What is the future of the book? In this interesting but flawed piece from the New York Times, David Streitfeld notes that the 'book' is apparently "embedded so deeply in the collective unconsciousness that no one can bear to leave it behind".
He says much that has been produced digitally so far is hampered by skeuomorphism. Apple promises to download iBooks to a reader's 'bookshelf', while the tech giant recently applied for a patent to embed autographs in electronic titles. Publishers still commission covers for e-books even though their function no longer exists, says Streitfeld. Attempts to do something new with the digital book have largely failed. As author and digital book producer Peter Meyers, puts it: "We pursued distractions and called them enhancements."
Streitfeld does not entirely dismiss the ability of digital to come up with something genuinely new, but he says that "some experts in the future of the book seem to be getting a little weary of the topic", quoting the innovative digital book man Bob Stein. Streitfeld instead points to Fully Booked: Ink on Paper: Design & Concepts for New Publications, a printed publication that mocks the usefulness of digital books. "Digital will not disappear. Print will not kill the web," the blurb on the front cover tells us.
Interacting with content
But this is where I part company with Streitfeld. First, I don't detect this fatigue, and pointing to the possible closure of Small Demons is poor way to illustrate it—Small Demons wasn't in the business of producing different types of books, but making current books discoverable. Besides failure is part of the process. If a journalist wrote an article every time a print book flopped the newspaper industry would rapidly run out of paper. More importantly, would publishers stop publishing?
Second, Fully Booked is a $50 hardback that pokes fun at the digital books industry because it does not currently attain the same heights of design as print books: it is not an alternative to trying to discover how readers will interact with content differently. Rather it showcases what print continues to do brilliantly.
Stein says his NYT quote was taken out of context, and he is right: he is frustrated by the way the question is posed, not the exploration. In an op-ed for Corriere della Serra, published earlier this year, Stein set it out in more detail. He wrote: "As someone who made the leap from print to electronic publishing over thirty years ago people often ask me to expound on the 'future of the book'. Frankly, I can't stand the question, especially when asked simplistically. For starters it needs more specificity. Are we talking 2 years, 10 years or 100 years? And what does the questioner mean by 'book' anyway? Are they asking about the evolution of the physical object or its role in the social fabric?"
Stein is correct. Looking at the publishing industry and trying to divine from its current public output how it is addressing the 'future of the book' is nuts. Publishers are commercial animals and constrained by that. The 99p e-book is one future, as is Frankenstein, or The 39 Steps, and Black Crown, but we do not yet know which marries the longer-term commercial viability publishers strive for with actual reader interest. In fact, we won't know until we hit the sweet spot—much like paper publishing.
Meyers is right to say that many enhancements simply proved to be distractions: but actually not all. The best 'new' book I've seen recently is Pottermore's Sony collaboration The Book of Spells, and its more recently released Book of Potions—both based on the Harry Potter world and both containing reams of fresh J K Rowling-written content.
The first sold more than 1m copies last Christmas on Sony's Wonderbook platform, while the second could do equally as well if Sony wasn't so distracted by the launch of its PS4 machine.
The interesting thing about Spells was that it was never packaged as a book (though it was sold at W H Smith), and when I first played it with my then 7-year-old I was surprised by the amount of narrative (by which I mean actual on-screen reading) and how it blended with the game-play. At the risk of being accused of missing the point, I might suggest that Pottermore would do well to reverse engineer a more traditional book out of the game. Part of re-inventing the book is remembering that there continues to be a place for a physical iteration. Readers are becoming format neutral: inventors can be too.
Last month The Bookseller launched an essay competition that looked at the future of the publishing business. The winner, written by Ian K Ellard was published here, and we have been putting other submissions on FutureBook over the past month. Taking the lead from the NYT and Stein, the next subject, for publication in The Bookseller of 24th January, is the future of 'the book'. What will it look like? How will it be produced/imagined? How will readers use it? Will it be commercially viable? Should we ever stop re-imaging it? Over what time-frame will this change occur?
The NYT thinks we are tired of thinking about this, and I beg to differ. I think we have only just started.
Essays up to 1,000 words in length should be submitted by (extended deadline) 24th January to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. The winning essay will be published in The Bookseller, with the writer invited to join the roster of judges for the following month's competition.