Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A couple weeks ago I contacted Mark Scott, founder and CEO of BookRiff, and asked for a meeting. Scott, who is also the principal shareholder and President of Douglas & McIntyre Publishers Inc., agreed to my request, suggesting that we meet at D&M over lunch and a presentation.

In advance of our meeting I had compiled a list of questions based on my interaction with the BookRiff website, but also from chats I’d had with industry professionals, some of whom had seen BookRiff at Book Expo, and were impressed. Indeed, of those I spoke to, nobody was skeptical of a company that paid licensing fees to authors and publishers, and all were curious about the kinds of books a service like this might generate.

But the question I kept returning to concerned the data. If a million people used BookRiff to compose their books, what might the distribution and arrangement of their content look like, and how might that information influence the traditional publisher’s publishing program? BookRiff would own that information.

Present at the meeting, in addition to Scott, were Julie Morris, BookRiff’s Communications Co-ordinator, and Emiko Morita, D&M’s Marketing Manager. Scott began by taking me through the website (which had been improved since my last visit). Throughout the presentation he spoke of how the book format (one size at the moment) would broaden once the service was up and running. With these format changes would come changes in paper choice, as well as the introduction of colour – making BookRiff as much an evolutionary service as a revolutionary one.

The presentation over, we talked about who might use BookRiff, a topic that had us speculating on what kinds of hard copy books would endure, and why. The example Scott kept using was the travel guide; the one that came to my mind was a book a child might make for a parent, like the one I made for my mother on Mother’s Day, 1972, using images from a just-delivered Sears catalogue (useless after I was through with it).

I should note that my motivation for meeting with BookRiff, apart from curiosity, was to propose a project involving my new book, to be published this September by Doubleday Canada. The book, entitled 8x10, is a work of fiction comprised of a series of events, with each event potentially related to others in the book. I say potentially because the events are vague, none of which contain the (proper) names of people, places or things; nor is there a specific sense of time. There is a logic to my arrangement, and perhaps a hidden linear logic as well, but there is also what the reader will bring to it, as readers invariably bring with them their own associative/narrative tendencies.

What I am interested in doing is entering my book, as a totality, into the BookRiff machine and making it available not only as piecemeal content but as a work open to interpretation through recomposition. But instead of having a human being recompose the book, I thought I would leave it to chance and have a robot do it, with the robotic version providing me a sequence that I would read from on my tour. BookRiff seems open to this. Once my robot has completed its task, the data will be theirs.

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