The Future of the Book

Revisiting a Literary Throwdown: Zombie Books for Free

By posted at 4:07 am on July 27, 2009 1

It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.

This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:

Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.

Later he added:

[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.

At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn:

The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.

Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.

covercoverWhen Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.

Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.

Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.

Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.

With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.

In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.





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One Response to “Revisiting a Literary Throwdown: Zombie Books for Free”

  1. Thad McIlroy
    at 1:47 pm on July 27, 2009

    Great post! For another perspective on the re-mix/mashup issue, see A. E. Hotchner's New York Times op-ed on the reworking of Ernest Hemingway's "A Movable Feast." (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/20/opinion/20hotchner.html)

    Finally, Ted Nelson's description of his Xanadu project (http://xanadu.com/XanaduSpace/xuGzn.htm) is essential reading for anyone interested in re-mixes, mashups and the like.

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