There is clearly one school of thought, and you can understand its magnetism, that looks at the iPod and argues the same is going to happen for books.
There are chapters in this book by Jeff Gomez that do just that and then add in examples of changing consumption and viewing habits with television and newspapers to back up the fundamental arguments that not only is change coming, but it is already here.
In that argument he is persuasive peeling back the behaviour of the digital generations and commenting on just how much data I sent and read across the internet. Unlike most of the other books on this subject, written before the internet became quite the force it is today, he is not looking to a future time when digital reading starts but acknowledging that it has started.
That then raises the next obvious question about whether or not the publishing industry has learnt anything from their musical counterparts. Are they ready to embrace change and update business models that have not been radically tinkered with since the introduction of the paperback?
Gomez is not so sure that they are. Most seem to have resisted making any moves quite happy to believe that the initial e-reader products have been failures and therefore so is the whole concept. But their audience has embraced change.
Also there are warnings for authors that fail to move with the times and understand that what they need to do is increase their interactivity. If they opt for the reclusive life then they may well end up with no visibility and as a result turn away a potential readership.
But all is not lost and Gomez believes that many will make the transition and the future of the book – if you view that to mean a collection of words rather than an object – remains strong.
In terms of adding to an existing canon of works on the subject Gomez is clearly the most up to date because this was only published last year and because of technology he is able to maintain a running dialogue on his web site.
Easy to read but there are some big things to digest here and not all of them will have you nodding in agreement. A book is different from a compact disc and parallels between the two can only go so far.
Having set out the pressures on publishers with book printing machines offering another direct to customer model he then lists the reasons that publishers will survive:
1. find talent
2. support talent
3. edit talent
4. market talent
5. pay talent
He argues that content is finally becoming king and not the technology as that stage of the development of ebooks is being completed and it is now all about the words rather than they way they are presented.
But publishing needs to understand it is in the business of ideas.
“Publishing needs to come to a similar conclusion, realising that it’s not in the book business, but instead that it traffics in ideas, information and stories.” Pg 193
He ends the book talking about the fact that there is a much wider debate that rises above the arguments of digital or paper.
“If upcoming generations don’t read digitally there’s a good chance they won’t read at all – then through whatever mechanism it takes to get words in front of a pair of curious human eyes, or wherever those words end up, the important thing is that they are read.” Pg 203.
Gomez looks at the emergence of the iPod in 2002 as a defining moment that set a benchmark of what was possible. Since then there have been various attempts to crown various ebook platforms the ipod of the book world.
The iPod showed things could happen quickly and the results could turn upside an industry steeped in tradition. But there are ongoing problems to sort out in terms of price, copyright and range of titles available to download. But change is coming that is for sure.
Of course since this book was written there have been strong sales of the Sony Reader and the Kindle and although most of the points he makes are still valid you feel we are slightly further down the road.
The web offers opportunities for writers to interact and reach more readers and potentially breakthrough when they might have failed in traditional publishing
But for those writers that fail to embrace the changes things could start to become a lot more difficult.
“Authors who choose not to take part in any sort of online promotion or to curry online exposure, and unwilling to do things like start a blog, post clips on YouTube, have a page on MySpace or otherwise engage an internet audience in any meaningful way will find themselves at an increasing disadvantage.” Pg 151
Those who refuse to play the new game will be in real trouble.
“The age of the aloof writer, removed from his audience or not even knowing who his audience is, is long gone.” Pg 155
Advances in technology have laid the platform for ebooks.
“Portability, searchability and the fact that you can carry around every book you own at once; these are the real hallmarks of a digital reading experience.” Pg 162
The most obvious question is where will print go?
“This is an argument of the ‘print is dead’ debate; not that print will become extinct, but that it will instead become a niche product and specialised interest.” Pg 169
There is s till a challenge for the publishing industry to work out what the model will be in terms of pricing and multiple platform availability.
“Electronic reading and digital delivery is not just a new way of doing an old thing – issuing books one way instead of another – it is instead an entirely new way of doing business. As revolutionary as reading will be in a digital future, so too must be the accompanying business model. If not consumers will reject paid content and surf the web until they find something that they can read for free.” Pg 174.
The emergence of digital music is the subject and the impact of the iPod and the reminder that the physical media is not as important as the content.
He quotes from an article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times to describe the yearning the young have for information.
“Experts who study computer use say the stated yearning to stay abreast of things may mask more visceral and powerful needs, as many self-aware users themselves will attest. Seductive, nearly inescapable needs. Some theorise that constant use becomes ritualistic behaviour, even addiction, the absorption of nervous energy, like chomping gum.” pg 77.
I can understand the addiction for information but surely books are a different experience4 and offer an alternative if anything to those pressures. Maybe I’m sounding a bit too much like Sven Birkerts there…
But the next generation is getting used to expecting its information and its choices to come on demand.
“This is how high the stakes are for book publishers. If they don’t adapt to the habits of the new generation, they can forget about selling much of anything to them and those who follow. Yet, so far, most publishers are reacting cautiously if not indifferently, the same way that the music industry discounted the invention and the rise of the MP3”. Pg 80
Generation download is also the generation of upload. Using YouTube as an example he shows how a generation has opted to produce their own content and become part of the internet as well as watching it. Classic Web 2.0 stuff.
The pressure is on the publishing industry to provide the tools to encourage interaction.
“The publishing industry needs to realise this, and it needs to also find a way to get to those kids by making content available in a way that will first reach them (i.e digitally) and then will give them the tools to interact with it and share it (post excerpts on their MySpace pages, email chapters to friends, IM paragraphs across class etc.). If not, there are dozens of ways this generation will choose to spend their time, and none of them will involve books.” Pg 97.
Gomez starts to pull together the strands of the last few chapters and points out that there have been fundamental changes with attitudes and consumption of film, music and TV and the world has changed. Therefore there has to be a change in books.
“Prose will be left behind unless it makes strident efforts to adapt to this ‘I want it now’ on-demand model.” Pg 111.
Apologies it has been a while since I blogged on this book but I am determined to get through it this week so here we go. Lots of thoughts about the future of the book that are both interesting and challenging.
Books are going away because people don’t care. The internet has killed the book and the publishing world needs to react.
“But not many people in the industry are willing to admit of acknowledge that the internet is not the prime veichle for the dissemination of information. For everything from online news to Wikipedia (with Google tying it all together), the web is where people go where they’re looking to gain access to content. This change has already happened, and publishing now needs to react instead of preach.” Pg 41
“While those in publishing hem and haw and wearily engage in this debate at various levels, an entire generation has already decided that print is dead. Indeed, for them – raised on the internet – it might not ever have been alive.” Pg 46
He talks about the resistance to ebooks and the fact that the publishing industry has failed to understand the stage the debate has reached.
“What the critics of digital reading fail to realise is that it has already happened; people have already made substantial changes in their daily lives when it comes to digital reading.” Pg 44
He also stresses that a love of reading is importantly different from a love of books. Content versus object.
To underline the changes that are happening to readership patterns and consumption of the written word he casts an eye over the newspaper world where it is not too difficult to produce examples of change.
Falling readership levels and dropping advertising support illustrate a changing situation. He attacks the newspaper industry for failing to move with the times and accuses it of clinging on to an antiquated publishing model.
“Publishers in fact aren’t in the magazine, newspaper or book business (in the sense of these things as physical objects); they’re in the idea and story business.”pg 55
But there are economic models at work here that have been slow to adapt and if the newspapers have been slow surely it’s as a consequence of those paying for their pages to be even slower seeing change coming?
Anyway he touches on the literary critic versus blogger debate and the folding of the book review sections but that is a bit of a side debate that is probably best avoided or dealt with in much greater depth than here.
As you read the introduction you find that you are nodding your head as Gomez points out that the world has fundamentally changed as a result of technology. But he is clear about the boundaries of his study but keeps making reference to the educational and legal issues surrounding e-books and the Google moves to disseminate them.
That has the unfortunate impact of making you wonder if that is not a debate that is an interesting and slightly hotter because of its currency in the current debate about digital literature.
Still back to Print is Dead and the message seems to be that things have changed and there is no stopping them and although the book brigade argue that there is nothing that can top the design and experience they are fighting against an unstoppable tide. He makes none of the judgments that Birkerts makes about whether that is good or bad but comments that it is a fact.
The first chapter establishes the impact of the Mp3 on music and concludes that a similar change is going to happen with books.
“To see where words are headed, simply follow the evolution of music’s various technological leaps from one format to another: wax cylinder, vinyl, eight track, cassette, compact disc, MiniDisc, Mp3. What’s important to note in this sequence is that the last format – Mp3- doesn’t necessarily exist. It’s a file format, a way of digitizing and storing information. It’s not a physical thing that you necessarily hold or trade…the majority of printed material will eventually undergo a similar transformation, ending up as a digital file instead of a physical thing.” Page 16