What is the Future of Books?


Image via Jeff Wilson @ Frog Mob 

Many voices are singing the praises of iPads as teaching devices, Apple not least of which. Intuitive, engaging and accessible they create new ways of teaching young children and break-through techniques for teaching those who cannot read or write.

Do these techniques expand a child’s imagination or modes of thinking in the same way books do? Well, forgive me for doing the unthinkable and answering with a question but; does it matter as long as they are developing the knowledge and reasoning they will need in life?

Before we fall into that trap though it is already apparent that these applications are not equivalent to books -they are often more akin to games- so perhaps they do not need replace them.

The worries raised around the demise of publishers are based around the lack of development resource available to these distributors to foster great authors. Without their ability to nurture and support talent -afforded by their reams of cash from the distribution monopolization music labels, publishers and other distributors commanded pre-digital- we are seing them take less risks and opt for market ready and seemingly generic safe bets. Secondly the decline of publishers could impact the unsung hero of literature, the editor. Would we have had Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins to guide and edit? Probably, but you can’t deny the influence.

Losing publishers or worse seeing their output decline in quality would only damage the calibre of literature we can enjoy. Even self publishers will need an editor when going straight to Apple. Amazon have a team of editors in house, so maybe this too will go to them.

However Self Publishing is not restricted to Kindles and Ipads, The Guardian recently reported that China has seen a massive industry develop around self published ebook serials. Authors offer their writing in periodic chunks for free, when the number of readers reaches a critical mass then the readers have to pay a small amount for the next segment of the story and these tiny payments have been racking into the millions. This model isn’t likely to bite in the west leading those at the forefront of the digital transformation of books to seek more innovative approaches to the written word.

The Future

The publishers know all of this and they have been responding. This video from interaction designers UsTwo presents some great new applications from the minds within publishers tasked with navigating this shift:

The above falls into the first camp defining the future of literature and the avenue many publishers are taking producing bespoke apps that enhance the reading experience. New agencies are popping up to specialise in this like Storythings, and all major publishers have dedicated teams producing these innovative forms of interacting with writing.

However these audio and image pairings do not seem enough to engage us with literature in a new way, which begs the question perhaps we do not need a new way to engage with books.

Secondly new storytelling initiatives are popping up all over the web many focusing on longform copy and extended reading, something highlighted in this article praising a shift to meatier reads online.

Sites like The Morning News offer long from journalism and collected themes. Figment is a fantastic community of predominantly young writers exercising their creativity and sharing their stories amongst eachother. There is such a need to write that the sites’ daily theme often sees hundreds of bespoke submissions. Cowbird offers a more contemporarily social approach with personal stories written and shared by curated storytellers documenting their lives and experiences through major events.

And finally…

There are no shortage of authors and plenty of channels to access them, while the avenues to create and access stories flourish the role for the publisher -if any- seemingly remains as trusted curators and editors. Their capacity to charge appropriately for that service is vastly diminished as book prices have been forced down by market competition and a new generation of readers who expect this reduced cost for an (e)book. As with so many things digital success stories are likely to go to a single dominating force (amazon law-suits permitting) benefitting from vast economies of scale and driving margins down across the board leaving niche, focused and flexible providers who can better serve their audience with a global platform to do so.

The importance of ink and paper diminishes with each more digitally active generation and we can’t predict what value if any will be placed on these texts in future. Books as artefacts however are much more desirable than CD’s or DVD’s and the demand to own them will not evaporate.

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