Posted by: Matt Compton | April 3, 2007

The future of the book

There’s a long story in the current issue of the Economist about the future of the written word, and the writers do a broad sketch of the digital movement, covering everything from Google Book Search to the Sony Reader. Rightly, I think, they point out that the future lies in unbinding — removing the book from the prison of paper.

The last third of the piece — where the writers talk about what the Internet is doing to reference books right now — is where things get really interesting. Essentially, they sound the death knell for the physical encyclopedia, the phone book, and the dictionary. As I read that paragraph, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t used any of those things in years. Why? Because all of them are just a Google search away. And cookbooks and text books are probably next.

But we aren’t there yet, and it’s because of two things — interface and cost.

A computer monitor is fine for when you’re trying to define “sesquipedalian” or when you want to look up the dates for the battle of Trafalgar. But who wants to read Great Expectations on a laptop?

The device I’m thinking of would be small (the size of a book); it would be portable (battery life needs to last at least couple novels); and it would need the right kind of software (the ability to search for any word on any piece of text, the ability to add marginalia, and the ability to link between works — and that’s just for starters).

And the price points would have to be right. Folks will make a substantial investment in the gadget in exchange for cheap digital books. But if you’re going to charge people a lot up front and then stick them again for content, this whole thing falls through.

If someone out there would make and market a device with the right user interface that sells for less than $200 and pair it with a cheap online bookstore, I’d buy it within weeks of it coming out. What would that mean for me as a bookaholic?

I’d drastically reduce the number of physical books I buy. Basically, it’d dwindle down to stuff I’d want to keep as collector’s items — books that I’d read, then store proudly on the shelf, saving them for my kids. New and exciting fiction, works by my favorite authors, rare first editions. Everything else (think about all the backlist stuff!) I’d buy for my eReader. And because I don’t have to worry about storage and my costs would be lower, that would mean that I would buy and collect much, much more than I do right now.

I cannot tell you how much I would enjoy the ability to be able to access huge chunks of my library anytime, any place. And I suspect the value of that would far outweigh the loss of physical books to hold and to keep. As it is, living in a small urban apartment, I have little enough room for new books anyway. I’m constantly rethinking how I’ve got books placed on shelves, where to place new stacks. I will miss a lot about having new books — the weight of them on my lap, the smell of the paper and the glue and the ink — but it just means I’ll value the paper books I do buy more.

What would that mean for books in general?

First, it means that the power of the Long Tail will hit the world of publishing like a storm surge. Sure, there are books published every day about every subject imaginable. But think about the world before blogs and then compare that to the state of physical publishing after everyone (including me) could become a journalist or commentator. According to the last poll that I’ve seen, 81 percent of Americans think they have a book in them. In this brave new world, each of them can give it a go. Millions of new writers will suddenly be able find audiences, and because the distribution costs are nothing, many of them are going to get read by someone. As to what that means, who is to say?

The second thing it means is this: copyrights are going to have to change.

Again, I’ll point you to the world of music first. Think about the way that Kanye West takes samples from classic soul songs, mixes them together and adds his own drums, then uses them to form the beats for every single one of his song. Think about the way that DJ Danger Mouse mixed the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album (critics called it the album of the year, when it came out). Now, I’ll point you to the bloggers who scour newspapers for stories, take clips from pieces that draw their interest, add their own commentary, and publish it for a living. The marginalia, the linking between works — all that’s going to get published too. Think about the fan fiction that gets published on the internet already — all the stories about Dumbledore, Hermione, and Ron that are published on Harry Potter fan sites. Think about Wikipedia. It’s happening already.

The current model just ain’t going to work anymore. Fans are going to demand the right to rewrite, reproduce, rethink and reimagine everything. There are already some very smart writers who realize that.

I believe all of this. But I’m also positive that the move from here to there is going to be slow and messy.



  1. I just don’t see this happening…nobody wants to read a book off a digital screen . It hurts the eyes. Something like this may have its place for articles/news/short-stories/magazine type stuff…but full length books, I just don’t see a demand for that…though who knows, only time will tell. As a writer, I know that e-books just don’t sell…so I don’t see how an “interactive iPod type device for ebooks” is going to make them any more appealing. Sometimes, nothing beats the printed word.

  2. I’ve been proven wrong too many times to actually trust my future sight anymore*, but I agree with David that books still have a long life ahead of them.

    I think we need a technology breakthrough before e-books can really be a big deal, and it’s not just an e-book reader. Rather, laptops will have to develop a much better power source, enabling people to read screens in direct sunlight for hours on end. Getting smaller would help, too.

    Why would I lug around an e-book reader when I could lug around a book? They’re the same weight, really… while an e-book reader could hold thousands of books, I’m not going to be reading thousands of books a day. I’m going to be reading one or two. A physical book is

    A huge step forward in laptop technology, on the other hand, might solve that problem. I carry my laptop around with me anyway, so it might be cool to have books on it.

    Actually, I already do have a lot of roleplaying books (the ones I don’t plan to collect, really) in e-book form, because they’re used more for reference than actual reading. And I read articles online now (though I still get Economist and Foreign Affairs in print). But I’m not ready to make the same switch for fiction and non-fiction.

    I think it’ll eventually happen. But it’s not there yet. There’s a romanticism to books that there just wasn’t to CDs or video tapes. Fighting against that won’t be easy.

    *Except on defense matters, music, comic books, and other peoples’ relationships, mind you.

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