The Future(s) of Books

cartoon by Bob Stein, courtesy of Annie Mole

Some people think Amazon will drive the future of books. They not only sell them (both new and used – in addition to what’s on their site, they own the largest used-book network online), but they encourage authors to bypass publishers and go straight to their site. They print books (using their own print-on-demand service) and wirelessly deliver them to a proprietary gadget (of which they have sold lots, but they aren’t saying how many). They have also provided channels for authors to blog, for readers to review, and even hold reader-rated contests to find out who will be the next American Idol of books. Though Amazon isn’t a monopoly – there are lots of other places to buy books, print books, or acquire digital books – they are building a vertically-integrated business that has a lot of people concerned. They may not be the only book business, but they may be developing an unhealthy level of clout.

Kevin Kelly presented a different, more open, yet radical vision of the future of books. Once books are digitized, they will join in a mass of digital material that will be all-encompassing and available to all. But more than simply making books available, it will erase the edges of books. They will connect in new ways, and every book will be continuously rewritten. They will spill into each other.  Books will become one very big book. (This vision seemed to John Updike a terrifying nightmare. You can listen to his speech made about this article just days after it was published.)

Mass digitization projects such as Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive, and the Hathi Trust, as well as proposals for a new National Digital Library like those that have been created in other developed nations are approaching the future of books from one direction: create a vast library of accessible books online and bring the riches of libraries to all via the Internet.

Publishing industry responses are taking a different approach. They look toward the future as an opportunity and a threat – an opportunity to sell more books with more control over the product and its use to more people, and the threat the digital texts might get loose and replicate without bringing in revenue. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has spelled out some concerns for consumers as they purchase digital books. Google is in an interesting middle place. They nudged publishers into the digital age by scanning the contents of libraries and making millions of texts available for searching and (for public domain titles) downloading. They have since become another e-book retailer. You can see their bifurcated identity in the two search boxes on the page. Two doors to the future: which one will we pick?

Whatever the future holds, technology is disruptive and copyright law is an attempt to regulate the sharing and use of texts that some argue does not serve innovation or readers. These short films offer some interesting perspectives:

What does the future hold for books? It’s an open question. The only thing I’m sure of is that they have a future, and probably several. It’s not going to look like this.