The Future of the Book: Dead or Alive?

Loose notes from SXSW 2007 panel The Future of the Book: Dead or Alive?

Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive
Terri Ducay, Cheskin
Eileen Gittins, Blurb
Peter Merholz, Adaptive Path

What is happening to the traditional publishing industry? How long before there’s no room in the economy for paper books? And what happened to the push for e-book readers in the 90s – why haven’t they taken off? Just in time publishing is taking off, and there’s still room for blockbuster books, but what about all of the barely profitable middle ground books?

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Girl keeps 20 books on her iPod. “I can’t carry around 20 books!” Well, she is. So in a way, the book experience is growing, not shrinking.

Gittins: blurb.com. Free book design/layout software, Mac or PC. People still like books – lean heavily on the beauty side of the equation. As we become more virtual in our business/personal lives, we value analog/romantic objects more. It’s a long-tail business, an enablement business. Turn any kind of content into any kind of book. Somewhere, there is an audience for every book that has ever been created. Even if it’s an audience of one. Now you have the access and the means to create books that match desired user experience.

Ducay: User Experience lead for Netscape, Apple, Novell. Represents the user in tech. Question is not whether the book is alive or dead, but what is the UE coming out of these new technologies? Also, the “Y” generation: Will create new things, just as TiVO and the iPod have changed UE culturally. UE experts create stories from data – you don’t want hundreds of pages sitting on a shelf. Experience of buying the traditional book: Small book vendor vs. B&N. Gittins’ product lets the user create the experience. So the book is not dead, it’s very much alive.

A few years ago, avg 13 hrs/week on TV and 5 hrs/week on internet. In 2006, up to 15 hrs TV and 11 hrs internet — both going up. How much time is spent reading books? How much time will be spent reading books 10 years from now?

Recent issue of Wired mag on “Snack culture” – how our approach to media is getting more bite-sized (read this on the plane home – stunning collection of data points). Technologies are presenting opportunities for new experiences, almost all of which are supplanting books.

Brewster Kahle believes in providing full access to history of books, and has great faith in Google Books to provide this.

Musicians no longer make money from music: They make it from merchandising and all the ancillary stuff. The same kind of thing is happening to authors. So little money in it, extremely hard to make a living. Therefore the economics of one-off publishing becomes not only viable but essential. blurb.com will also get you an ISBN, which will get you into Amazon.

Kahle: The market will divide into giant blockbuster titles and tiny self-published titles. The middle-zone of the book industry is going to all but vanish, or become incredibly challenging.

Accessibility (blind questioner): The prospect of Google or other scanning in millions of old books is incredibly exciting – the possibilities are tremendous for the blind. But NOT if the books are scanned as images of pages. They MUST be scanned as real text (I think we all care about this, though it’s even more critical to the blind). What are Google’s plans? Google says: “For public domain, we do plan to OCR the scans. Project Gutenberg has a separate group that does this. For non-public domain, the issues are complicated. It’s all being worked out.

Google has a balance to strike: They’re trying to provide access to scanned content for people, not for competing corporations. So are you allowed to take, say 500 books from Google Books and re-format them (in whatever format pleases you) and put them on another site? This is gray area. Google wants to support new options and formats, but can’t do all formats. They don’t want you to scrape their entire catalog and republish it. But selective re-use will be OK.

Should a bookstore consider putting all or some of their books’ content online? (For example City Lights both publishes and sells their own books). It’s worked great for Cory Doctorow, who gives away his books online and it seems like this has raised his dead tree sales. But will it work for all books / authors? Probably not. Online could be used effectively for presenting audio or video of the authors reading (poetry would work great this way, political stuff would work great this way…)

The $100 textbook is all wrong. e-books is a fantastic solution for the problem of the thick, expensive textbook.

Have e-books been a failure so far? It would seem so. What’s stopping it? Inadequate devices? Inflexible user habits? Inherently bad idea? There’s still a move to digitize masses of content, but we need to do experiments in the open to figure out what people actually want in terms of electronic reading. So far it’s working great for reference works, not great for long-form novels.

Kahle passed around a prototype of a very inexpensive open source e-book reader – project afoot to distribute tens of thousands of these to 3rd world countries – could become one of the most important electronic devices in history.

4 Replies to “The Future of the Book: Dead or Alive?”

  1. ebooks a failure? It’s too early to tell. The big problem with ebooks is that there has been no ipod equivalent to make them useful. Sony is trying with their ebook reader, and if they make it mac compatible, I might think about getting one. Big problem though. Drop a paperback in the toilet, and you’re out about $12-20, worst case, and it might just be a little wrinkled. Drop the ebook reader in the toilet, it’s stone dead, you lose the $300 reader *and* all the books you had stored on it. As Doctorow himself says, folios have been around a long time, and people like them as a form factor. They’re not going away any time soon.

    That said, there are definitely applications for ebooks if a. the readers are much, much cheaper. b. the readers are either open so they can read anything, or locked to a specific, subscription based publication. I’m picturing magazines with electronic subscriptions here. c. and this is the biggie: the ebook reader ads greater functionality to the picture. In the magazine example, if the magazine stored all the back issues you’ve ever had, or better yet, came with all the back issues of the magazine that were ever published, in addition to getting the current one, it would be useful. About $20-40 useful, and enough to take up desk space with.

    Also. Ebook readers need to handle their own power. I don’t think e-ink and its offspring need much power, so why not imbed a flexible solar panel inside the front and back cover, so the ebook recharges itself in ambient light, like some watches do?

    Anyway. With the advent of ubiquitous radio networking, I think ebooks will have more applications. Right now, it’s too much of a pain in the ass to get content *into* the ebook.

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