Wednesday, April 08, 2009

RIP Books?

Charles Warner on the future of books (hint - there isn’t one):

Last week I received an advanced copy of my book (printed on paper), Media Selling, Fourth Edition, and I was thrilled to finally hold it and turn its pages. I used the book last fall in a graduate course I reach at The New School. I put drafts of a couple of revised chapters of the book online for them to read, and I received no complaints from the students. No one said, “I don’t like reading books online; I prefer carrying around a 600-page book in my back pack and having the tactile feeling of paper and turning pages.” Of course not, they do virtually all of their reading online today.

As required reading for the course I listed no books printed on paper but, in addition to the online chapters, I included four blogs, the Business section of The New York Times which could be read online, and three podcasts. I also assigned several videos to watch. After one class toward the end of the year, I asked several students if they would like to be able to listen to Media Selling on their iPods (every student had one, of course), and their responses were unanimously and enthusiastically, “Of course.”

…to think that books, which are based on a technology that is five-and-a-half centuries old, will be around much longer is the ultimate Luddite delusion. Within a few years when students matriculate for their first semester in college, they will be given a devise, perhaps something similar to a Kindle or an iPhone that connects to the Internet, and a password. Included in their tuition and fees will be a charges for up-to-date synonyms for “books” and “library” and “personal computer.”

Current libraries will be turned into museums that will display old printed manuscripts and books that are representative of the past – collections in glass cases that you can look at but cannot touch. Historical relics in a reliquary. All books, including textbooks, will be available online – no need for libraries – and students won’t buy them, they will subscribe to them.

As an author of a textbook, I will write Media Selling, have it copy edited by smart software, and publish it online to with whom I negotiated a deal directly. will have an educational division that will have an up-to-date database that includes all the people who teach a course that is related to my book and all media company managers who might be prospects for the book, and through an automated process will promote the book via email and AdWords on Google.

Students and professionals will subscribe to on a yearly basis, not buy it. For that subscription fee, which will be about what the printed book costs today, I will be obligated to update the book quarterly. When book subscribers Media Selling, it will automatically be updated, just like my Firefox browser is.

Bye-bye 600-page heavy books, bye-bye libraries, bye-bye book publishers. Hello convenience, hello being current, and hello revenue that goes directly to authors instead of to Gutenberg’s descendants and people who kill trees.

Well, I’m willing to agree with Warner when it comes to books and higher education. I can see textbooks being phased out rather quickly in that realm. But beyond that, I think the book’s final and complete demise is a long way off.

For one thing, the technology for using paperless books can be expensive for a large portion of the population. Not necessarily completely out of reach, but expensive in its start-up costs. And that doesn’t even take into consideration cultural biases towards books.

For example, it may take a generation or two (or much better technology) to wean parents of young children off of reading books to their kids. There are few moments in daily life that are more bonding for parent and child. Parents remember being read to by their parents FROM BOOKS and will want to do the same. That’s not to say something can’t come along that will be the equal to traditional books and eventually the switch will be made. I’m just saying we aren’t there yet. (For example, the Kindle does poorly with graphics and no kid is going to sit still for a storybook with no pictures).

Kids books are a “specialty” kind of book and I don’t want to get too hung up on just those cases (think books of photography). The average novel or work of non-fiction for adults could easily be published exclusively electronically with little effort even today. It would miss a large chunk of the population that doesn’t have the hardware yet, but it could be done. So yes, we are getting there but the relegation of books to museums is still at least a couple of decades away.


bikedork said...

Interesting to note the digital version of text books will cost the same. paper, no binding...very inexpensive digital integration...same cost. Methinks the publishing world will soon be turned on its ear as the recording industry has in last ten years. No doubt the college text book "racket" will change from one that allows you to at least retrieve a few measley bucks on your returned books, to subscriber service. I don't know, but I kind of liked the idea of returning used books for end of semester beer money. One of the highlights of my college career.

KGB said...

I would like to point out, being a college student, that many of my teachers do not even use the paper versions of the books in the class,but they say they are always available for reference and deeper understanding of a subject, but we already have a data base called blackboard. Blackboard contains all of our assignments, readings, and grades. We also get all of our professors lectures online. Basically you don't need textbooks anyway. I might try to save money next semester in this way... just a thought

Dave said...

BTW, KGB, Mr. Warner was an instructor for a time at SIU while I was there. I have a post about that here: