Small steps, taken quickly

Flying MonkeyIt’s time to face a painful truth: however long I live, I will never see a flying monkey. Despite Hollywood’s perennial representations to the contrary, mankind’s ability to meddle in nature isn’t nearly far enough advanced for that sort of thing. And if monkeys were ever to evolve naturally into a winged species, it would take thousands of generations. Whatever creature emerged would be the result of many tiny iterations, and most probably look nothing like the flying monkey of popular imagination.

The same goes for the evolution of the book. We can talk in general terms about how changing conditions will produce new species of book1 but we can’t make detailed predictions with any certainty because the evolutionary steps cannot be circumvented.

Not that people aren’t trying, of course. Penguin bills its “amplified edition” of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth as “a whole new way of interacting with the story.” This seems largely to revolve around interrupting your reading to watch adverts for clips of a new TV adaptation. It’s the equivalent of stitching wings onto the back of a monkey; not only is the unfortunate creature unable to fly, it is encumbered by useless appendages that impede its existing abilities, and neither state of affairs will be helped by pushing it optimistically from a tenth floor window.2

“Continue the research, Smithers”3

More interesting and more effective are the small, iterative steps that might seem to advance the form only a short distance, but actually make all the difference. Ebooks and audiobooks have been around for years – Enhanced Editions put them together and created a little bit of magic. The key here being that, given the right environment (the iPhone) these two forms are a good match, with the reader being able to move fairly seamlessly back and forth between the two. Another audio-related development – Bardowl – is launching soon. I met founder Chris Book at the recent Futurebook drinks, and it sounds like an intriguing proposition; a library of audiobooks streamed to mobile devices, available via a monthly subscription. Neither the content nor the delivery mechanism is new, but as far as I’m aware, this combination of them is.

One thing Enhanced Editions and Bardowl have in common is an awareness of the importance of analytics4. Evoulution in the digital world doesn’t have to rely only on binary, life or death, feedback of sales numbers. By monitoring usage patterns, companies can build a rich picture of the strengths and weaknesses of their product, and fine tune them accordingly5. This increases the rate at which small steps can be taken and speeds up the process of evolution. I may never see a flying monkey, but the book equivalent (whatever that turns out to be) is a much closer prospect.

  1. A new species that will not supplant the book as we know it, but thrive alongside it. See “Evolution, not extinction” for more on this. []
  2. A word in Penguin’s defence here. Even if this bombs (and it very well may not), at least they’re getting their hands dirty and experimenting; after all, failure is the best route to success. Plus, at least one of the app’s features – character biographies that update as you progress through the book, avoiding spoilers – is pretty clever. []
  3. I’d dearly like to embed a Simpsons clip here, but Fox seem to be doing a good job of keeping them off Youtube. []
  4. see this talk given by Enhanced Editions’ Peter Collingridge at the Tools of Change conference []
  5. This process may, of course, reveal Penguin’s approach with Pillars to be a huge hit with consumers. I think it’s horrible, but as Jeff Bezos says, data trumps intuition every time []
  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by CBickford-Smith, Mike Topping. Mike Topping said: New DL post, wherein I fulfil a lifelong dream by enlisting the help of a flying monkey in making a point. [...]

  2. Where did you get that monkey drawing – I would love to use it in a book I’m publishing. Is there any copyright to it?

  3. Hi Brent, it’s my own collage. Interested to hear more about your book, drop me a line at mike[at]darwinslibrary[dot]com if you’d like to discuss.

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