhaps foundational, role, in creating a new sort of publishing, for the digital age.

Kindle for iPhone

I’ve written before that the iPhone could be a Kindle killer, because it provides arguably as good a reading experience, is cheaper, and does a whole lot of other things the Kindle doesn’t do. The release of the “Kindle for iPhone” app shows that Amazon has recognized this, and likely understands too that any number of other devices, current and future, could present as tough or tougher challenges to its effort to dominate the ereader device space. So it’s doing the smart thing, and starting to reposition itself as more of an e-content retailer. The app is free, though to get it, you need an Amazon account, via which you can then buy e-books etc., using the mobile Safari browser. Which is to say, Amazon wants to get the app to as many iPhone users as possible, so it can direct them to Amazon’s website, where they’ll spend their cash. Something like Amazon’s iTunes, in short, though Apple primarily uses iTunes to sell hardware, with content sales a secondary concern; for Amazon, ultimately, the emphasis should be on the latter.

How about the quality of the Kindle for iPhone reading experience? I haven’t used it yet, but I’m encouraged to see that, among other things, the app will sync a user’s bookmarks across devices. Still to come, I hope, is the ability easily to read other formats, including EPUB.

Amazon’s already very good at selling text content in physical form, and has huge name recognition and credibility in that space. Ten years from now, when free Kindle reading apps are everyone, it will likely also be the leading retailer of e-content – and it won’t let a little thing like the Kindle stand in its way.