The Future of Books

A friend asked me to write a speculative piece on the future of books for the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre June Newsletter.  I started writing and ended up with well over a thousand words, which was slightly problematic, given the five hundred word limit. As a result, I used an except of the below for the newsletter, but decided to post the whole thing here.

The written word has been around for millennia, be it in the form of scrolls, tablets (of ye olde clay/stone variety, not the Apple iVariety) and books, and there’s little reason to believe it’s going to suddenly vanish.  From where I sit, however, it seems pretty obvious that the most common media used to record, transport and propagate the written word are shifting dramatically.

Before I talk about what I see for the future, I think it’s important to look at changes in the recent past, with the introduction of word processors, email and the Internet. The writers and publishers saw the changes first. The writers, in the last 50 years, have seen the posting of hand written manuscripts shifting to posting typewritten manuscripts which was followed by the posting of printed manuscripts, then floppy disks containing the electronic manuscript until we reached the current state of directly emailing an electronic manuscript. The publishers saw the same shift in receiving manuscripts, but also the changes in reviewing, editing and publishing the manuscripts made available by the technology.

Not a great deal had changed for the readers, though, through to the end of the 20th century. We still read the work in a physical form, be it a book, newspaper or magazine. The popularity of the Internet began to slowly change this amongst my friends with some newspaper or magazine content available online, and to a limited degree, some books. Reading on a computer screen wasn’t particularly convenient though – it couldn’t replace the newspaper at the breakfast table, the magazine in the waiting room, or the book read curled up in bed or on the lounge by the fire.

A combination of three things changed my reading habits drastically. First of all, as an IT geek, I was usually on the forefront of technology, and in the early 2000s I switched from a ‘dumb’ mobile phone to a smart phone, which I could read ebooks on. Second of all, Eric Flint and Jim Baen got together and started the Baen Free Library – a selection of Fantasy and Science Fiction novels (usually the first in a series), downloadable over the Internet, for free. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I injured myself whilst hiking in another country, and was unable to join the rest of the group each day. This left me with limited movement, lots of free time, no proximity to my existing library, and a smart phone with a hundred or so ebooks on it. Necessity (avoiding boredom) started me on the path of reading ebooks in 2004 and convenience has since hastened and solidified that as my media of choice. Now, I rarely read a physical book or newspaper, I prefer digital versions. But I digress.

For a while, it was only a few of us IT geeks who read ebooks. Then Amazon released the Kindle, and it was a huge success. Other manufacturers copied the business model, and suddenly there was a multitude of e-readers out there, at a reasonable price for regular book purchasers. Slowly, but steadily the supply side of the book market began to shift towards ebooks, to meet the growing demand. Where the suppliers were slow, self epublishing began to fill the gap, with it becoming easy and cheap for an individual to self-publish their novel as an ebook. This brings us to today.

We now read, write and publish in a world where the largest online book store in the US currently sells more ebooks than physical paperbacks, whilst a large bricks and mortar book store goes out of business. In this world, an individual can publish an ebook online and sell it directly to a reader for less than a couple of dollars, yet traditional publishers still have high risks and costs in producing and distributing a quality book, with a business model requiring higher prices to recoup their investment.

Within this world, is there a future for books, or has the book reached its pinnacle and begun the slide into obsolescence? What future does the book offer us, readers, writers and publisher alike?

If you ask me (and someone obviously did otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this), the future is full of opportunity for all of us.

For the reader, there will be the opportunity to cheaply acquire and devour a wider variety of books. Based on recommendations from friends, readers will be able to try a new book for less than the price of a cup of coffee. They will be able to purchase and download books quickly and conveniently, and will always have a library of books at hand, leaving them able to read more books, in more places, with greater convenience.

For the writer, there will be the opportunity to engage directly with a larger readership and publish their works to a wider audience. Writers who want to experiment with creativity will do so, without having to satisfy a traditional publisher’s risk analysis. Writers will be able to develop and practice their marketing and reader engagement, and might draw the attention of a publisher or hone their skills to increase their chances of doing so next time.

For the publisher, there will be the opportunity to watch the readers wade through the Internet slush pile, observing which books are favourably received. They will be able to take an uncontracted, promising author and contract them, investing in the teams and infrastructure it takes to produce a quality book, with confidence in a proven work. With their brand as a stamp of quality and their distribution chains they will deliver physical and electronic books worldwide, to readers who will pay more than a couple of dollars for higher quality. With the reduced risk of failure, they will hopefully sell at a lower price, remaining competitive with the self-published ebooks.

Amongst all these opportunities, I predict there will be further industry disruption as the publishing business models change; some established publishers will fail, some new publishers will flourish. Likewise some writers will be quicker than others to take advantage. Some writers with a large fan base and established income will move away from traditional publishing. Other writers will self publish electronically, whilst also working a day job. They’ll hope to build enough of a fan base to be able to quit the day job, or to draw the attention of a traditional publisher.

I predict the ebook will be the default within a decade, with only those books which proved themselves in electronic format, or coming from a proven author being published physically. That said, I predict there will still be physical books for decades to come, there’s always going to be a place for a physical book, even if it’s only to display, unread, a status symbol on the shelf.

I can’t predict how books will change, how much rich media or linked content (if any) will end up within them, but I predict they will change drastically. Finally, I predict that centuries from now, historians will wonder why we ever questioned the future of books, speculating that it must have been a limitation of the primitiveness of what were considered “books” at the time.



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