The future of books

Having long been an avid reader, a report on ‘the future of books’ was bound to catch my eye. As I’m sure you can guess, it talks about the emergence of ebooks and their implications for the older relative: the hardcopy book.

It’s a fascinating read, which covers six key drivers:

  1. Digitization of books (see our ease of publishing online driver)
  2. Emergence of wireless ebook readers
  3. Spread of wireless broadband (also have a look at our ubiquitous connectivity driver)
  4. Generational shift - (explore this further with our attitudes to different generations driver)
  5. Rise of user-generated content
  6. And environmental concerns – this is still a somewhat superficial one, as it is not yet known for sure if ebooks are actually more environmentally friendly than paper ones (think of the batteries needed to power e-readers for example).

Flying along the real-world journey

Although the Kindle is heralded in this report (and elsewhere I’m sure) as

the first truly viable alternative to print in more than 5 centuries,

what gets me really excited is where the technology may take this in the future. Currently ebooks are represented as black and white text on a page: literally looking at a page with none of the experience of holding a real book and turning pages. But going forward, it’s likely that e-readers will become ever more sophisticated. They will be capable of showing e-books that have media embedded in them. You might be able to have a much more interactive experience with your book. For an example of what’s possible – have a look at googlelittrips, where a high school English teacher in California named Jerome Burg has combined e-books with interactive learning features and the satellite imagery of Google Earth, to create Google Lit Trips - virtual “road trips” that let students follow the journeys in works such as the Kite Runner (future of education anyone?).

Is the author the owner?

One of the interesting outcomes of this digitisation of books is how it affects the idea of ownership and authorship. Currently many major publishing players use an e-publishing standard which does not include digital rights management (drm restricts users from freely sharing downloaded content). This has led to others developing a platform that does include DRM.

So which path is the one to go down? Limiting what people can share online is arguably against the whole ethos of web 2.0. For example the existence of the times paywall has signalled the deathknell for its articles being tweeted, which is also mentioned again by Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia).

However, there is definitely an argument for authors being able to reap rewards from their work. The question is, will the publishing world get dragged into the twilight of indecision and law suits, as happened with the music industry?

The emergence of co-produced work may well be the answer to this. See my post that I wrote over a year ago about one such piece of work; and also A Million Penguins.

What does this mean for civil society organisations?

So what might all this mean for you? There’s great potential for small organisations to engage with epublishing. Currently this trend is moving out of the early adopters phase and so is too ‘new’ for small VCOs to engage with effectively. It is something that should be figured into future plans though. As ebook readership grows and spreads into the sector, an ebook could be effective at reaching a wide readership and also a wider profile.

Developments in ereaders will see more potential for people to share their reading with others and interact with your publications. You may want to think about how you would handle this. It’s a debate that is currently playing out in many organisations in relation to social mediahow much to control the message?

It will take a while for the technology prices to fall: if you decide you want to go forward this way it might be worth looking to see if there are others who are also keen. Could you buy the technology collaboratively? Could you work together to share the expertise needed?

I wanted to go on and talk about the implications of this for print publications but I think I’ll save that for another post! And it strikes me that this is rather in the spirit of ‘the end of finishing’  - what the report identifies as wiki books never being finished. Is this not just social media in the format of the book?

I’ll leave you with this great phrase (courtesy of the future of books report) relating to reading traditional books -

 manual random-access scanning

- using the hands to browse at will!

Last updated at 15:35 Wed 11/Aug/10.
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Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

If you want to see how this trend fits into your life outside the world of work (gasp, surely that doesn't exist!), have a look at the Free Love trend briefing from

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