When is a book not a book?

We are now a few weeks into Books & Print Sandbox and the projects have been quick off the blocks to put our 'Making things Fast' preaching into practice. Our Sandbox business mentor, Mark Leaver, and I met with all of the teams last week to hear about their progress.

Mark describes himself as the 'commercial conscience' of Sandbox, asking questions about how the decisions that the teams make along the way might affect the future financial viability of what they end up with. We also act as a record of the course of the projects, reminding them of where they started out and ensuring that the inevitable changes in direction are undertaken knowingly. In each conversation it became clear what the project in question is definitely not (normally expressed as 'we really don't want to be like one of those...') and this will become a guiding principle over the next few months. I have jotted down a few thoughts on the teams' work so far, most of which are explored in more eloquent detail in their own project blogs.

There isn't much time in a Sandbox. A reality explored in Bradley's musing- on the concept of time within The Next Time(line). How to visualise 'temporal relationships' is the key question for the team and they are keen to get a basic version of how this might work ready to share with their target test group as soon as possible, even if in paper form. Laura and Tom are also very focussed on getting their first version of The Secret Lives of Books installed for people to play with. Laura's background as a choreographer informs her approach to the design process - by watching how people interact with the interface, the team will be able to better understand it. In fact they have already started using this refreshingly people centred approach by observing shoppers in bookstores to help answer the fundamental question 'is the physical presence of the book still relevant to people?' The answer is yes by the way which is a bit of a relief! The insights from this will inform the difficult choice they now have to make about technology following a frustrating discovery at the library.

A major issue for all of the projects is what the balance is, for them, between a brilliant bespoke outcome perfect for this context and creating some kind of platform which can be applied to future work. This is nowhere more true than in ‘Little j’ Hyper Local News. After attending the Community Journalism Conference at Cardiff University, Paul is keen to apply what he learned to the project. However there is a tension between the emphasis on designing for the specificities of your community and their desire to apply Little j way beyond Port Talbot. Charlotte, on the other hand, has decided on a very specific device for Digitising the Dollar Princess to enable them to begin building the infrastructure for Nicola’s content. This decision has been driven by the desire to tap into a potential new market rather than to imitate products that already exist. It is a risk but an interesting one as it makes their central question of ‘what is it that we are making?’ much less easy to answer.

Authors, I imagine, are fairly used to embarking on a project with a general idea but a great deal of uncertainty about exactly what will emerge. However, this uncertainty is heightened when the structure, space and form of delivery is so unknown. As James describes, the unfamiliar thing about drafting text for Writer on the Train is that while, unusually, he knows the physical space that his reader will be in, he currently has no idea what the digital dimensions of his work will be. It is so useful to have the author's voice in Sandbox, as James' struggles are ones that other projects will have to consider. Book Kernel for example are busy developing a structure for their event publishing system, into which authors (as well as event managers, audience members and other 'composers') will feed their work.

In a number of these projects, a fairly traditional approach to authorship is being applied to a new structural form. Of course the two will always influence each other but in ‘these pages fall like ash’, the authorial role is being radically re-written. Neil and Nick's voices will be heard but the result will be fundamentally different to a book, so is it a book? The aim is to create a new form of experiential literature with an audience who is also a readership and where the boundary between city and fiction is blurred (and where you don't need a proof reader, you need an IT security consultant). Simon and Anthony are also taking to the streets as they begin the process of designing Jekyll 2.0 in earnest. With such a wealth of rich material and research insight at their fingertips the team have the opportunity to create an experience that is neither game nor simple adaptation but an embodied text inviting 'readers' to explore the boundary between human identity and science for themselves.