Top of Mind

What we're thinking about right now.

As Sony’s Reader, Amazon’s Kindle and rumors of the Apple Tablet invade British shores and the Google Books class action lawsuit reaches a settlement, this is a question on many minds. Perhaps a more useful question is: what is the future of reading?

I love books,and they seem to multiply in disorganized piles around my home, but I also love the vision of a world of connected content. Ebooks offer possibilities that printed books cannot. And I’m not just referring to the the ability to take an entire library with you on the plane. Ebooks offer amazing opportunities for value growth, if publishers and content owners embrace their promise.The ability to annotate content with contextual or historical references. To share the reading experience — a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence or phrase — with others. To update content (and I’m thinking about scientific or academic publishing here) with the most up-to-date finding. To provide translation — both linguistic and cultural. To link to multimedia, so that if, for example, a process in a cookbook is being described by Nigella, we could then watch her technique in video. If a particular piece of music is referenced in Proust, we could listen to it.

Imagine the possibilities when books go realtime. At a recent panel discussion on the future of book publishing at the London Business School, several people on the front lines of change did just that. David Roth Ey, Director of Digital Business Development for HarperCollins, is building a new social network for authors: He envisions of future of open-sourced book development and  innovative streams of content (Spotify for books, anyone?)  Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, Media Editor of the Financial Times, sees a future of fast-turnaround books, and closer connections between journalism and book-publishing. Though perhaps scary prospects for established publishers and editors, these are tantalizing thoughts for readers.

The focus of attention recently seems to have been on the hardware: bound book versus screen. And the hardware tussle won’t be going away soon — will we read ebooks on purpose-built devices, on tablets, on laptops, on mobiles? What other shiny global tech players might enter the musty halls of bookselling? Here’s a hint: there were talent scouts from Nokia in the audience at the London Business School event.

But let’s leave devices aside, and instead consider the coming experience of reading. New kinds of reading communities will emerge — just as digital music spawned a plethora of music tribes and increased the value of live performances and experiences. New networks of authors and editors will self-organize. Open source programming has created robust software — why couldn’t it do the same for content? And printing on demand is not only less resource-intensive; it offers the opportunity to personalize the books on our shelves, to create our own “playlists” and mash-ups of readable content.

Surely, this capability will require a new mindset, new competencies across the traditional publishing industry. Printers and distributors will perfect their just-in-time capabilities. According to Brian Linden, a Board Director at Springer Science + Business Media, epublishing in the medical and trade sector offers increased profitability and greater efficacy – it’s production-efficient, requires no warehousing, and content can be sold piecemeal. Why buy the whole book when it’s a particular chapter I need today?

There’s no doubt that dramatic restructuring is in the cards across the industry. Meanwhile, there are platform and format issues to consider. I certainly don’t want my elibrary to go the way of the 8-track or CD-ROM.

Still, it seems obvious to me that the predominance of printed books is going to diminish. And when we consider the value that will be created for readers, this could be a wonderful thing. As with all things realtime, when we welcome transformation, we are more likely to see opportunities in it.

What do you think? Burn the Kindle? Are hardbacks the new vinyl?


  • Made by Steven on 07/10/09

    Comments on the post from Facebook:
    David Cabrera: My Kindle for iPhone delivers big joy.
    Matthew Gidley: a second-hand kindle will never smell as good as a second-hand book, nor will you find treasures pressed between its virtual pages
    Joanna Tatchell: storytellers will always have a place.

  • Made by Steven on 07/10/09

    From Facebook: Mary L Cottingham: To me, a paperback is infinitely preferable to an “e-book”. I can take a paperback on the beach for an afternoon and it will not be damaged by a little sand getting in it or the salt air. I can leave it lingering in the bottom of my attache… and it will not abandon me while I’m stuck, indefinitely,”in the meadows”. I can swap it with my girlfriends after leaving little notes in the margins… and then re-read it when it is returned, and see their thoughts.

  • Made by Steven on 07/10/09

    Andrew Fox: Yes. If only because they are beautiful objects when done well. But there will come a time when not many will be made. It is inevitable.

  • Made by Steven on 07/10/09

    Eivor Biese: absolutely! believe they will co-exist with electronic reading devices. active reading in my world is having the ability to write notes in the margins, underline memorable thoughts, and now also with baby: chewing covers to a pulp.

  • Made by Marcello on 08/10/09

    Good article.

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