The future book

This week, Amazon unveiled a new line of digital consumption devices under the Kindle moniker. Along the way, it may have provided us a view of the future of the book.

A short history of the book

At some point between 7000BC and 4000BC, writing appeared and, along with it came the idea of record keeping. Clay tablets then papyrus made such records more portable but required that each record be manually created. Meanwhile, printing popped up in China in 2000BC and South America around the same time (Chinese had a system to print on wood while meso-American cultures used some kind of loom to “print” using knots). Papyrus was replaced by parchment but still required manual transfers of text, making books a rare good that generally was only available to rich (and therefore educated) people.

At some point between the 2nd and 4th century, paper replaced parchment and monasteries starting generating bigger books, with scriptoriums appearing in many places. Because of their close ties to the church, the scriptorium mostly produced religious texts. The rise of paper over parchment however, made books cheaper, which meant that their diffusion became somewhat wider.

And then it was 1440!

That year, Johan Gutenberg was inspired to combine a wine screw (used to press grapes or olives) with paper and hot type to create the first priting press. Books could now be reproduced quickly and cheaply, allowing for substantially lower costs and more widespread distribution. The rotary printing press was introduced in the 19th century, speeding things further, but apart from that the printed book one gets today is basically produced in the same fashion as it was in 1440.

In the 1930s, the paperback book appeared, making printed goods a complete mass medium. The book world then became stratified with paperback at the bottom of the pile, aimed at mass distribution, hardcovers in the middle as somewhat better produced and more durable, and collectible books, produced in small quantity and created as art objects to be appreciated by collectors.

Then came e-readers!

The Kindle arrives

E-readers were initially a curiosity, offering new technology to read books but mostly without having any content on them. But in 2007 Amazon, which had already established a dominant position in selling printed matter, unveiled the Kindle, an e-reader that had access to a wider collection of new titles than any other. The company introduced a second version in 2009 and the low price of the device, combined with access to hundreds of thousands of books help fire up a new revolution for books, with readers getting more interested in the device.

Barnes & Noble, a large American book chain, introduced the Nook, a competing device that offered e-book reading in color, something Amazon did not have, as it chose e-ink, a technology that reproduces the printed page but is mostly available in black-and-white.

2011 the year the printed book changed

I think future generations will look at this year as the year the book radically changed. Already, the data seems to point to a decline in the sale of paperback books and trends seem to indicate that consumption of certain book types has moved to e-readers as the preferred form. I was recently chatting with a book seller for one of the largest publishers in the world and he remarked that thrillers and romance novels now sold more widely on e-readers than they did in print. Another person recently told me (and a quick check on the New York subway confirmed) that women are the prime users of e-readers right now, with the tablet market being more male dominated.

So if large segments of the population are moving to e-readers, what’s to become of the printed book? Is it the end of the road for something that has existed through most major technological changes? Will centuries of history go digital? Will future generations see the latest Harry Potter volume in museums, scratching their heads as to why someone would think of carrying something as heavy to read it?

Two paths for the book

What I see is something a little different. I think we’re about to see the book split down two paths and people will go down one or the other depending on how they feel about books.

Before I look at the two paths, I must highlight that there are two types of book readers:

  • On one side are people who look at the book for its content, only concerned with what stories or facts are contained within the book. Those people don’t care about the distinction between paperback, hardback, or e-text. What they want is the words and sentences, not the other stuff that comes along with the book.  Those people tend to see books as information vessels to be discarded once the information has been consumed.
  • On the other side are people who look at the book as a total experience, moving from the cover and its layout into the book, its size, its type, and finally its content. Those people look to book as complete objects that cannot always move to another form without changing. Those people tend to have larger libraries at home, attaching certain time periods and feelings to books.  They may pull a particularly worn tome from a shelf and be reminded of the time they acquired it, the time they read it, the people and locations they frequented with that book.

I am not assigning judgement to either category but I wanted to create a clear distinction because it has relevance to what happens next to the book. And let me get into that now:

  • Death of the mass market printed book: I believe the vast majority of people fall in the first category I highlighted. Looking at the trends, it seems that price has generally been an issue with books and people who do consume them tend to consume them mostly as paperback. I’d venture that within a generation, paperback will disappear, and those texts will be moving to e-readers (I’m also assuming that e-readers will continue to drop in price until the point where they may be bundled with a first purchase of a book). This does not bode well for large chains that are selling books as they will see those revenue evaporate as more people move to e-books. In the US, we’ve already seen the death of Border’s bookstore and I suspect that it’s only a question of time before Barnes & Noble suffers the same fate (unless it adapts and finds a way to sell their nook for substantially less than Amazon does the Kindle).
  • Survival of the book as object: However, the second group of readers will continue to exist and that group is about to go through interesting times as books become rarer but also more prized. The newfound rise of the book as object is more of a return to the pre-paperback days when libraries were as much status symbol as they were about learning. Books will be produced in substantially smaller quantities to appeal to this crowd, forcing their price up and their margins down. However, authors who are printed will be seen as more influential than authors who are only published digitally.

In the next entry, I will look at some of the impact those changes may have on society as a whole.

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