Guardian column: The future of books?

My Media Guardian column this week distills many of the posts here about the future of books. (Nonregistration version here.) Excerpt:

We need to kill the book to save books. Now relax. I’m not suggesting burning books, nor replacing them with electronic gizmos in some paperless future of fable and fantasy. Instead, I’m merely arguing that the book is an outdated means of communicating information. And thanks to the searchable, connected internet, books could be so much more.

Yet efforts to update the book are hampered because, culturally, we give extreme reverence to the form for the form’s sake. We hold books holy: children are taught there is no better use of time than reading a book. Academics perish if they do not publish. We tolerate censors regulating and snipping television but would never allow them to black out books. We even ignore the undeniable truth that too many books, and far too many bestsellers, are pap or crap. All this might seem to be the medium’s greatest advantage: respect. But that is what is holding books back from the progress that could save and spread the gospel of the written word.

When I wrote this on my blog, defenders of the printed faith came after me with pitchforks and cries of, “Philistine!”

: LATER: Motoko Rich in The NY Times today writes about the digital revolution coming to publishing, whether publishing wants it or not:

Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry…

That seems to assume that there’s a chance publishing can avoid the digital revolution. That horse is over the horizon already.

As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” thinks a digital library of all books would be a “godsend” during research, allowing her to “sniff out all the paragraphs” on a given topic. But, she said: “That’s not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there’s no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book — the magic of the paper and thread and glue.”

How silly — and ultimately restrictive and damaging — to have an orthodoxy defining “reading.” But that’s where we are.

And let’s deal with that smell meme now: There is nothing in the smell of books that adds to the learning and enjoyment. We associate that smell with reading the way we associate the smell of vinyl with a new car. I’ll be our children have the same association of wonder and enrichment with the sight of a white screen or the smell of a laptop overheating.

On Kevin Kelly’s ode to the connected book in the Times Magazine:

“Does that mean ‘Anna Karenina’ goes hand in hand with my niece’s blog of her trip to Las Vegas?” asked Jane Hamilton, author of “The Book of Ruth” and a forthcoming novel, “When Madeline Was Young.” “It sounds absolutely deadly.” Reading books as isolated works is precisely what she wants to do, she said. “When I read someone like Willa Cather, I feel like I’m in the presence of the divine,” Ms. Hamilton said. “I don’t want her mixed up with anybody else. And I certainly don’t want to go to her Web site.”

How fatuous. Listen, Willa Cather is on the shelves now next to Danielle Steel. But don’t worry: Willa won’t get any on her.

I pick on the lead-type Luddite moments in the story, but it also does a very good job pointing to the enthusiasts and success stories, including Yochi Benkler’s new book on networks (which, irony, o irony, i just ordered from Amazon). And this:

For unknown authors struggling to capture the attention of busy readers, however, the Web offers an unprecedented way to catapult out of obscurity. Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer who started a political blog, “Unclaimed Territory,” just eight months ago, was recruited by a foundation financed by Working Assets, a credit card issuer and telecommunications company, to write a book this spring. Mr. Greenwald promoted the result, called “How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values From a President Run Amok,” on his own blog and his publisher e-mailed digital galleys to seven other influential bloggers, who helped to send it to the No. 1 spot on before it was even published. This Sunday it will hit No. 11 on the New York Times nonfiction paperback best-seller list. “I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology,” Mr. Greenwald said. “That’s one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and new authors.”

Say amen.

Of course, what this all comes down to is money. I do not blame authors for wanting to get paid — any more than I blame journalists, musicians, or TV producers. But trying to make money by stopping people from what they want to do, preventing them from enjoying your work the way they want to enjoy it, won’t work.

Mr. Benkler, the Yale professor and author, argues that people will continue to pay for books if the price is low enough. “Even in music, price can compete with free,” Mr. Benkler said. “The service has to be sufficiently better and the moral culture needs to be one where, as an act of respect, when the price is reasonable, you pay. Its not clear to me why, if people are willing to pay 99 cents for a song they won’t be willing to pay $3 for a book.”

And some needed context:

In the context of history, the changes that today’s technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.

: LATER: Here are comments on the column on Comment is Free.

  • That bit about cross-fertilization reminds me of a game we sometimes play over at the Pyramid newsgroups. It’s called “Games That Should Not be Played” and usually involves two games as different from each other in theme, tone, and style as it’s possible to get. The literary version might be called, “Books That Should Not be Read.”

    Such as, “The Lord of the Pings” An expose of Glenn Reynolds.

  • Frank L

    Absolutely love this post. I can’t believe how many Authors with a Capital A are wedded to the notion of “bookness” as a construct. It’s like a roomful of screeching babies yowling for a pacifier. It’s also related to why fewer and fewer people are buying books, more and more bookstores are closing up shop, and yet the Authors with a Capital A (and the Publishing Industry with a Capital P) still beat their breasts about how horrible it is that books are going the way of the horse and buggy. Too many ironies in all of this to count.

  • “That seems to assume that there’s a chance publishing can avoid the digital revolution. That horse is over the horizon already.” AMEN! The question is always – what are they going to do about it!

  • Jimbo

    Until I have a large “reading screen” in the bathroom, I’m sticking with the printed word for my quality time. Nothing helps pass the time or last night’s dinner than a novel.

  • I actually can agree with you to some extent. Great post! Although I love the collectible aspect of owning a “book,” when it comes to research and convenience I almost always try to find a e-text before i shell out the $5 on amazon.

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  • I’ll say upfront in the interest of full-disclosure that I am part of a company, EnhancedBooks.Com, that is focused on solving challenges that you address.

    An interesting indicator was the ’05 Book Expo America, the US’s largest book trade show. This was the first year that they included an entire track focused on helping book publishers begin to fathom the opportunities that the digital world affords them. Book publishing is an industry that is very adverse to change and as deeply rooted in the current "system" of delivering physical books but don’t worry, it is changing.

    We "Got" it about 4 years ago and the publishing industry has been somewhat slow to embrace the new opportunities. However, the genie is out of the bottle. Many of the massive houses have begun to make moves to establish their place in the digital lifestyle. For example, HarperCollins is digitally warehousing it’s book content for the potential future digital uses that may arise. Both Google and Amazon.Com clearly recognize the opportunity and have developed efforts to capitalize on the digitization of book content. In the US, consider that the 500 largest houses represent roughly 4% of the total number of publishers and 40% of the books published. of course there are a great deal of smaller, more agile publishers all over the world who could benefit from adopting a strategy or innovating themselves. In all there are massive numbers of books printed and sold each year, including back-list  titles, and any publisher can take advantage of this to trend to sell more books. As you indicated, it is the consumer that drives this change for additional value and publishers ignore this trend at their own peril.

    Hat’s off Jeff, keep up the good work on focusing attention on the changes.

  • Ed Rusch

    “It’s also related to why fewer and fewer people are buying books,”

    I call crap on that. More and more people are buying books and more and more books are being published:

    “Harry Potter, books by religious leaders and textbooks for elementary and high school students were the bright spots in U.S. publishing last year, according to a report released Thursday by the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association.

    “American publishers generated net revenues of $34.6 billion in 2005, up 5.9 percent over the previous year, according to the report. The industry sold about 3.1 billion books last year, up 3.8 percent over a year earlier.

    “The report, “Book Industry Trends,” is published annually by the study group. In 2006 the figures include results from small and midsize publishers with sales of under $50 million each.

    “The strongest single growth niches were juvenile books, which sold $3.34 billion in 2005, up 9.6 percent from a year earlier, and religious books, which sold $2.29 billion, up 8.1 percent from 2004.”

    Jeffo, you may want to do the most basic amount of rudimentary research before making one of your wacko predictions. You don’t know squat about the economics of the publishing world, and your assertions in the face of reality just makes you look old and pathetic. But I’m guessing you’ll shrug off the reality of the situation because it doesn’t fit the constructs of your perceived world.

  • T.

    I’ve been hearing about the death of books since the mid-90s and it still hasn’t happened. It won’t happen. You can’t drag a laptop onto the subway or bus commute and read comfortably. It doesn’t transfer easily to the bathroom. Put a book on an Ipod or Treo and you’ll go blind from squinting. Even when I read things online, if it’s too long I end up printing it out and reading it with a binder clip like a book anyway, and I know a lot of people who do the same. I just don’t see the book going away, no matter how people try to act like it’s inevitable.

  • Frank L

    More and more people are buying books and more and more books are being published.

    Then explain this. From the Associated Press, 5/10/06:

    Faced with years of slow, and even declining sales, the publishing industry has finally responded in kind. For the first time since 1999, the number of new books is going down. “In 2005, publishers were more cautious and disciplined when it came to their lists,” Gary Aiello, chief operating officer of Bowker, which compiles publishing statistics, said Tuesday in a statement. “We see that trend continuing in 2006. The price of paper has already gone up twice this year, and publishers, especially the small ones, will have to think very carefully about what to publish.” According to Bowker, the number of new books and new editions of old works published last year dropped to 172,000, about 18,000 less than in 2004. Publishers, especially small and middle-sized ones, all cut back. Bowker is projecting declines in history, biography, children’s books, technology and even religion, supposedly one of the industry’s fastest growing categories.

  • No, I think you make an excellent point about the future of new media in publishing/communications. I wrote an article on the effects of new media on journalism if you’d like to take a look.

  • T said,

    You can’t drag a laptop onto the subway or bus commute and read comfortably.


  • patkat

    Oh, what nonsense! ‘Short of footnotes and bibliographies,’ says the boy with the stars in his eyes, ‘books have little connection to related sources and debates; online, the simple link solves that….’ What, the link, that modern form of ‘connected’ remoteness? What about a well stocked mind? Make things truly present to yourself. Cultivate your garden.

    “Parts of books will reference parts of other books.” What do you mean, they will? They already do. They always have. That’s what we have people like Isiah Berlin to show us. Now, there’s a gardener! Or Pico of course. Cultivated himself all over Europe. Neither of them is known for novels. But take their books in your hands Mr Jarvis, read them, and see how a mind can connect and refer. Then do the same. After all, it’s what you can make of your mind that interests us, not the snippets of blue print that you pull from behind your ears at dinner parties.

  • Jeff,

    Leaving the aesthetic argument aside for a moment, paper is a remarkably adaptable thing, offering extremes of both permanence and impermanence that digital media is still only clumsily lunging at. How long will a hard drive last, even under ideal storage conditions? Whereas acid-free paper can remain useable for centuries. On the other end of the spectrum, paper remains the medium of choice for ephemeral publications, because even the cheapest PDA/e-book reader is going to set you back a couple hundred if you lose it, drop it on the ground, or spill your morning coffee on it.

    I may be a librarian, but I’m a practical one. I like books for some things, and bytes for others, and while the latter may continue to make inroads into the former the far future will probably involve a true synthesis of the two and not the abandonment of the one for the other. The future of the book is something that looks and feels like a book, but is in fact a wireless “exploded” text that can refer to, comment on, and become any other text at will. It’s cheap, easily mass-produced, and doesn’t require a network of call centers around the world to boot up when you buy it. The laptop is the anomaly here. Who is going to mourn the passing of seared thighs and low sperm motility, when virtual paper and cheap digital ink finally carry the day?

    Even then, however, dead-tree books will still have their place. Just as the microfilming revolution failed to eliminate the paper book as the postindustrial prophets said it would, so too will the physical objects you so puzzlingly hate persist not just as a long-term preservation strategy but as a luxury item. Has McDonald’s and Burger King eliminated the market for Kobe beef? Quite the contrary, actually. Even the most ardent supporters of the “Slow Food” movement have noted the seeming contradiction between the advance of homogenizing global capitalism and the rise of a viable trade in regional, artisanal, unique foods. Have you ever considered the possibility that the new digital media will give us a greater and not lesser appreciation of the book as a physical artifact?

  • Patkat,

    Like a good footnote, a good link will lead you to what you hadn’t known before.

    Jersey Exile,

    Starting from the assumption that things won’t change is the first step in assuring you’ll be left behind.

    Jeff’s Readers,

    One mistake we often make is that things will, somehow, stay the same. Even when we have experienced change in our lifetime. At the moment printed books have advantages over electronic books. At the same time the electronic version does have advantages over the printed. Which is better depends on how you will be using it. A bit of light reading at the park, then a printed book is better. Doing research on early tetrapods, then the electronic book with links etc. would be the better option.

    Now, I should point out that if you are going to do some heavy reading (which usually involves heavy books), even the print version is not going to be the sort of thing you read in the tub. Unless, that is, you’ve developed a very strong set of arms.

    Then there are times when you simply need information fast, and it’s not readily available. It’s then that access to the Internet becomes invaluable.

    Last of all, things change. New technologies and new ways to use old technologies are developed. At the moment e-book readers are pricy. But the price will come down. At the moment so-called epaper is really a new type of display, and requires a machine for use. In time, as technology improves, you can expect epaper that looks, acts, and feels like paper. In due time we can expect to see entire books made of epaper, capable of connecting to the Internet from most anywhere in the world to gather information. In other words, the paper will be the computer, the browser, and the search engine. As well as the display.

    But that’s not the end of it.

    A young lady thought up something. A sort of nanite ink. Nanites that would scurry about your skin forming words and images. A watch you can’t lose, or a scrolling excerpt from Shakespeare on your kneecap. Imagine watching a football game on the back of the enthusiastic fellow who’s blocking your view of the field.

    Ultimately we will simply know whatever we put our minds to. We will be the computer connected to the world. We will do the searching, the uploading and downloading, the messaging, the blogging, and whatever else one can do on the Internet. And we will know the subject. We will know how it looks, how it feels, and how it tastes. We will know the weight of it, the heat of it. We will know how to use it without ever having had it in our physical presence. An engineer out in space will fly his personal craft from Luna to the Earth’s L4 point without once consulting a navigation aide of any sort, and do this without thinking about it. And the first steps towards this future have already taken place.

    What we can do know is no predictor of what we will be able to do in the future. The book of ink and paper may not be doomed yet, but it’s time will come.

  • Alan,

    Did I ever say that things won’t change (did you even read my post, I wonder)? Good lord, man, I’ve worked in libraries long enough to see the transition from actual card catalogs to hyperlinked electronic databases that can tell me not only where to find a book anywhere in the world but even whether it’s on the shelf or not (and with a click of a mouse I can summon it to me as easily as I can buy a volume from Amazon). Librarians made the mistake of resisting change for the longest time, but the current crop of library and information science graduates not only embrace what’s coming next but are out there helping make the future a reality.

    I can’t wait for epaper and nano-ink, and most librarians of my generation are similarly enthusiastic at these and other developments. At the same time I daresay that it will be longer than you think before these wonders are able to completely displace the old-fashioned printed word. And even then, the book will persist as a luxury item — not the “permabound” crap they hawk at Barnes and Noble but real cloth and leather-bound tomes printed on lignin-free paper that will last for centuries, if not longer.

  • The whole point of books is that someone has selected the information/opinions/standpoint. They’ve filtered the searchability and connectedness for us. That’s the whole point. If they pique an interest or I think they’re talking crap then I can go to the net and do the searching I choose.

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  • As long as there are people that like to sit and relax, hold a new book in the hand and smell the fresh pages, books will never become outdated.

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