Like so many of us, you love books — physical, paper books. You get all hot and bothered over a good used bookstore, its shelves crammed tight with ancient volumes, their spines cracked with aging glue. Some of you even crave the smell of a brand-new paperback and the way the ink leaves a smudge on your page-turning finger.
But if you're like most City Paper readers, you also love technology and how it's revolutionizing how readers read and publishers publish. Everything, in fact, is changing in the world of books, much to the dismay of some. However, turning your back on those changes, buying books only from a local bookstore and snubbing digital copies, is, simply put, to be a Luddite. Kids these days buy books, sure, but most of them have Kindles or iPads too. Tablets and other reading devices are here to stay.
Here in Charleston, two companies are working to help foster the digital change, getting more writers published and more readers reading. As such, they're having a major impact on the world of literature. Not that this should surprise anyone. Charleston has always been a major player in the literary community. You need only browse the aisles of the Charleston Library Society to see that. Dubose Heyward, Sue Monk Kidd, Pat Conroy — our writers have long been lauded as among the best.
But today's impact is of a technological sort, with some of the most exciting tech in digital publishing and distribution housed in the Holy City.
An Indie-Publishing Hub
If you're a writer, you've probably heard of CreateSpace, Amazon's self-publishing arm. If you're a reader, you've probably purchased something published by a writer using one of CreateSpace's many services. From their home in North Charleston, this deceptively small slice of Amazon's huge pie enables writers everywhere to realize their dreams of having a book published and distributed throughout the world.
CreateSpace allows authors to publish and distribute their book at no cost to them. This is a huge paradigm shift for writers who, not terribly long ago, had only one option if they couldn't find a publisher to back them. They could "vanity publish," spending thousands of dollars to finance a small print run without marketing or PR support. With boxes of books filling their garage, they had to hustle, visiting bookstores, begging for their books to find a place on the shelves. It was a demanding, difficult, and fiscally irresponsible way to become a published author.
Nowadays, says David Symonds, general manager of CreateSpace, "If you have a manuscript, you can handle the work of uploading the file, formatting it, doing an interior review, looking at an online proof, and publishing it, all within 24 hours."
If a writer needs help with any part of the process, CreateSpace is ready. "You can purchase an edit," says Symonds. "You can purchase a cover or interior layout design. Then we handle the fulfillment of those services from right here in Charleston."
They also offer user-friendly tools to allow even the least techno-savvy writer to figure it all out themselves.
But why do this? Why allow hundreds of thousands of authors to publish their stories, with no sort of gatekeeper letting only the "good" manuscripts through? For Symonds, it's all about equalizing the playing field. "We want to remove the barriers from publishing. One big barrier, of course, is having it selected by a big publisher. The other is cost. Our intent is to make it as cheap as possible to have a professionally prepared book using our tools or through services that are indistinguishable from any other people can buy."
It's a democratization of sorts, allowing books to reach readers from writers who've been shut out of more traditional publishing avenues. And in the past few years, superstars within the ranks of indie-publishing have risen to the top of major bestseller lists — like Charleston's own Hugh Howey, best known for his ultra-successful Wool series. "What's happening today wasn't possible in the past," says Symonds. "It's the best time to ever be a writer, in my mind. It's opened up so many avenues for people to write and share their stories that weren't possible before."
Charleston's Digital Library
While CreateSpace works to change how books are published and distributed, BiblioLabs is hoping to reshape the modern library. With their curating tools as well as their groundbreaking PatronFirst delivery system, they're changing how libraries share their collections. They're also doing away with the concepts of borrowing and lending.
But what does that mean? It's easy to understand when you chat with Mitchell Davis, founder and chief business officer of BiblioLabs. The first piece of the puzzle includes their delivery system. "With BiblioBoard, libraries license our interface to deliver books, audiobooks, and videos — basically anything you can get physically or digitally — and they can deliver it to patrons in one unified, elegant interface." In short, it's an online tool that lets you read, listen, and learn, all from a single app or web page. As they work with top publishers around the country, making sure authors are properly compensated for the licensing of their stories, BiblioBoard has expanded to include bestsellers and graphic novels.
According to Davis, the online component of libraries today is, in most cases, seriously lacking. "Most libraries point you to links to other sites to find books. That doesn't cut it anymore. It won't hold a person's attention on a tablet. The bar has been raised, and BiblioBoard has leaped over it, offering an interface every bit as good as Apple or Amazon."
With BiblioBoard, users can read the same books simultaneously, without any sort of check-out system. If the book's on your library's shelf, you can read it in the cloud, or you can download it to your device to read later. With no late fees and no last minute trips to return your books before the library shuts down, this is revolutionizing the way readers access literature.
But BiblioBoard isn't just for displaying books. It also offers libraries the tools to curate their own online collections. Literary anthologies are created to sit on virtual shelves beside collections of documents as diverse as U.S. Government Publications of World War II or Ancient Greek History, all culled together by librarians across the country. It's a one-stop-shop for a high school student during term paper season.
In a world where libraries spend thousands of dollars annually to bring in dozens of copies of anticipated bestsellers, BiblioBoard wants that money to be put to other, better, use. Per Davis, libraries today want to be maker spaces: "They want you to go there to use computer equipment, digital design studio, even a music studio. They want to offer shared office space and innovation centers." With the money saved by using BiblioBoard, these innovation centers suddenly seem more attainable.
Says Davis, "People should accept the vision of the world in which the public library is the first thing they think about when they wonder where to get a book or movie. We all contribute to our local library. It serves people who can't afford the books they want on Amazon or Apple. It serves an important role in making sure this divide isn't a grand canyon. I believe the will is there for people to have a world-class online library experience, and we at BiblioLabs want to help take libraries into the future."