The Future of the Book
Last week I was fortunate enough to attend my first IxDA event at Futureheads. The subject for the night was ‘The Future of the Book’, and as an English Language grad it’s a topic that lies close to my heart!
The night began with discussion of the four main challenges the paper book has to overcome; Amazon, pricing, diversity and sharing.
Amazon was an interesting one because I’ve been a little on the fence about their role in the book market for quite some time. We talked about their increasing control over book selling and thus the growing control they have in how we consume literature. I thought a really important point was that Amazon are actually positioning themselves in competition with other book sellers, and that’s a divide which hasn’t really been felt at such a scale before.
Running in tandem with this is the issue of pricing. Whilst Amazon do tend to be offering their ebooks at a lower price than the traditional paperback, supermarkets seem to be happy offering even larger cuts in a bid to upsell to customers in their stores – and it seems to be working. Despite their convenience, often we can’t help thinking that ebooks should cost less; we’re not actually getting anything tangible with them, so if we can buy the same book cheaper at a supermarket then storage issues aside there’s no real reason not to.
Diversity ties in quite nicely here. It’s certainly not necessarily a bad thing that books are appearing in an increasingly diverse range of formats, but there’s a problem in that we don’t seem to possess any technology that makes the best of all of them. The result seems to be that certain formats are diminishing, and paper is looking to be one of them.
Finally, we discussed the issue of sharing. Sharing is often something of a grey area in publishing; authors of course want their book to be exposed to as wide an audience as possible, but if this is done through current sharing methods then they see very few sales – why buy 10 of the same book when you could buy one and share it with nine friends?
So, what exactly – if anything – can we do about it? It seems like a big problem is the fact that readers are almost forced into consuming literature through a small variety of devices; if we value storage space and money spent (which are often the two most important considerations) then the choice is practically made for us. Re-establishing a good relationship with readers is likely going to mean allowing them to read on a device of their choosing, and we need to be flexible to do this.
Part of this flexibility comes in how books are sold; we need a way of embracing consumer devices and building a book selling platform which readers actually want to buy from. A possible solution could be to build the store into the book itself; if we could allow users to take themes from the book they’re reading, and search an online store for similar books from whatever device it is that they’re using we could really stimulate sales regardless of platform.
Or perhaps one day all books will be like MyFry; Stephen Fry’s autobiography which comes in the form of an app which is readable and searchable by themes, meaning that whilst it could be read in an end-to-end fashion, it’s more commonly approached in non-linear sections.
For me, I think it’s becoming apparent that reading a physical book is more and more closely linked with leisure time; if I’m researching something and need accurate answers quickly then I’ll almost certainly use digital literature for the ability to search the document and mark it easily, but if I’m sitting down to read in the evening then I’ll probably have a real book in my hand – it just feels nicer.
‘Feeling nicer’ is the key thing – reading a physical book is becoming something of an occasion, and perhaps a good way of cementing their place in the future would be to act upon this. If we looked at printed books as a leisure-time item then we could begin to add value on that basis; perhaps books could offer invitations to discussions with the author, or come with opportunities to join a community of like-minded readers (this would also go some way to helping readers find similar books they’d be interested in).