A title that sounds like a fable, so this should be good. I’ve been meaning to throw my hat in the ring in regards to the future of books for sometime.
I’ve promised myself to think and write about it since I went to Abilene and discussed it there with Bill Rankin and George Saltsman. So what’s been stopping me? As so often is the case it’s the semantics of the debate that is generally off-putting. Grandiose statements like the “Book is Dead” don’t provide much sway when you fail to comprehend what exactly they mean by a book. How can you discuss when we don’t understand what we are talking about?
So how about I weigh in and at least share my interpretation of the semantics of the debate – and then I’ll make the grandiose statements.
The Book and the Text
My first semantic issue is the confusion over what a book is and what text is. The book is an artefact – it is a physical manifestation of text presented through the printed page. It is not the text itself – it is the format it is presented. The book to me is a distinct object to the text. Yes they are linked, but they are not the same.
The Book and the Writing
The book is not the same as the style of writing. The novel has become the predominant style for books but they again are not the same thing. One is a method and the other is presentation – and they are not the same. There are many types of books but there are also many styles of writing – poetry, essays, newspaper articles, opinion pieces, journal entries – these aren’t fundamentally different because of the way they are presented, they are different because of the style in which they were written.
So to summarise:
Content is separate to the Presentation
Presentation is separate to Method
Ok, now on to grandiose statements.
The Book is Dead
Yep, the book we know it today is dead! In a mass produced artefact sense it is dead. When you go into a bookstore what do you see? Nothing but mass produced printed paper on every shelf because the business model requires mass production (and mass sales) to justify its costs. So in that sense the book is dead, it won’t make sense in a digital future because it is cheaper, quicker and more efficient to bring a book to market as a digital artefact rather than a physical one.
The printed artefact however will survive. Digital printing, specialist finishing, customisable content and short runs are the future. Instead of having a book designed by Penguin you have a book designed by you. Your font, your size, your colour, your artwork and your content! Books will no longer be the domain of the publishing industry – it will be the operation of artisans and customer centred services and features in the way that you can already turn your digital photos into a physical object. The domain of the book will shift from where it is today into something that is a physical manifestation of our digital lives, our tastes, our desires, our passions and our loves.
The Book is Dead Part II
Now to touch on the style issue. The Book – in the stylistic sense of the long form fictional novel – is dead too. As the dominant form of writing for the last century the novel has reached it’s peak and it will decline. The novel has been the publishing industries cash cow, cheap to produce and with good margins, and it has suffocated other styles of writing that don’t necessarily lend themselves to high profit margins. The decline of the novel is not at the expense of writing. Not at all! The Web 2.0 revolution centred around the creation of content and it has encouraged and re-energised the textual form and writing itself. It also bough back forms of writing that had been missing for a long time, stifled by the novel. The digital form created new opportunities for publishing, both self and curated, and freed it from the economic constraints of the printed page. It was never physically possible to recreate let alone make money out of a blog or an essay or a forum discussion, but the web has made that possible. Tablets and mobile devices will also change the way we consume writing too – as we look less at longform fiction and more at shorter forms such essays, stories and articles.
So stylistically there will be a shift and rather than a marketplace dominated by the novel and cookbooks and we will see more diversity in terms of style and content!
I am afraid…
There seems to be a lot of fear in regards to the future and fate of the book, but let’s not confuse the book with writing itself. Writing is looking increasingly healthy. There are new platforms and new ways to write, to display and present text, to change and enhance the way we write and what we write about too! Even if the book is dead, writing will survive. It will continue in a new form, be presented in a new way and develop new styles and methods – but …
… writing will never die!
I’d love to discuss this further so leave comment, share and write with me!