The future of the book


What does the future hold for the book? It's a question that many are asking, from authors to publishers to book sellers to readers. The popularity of the paper book, unlike its media relatives the vinyl record, cassette tape, CD, VHS tape, etc., has remained largely unchallenged for more than 500 years. But in the past few years, we've seen an incredible surge in the growth of e-books, as the quality of the technology and its price point has made it attractive to consumers.

In 2011, journalists Sean Prpick and Dave Redel produced a CBC Radio documentary for Ideas called Closing the Book, which examined why Kobos, Kindles, iPads, and dozens of other devices are flying off the shelves, while bibliophiles and skeptics argue that an electronic experience will never be superior to the sensuous of reading the printed page. Now, they've produced a sequel -- Opening The Book -- which explores a different question: could e-books fundamentally change the way we read?

To gain further insight into their documentary and their research, we contacted Sean Prpick, who also wrote this feature about the evolution of social reading, with a few questions. You can listen to both documentaries in the audio players below the Q&A. Let us know your thoughts about the future of books in the comments section below.

It seems like e-books and e-readers are getting more advanced and offering readers more by the day. What are some e-reading apps or digital tools that have really impressed you?

I've probably tried a dozen different e-readers now, partly out the need for research, but mostly because of my inherent geeky nerdiness. I've done a fair bit of reading on a state-of-art, latest generation iPad and while that groovy Retina display gives you a picture perfect image of a book, the brightness of the screen is wearing and a source of eye-strain for me. I've found the best reading machine for me is a Kindle Paperwhite. It has a crisp new e-ink display, gentle backlighting, which allows you to lie in bed in the dark and read and easily manipulate the touch screen. By the same token it's far easier to read outdoors on sunny days than an iPad - iPads have problems right now with outdoor reading because of the glare off the screen. But I'm speaking about today. Kobo has a very similar, though not quite as polished analogue to the Paperwhite called the Glo and Apple is expected to introduce a new iPad in June, which may solve the problems mentioned above. In fact, things are changing so fast that ... and I'm not exaggerating ... consumers can expect significantly upgraded readers from different makers every 90 days or so.

In terms of apps ... there's a lot global attention right now by a tablet/smartphone-ready app of T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land published by a small company called Touchpress. It's loaded with interactive features and is getting rave reviews. I'd also like to get my hands on House of Anansi Press's new Margaret Atwood app. It based on a book written in her youth, Speeches for Doctor Frankenstein. Atwood, who's always been technologically innovative, has worked with Anansi to produce a beautiful collector's coffee table book version, printed in a very short run and costing much more than I can afford on a CBC salary. But for the rest of us, there's a much more affordable app, with many of the same features of the actual book in virtual form. Cool!

While e-books are growing massively, we read about book publishers and book sellers going bankrupt and hear debates about the need for them to adopt a new business model. What are some strategies traditional publishers and book sellers need to embrace to survive -- and thrive -- in the digital age?

To be blunt, several of the experts we talked to think they can't survive, at least not in their current form. The Big Five (shrunk from the Big Six with the Random House-Penguin merger last year) are too tied up in their big infrastructure, like warehouses, shipping, huge dispersed sales forces, even old-fashioned printing presses in some cases. And psychologically, our experts warn, there's still a sense of shock over how fast things are changing, which is impairing their ability to survive. One expert, Bob Stein, a founder of the New York-based Institute For the Future of the Book, is a pretty influential guy and the big publishers are eager to talk to him. He's met the leaders of most of the top companies and he says, for the most part, they're older boomers with retirement in sight. With just a few years left before they retire they're saying, he says, "As long as I can keep the beast alive on my watch." In other words, they'll do what they can to keep things going for just a few more years. It looks to me that the future belongs to smaller, newer publishers, nimble and savvy enough to master the new technology -- and to those surviving big publishers that can emulate them. Where it gets really interesting is a possible future predicted by one Montreal-based thinker, Hugh McGuire, where literary content becomes so accessible and so searchable on the Web, it becomes free. Publishers, he theorizes, will make their money selling contextual guides and other services connected to their work, like Margaret Atwood is doing with House of Anansi by selling an app version of her ultra limited paper edition. And McGuire is nothing if not bold. He thinks we could be in this new world, which shatters old publishing business models, in as few as five years.

When social networking first emerged, some dismissed it as a fad. Do you believe social reading will eventually change the way most of us will consume stories?

We got mixed, but quite informed opinions on this. Bob Stein mentioned above believes the future of reading is deeply social. Stein, a pioneer in educational CD-ROMs and inventor of the DVD commentary, is working on a new product called Socialbook, which works on top of another website, It allows people to read collectively, scribble in the margins of the text and argue about it, highlight text, pull out quotes and much more. He envisions a future where it might be considered anti-social not to read socially this way.

book-vs-ebook-240.jpgHis vision extends even farther out to the horizon. He also thinks the major form of literary expression could be multi-player gaming. In other words, a distinguished author might lay down the spine of a narrative and put it on the Web. To "read" the story, you would join the author and other players online and work out the story collectively as you proceed through the "game." Now, just as an aside, "book" isn't the right term for a future in which so much writing won't have a physical version, "game" isn't the right word for interactive immersive communication environments. But for lack of better terms, we still call them books and games, although we have to set aside decades and even centuries of connotations and perceptions to be able to see what's possible.

Others we spoke to, like Hugh McGuire and a young British publisher and futurist named James Bridle aren't so sure. They say there's a role for literary gaming and collective reading, but say we've become so fond of individual reading over the last several hundred years, it's probably safe. "Nobody is coming to take our arm chairs away," Bridle told us.

Your documentary Closing The Book aired in 2011. Have any trends or developments in the publishing industry surprised since you then?

The speed of the growth e-book market is still startling. Although they had access to the technology at the same time as the Americans (beginning with the release of the Kobo in 2006), Canadians stayed true to their more careful and conservative stereotype by being a little slower and more careful in coming to the party. When we last checked in 2011, about 20 percent of American book sales were "e" and only six percent in Canada. Now, 24 months later, the market has exploded here and the market in Canada is about 20 percent "e" (that's worth a lot of money in a total domestic Canadian book market of about $2 billion per annum). The Americans, meanwhile, have shot ahead to 30 percent of all sales being "e". I suspect we'll be at 30 percent soon as our American cousins gallop out ahead of us. It's hockey stick growth, as the graph makers say, and rumours of a plateau in e-book sales in recent months are greatly exaggerated, in my opinion. To make a long story short, Canada is one of the great e-reading nations, along with countries like the U.K., Australia, China, the U.S., and others.

Based on your research and discussions with industry experts, what interesting trends or developments do you think we'll see in the next few years? What are you keeping your eye on?

Will the Big Five keep on shrinking? Which new companies rise to the top? Is there some literary innovation out there so new, so radical that we won't even call it a book, but still recognize it as equal to a book. Something I can practically guarantee you in the next 18 months to two years from now though is that e-readers will get so cheap and so good, companies like Amazon and Kobo and Sony will give them away in order to get you to buy their e-books. You'll like that, unless you prefer to read it on your smartphone, as millions of people do already.

What's your own preference when it comes to reading books -- paper or plastic?

Boy, I still have a big pile of paper books that I got for Christmas that I have to work through. They still make great Christmas gifts. And I think as a late-Boomer (I was born in 1958) it means I'm so immersed in paper book culture it's going to be hard psychologically to completely give up on them. But ... I really prefer my plastic Kindle. I find myself getting impatient with paper books and their inability, for example, to let me read them in the dark while my wife sleeps next to me. And I can see paper books riding into the sunset soon, which is kind of sad. They'll always be there, but, as James Bridle told us, more and more they'll become rarer and more cultish, like the tiny handful of cassettes, 8-tracks and vinyl LPs being cranked out today by a small number of boutique companies. 

Listen to Opening The Book (2013):

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Listen to Close The Book (2011):

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