Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Future of eBooks, Books, and Reading: A Historical, Technological, Consumerist, and Hopeful Writer's View

Lately Nathan Bransford, a literary agent and writer that I have been following for some time, has been posting information about the future of books.  With the Kindle, Nook, and the much-anticipated Apple tablet (which I have been blogging about for 3 years in high hopes), it seems that many people are already writing eulogies for the hard copy, bound book.  Often I'm surprise with the comments he receives from his readers, many if not all are writers in various stages of publication (from established to hopeful, like me). 

The discussion has interested me on four levels: as a trained Historian, a trained Computer Technician, an avid Reader (consumer), and a Writer (instructional and hopeful novelist).  Here is my view of each:


Books as we know them have gone though a lot of changes ever since man had learned to use writing as a method of communication.  What started as tablets of clay became scrolls of paper and papyri, which then changed to parchment and a codex, or bound book.  The codex didn't change for thousands of years, and now a move from the printed to the digital page is being made.  But is it really so recent?

Computers originally had a "monitor" that was a printer, printing out the results of commands as one navigated, executed, and errored their way through programs.  The digital monitor, the one we know and love today, both simplifies the reading of computer results, but also saves a tremendous amount of paper.  And ever since print could be read on a computer screen, people have been reading books on the computer screen. 

So the idea of an eBook is not new, but rather the mainstreaming of the eBook is what is so scary.  Just as ancient Egypt was afraid of the parchment codex (threatened their trade in papyri), those tied to the old methods of distributing the story both fear and hate the coming mainstream eBook consumption.

Computer Technician

The technology for eBooks have been around for years.  I had eReader on my PocketPC for years, and I loved being able to read while on the go.  But before it could become mainstreamed, there are some factors that needed to be met:

  1. Battery Life:  The early PDAs were terrible in their battery life.  This hampered reading, as you needed to either change your AA's or recharge your book within just a few hours of getting into it. 

  2. Performance:  There are a lot of old eBook readers out there that were so clunky to use they were not worth it.  I went through several before I settled on the couple of eBook readers I use today.  It all came down to performance.  I was looking for something that was easy to use, easy to customize, and had a small memory footprint (so I could have more books in less space).

  3. Storage:  What good is it to have an eBook reader if you can only store at the most 10 books?  If you are going abroad, or spend a lot of time commuting, just a couple of books will not satisfy. 

  4. Reputation and Appearance:  eBooks needed to have a good reputation behind them, or come from a reputable source.  Often times some books were, or at least appeared, to be bad copies, which creates distrust.

Others may outline more points, but it is my humble opinion that technology needed to advance to this point before the eBook could have even thought of being mainstreamed.  With ebook readers like the Kindle, Nook, and even with current Windows Mobile, Android, WebOS, and iPhone OS devices out there, we have finally made it to the point where big names feel comfortable in releasing their books in eBook form to reach a profitable audience. 

The thing is, dedicated devices are, at least in my opinion, doomed to a quick death.  Part of the reason why I have an iPod Touch instead of a Kindle or Nook is because I need more than just an eBook reader.  eBooks are a convenience, not a lifestyle.  I want other conveniences to be just as convenient, and preferably on the same device.  This is part of the reason why the iPod Slate (or Apple Tablet) is so important to me as a device, and why I have been so keen on it's release. 


I love to read, but I find that I have little time at home with the kids, and very little time at work.  But I also have a long commute, in which reading becomes convenient.  It's also convenient to work on my novel, get some work done, and listen to my music/old radio shows.  Suddenly carrying around even one bound book can take up more room than I am willing to give, as my bag becomes overloaded with various other devices.  But carrying an entire library in my pocket, which also will play my music, videos, and allow me to do some text editing; that's the way to go. 

Now I've heard the arguments against eBook readers because of eye-strain.  Well, I don't strain any more with an eBook reader on my iPod Touch than I do with any other book, and I can guarantee that, in the dead of night in winter, when the bus or train is dark, I can read my book without having to have a separate light.  I can also adjust the text on the book to make it larger or smaller based on my needs.  You can't do that with a printed book. 

Also, there is the convenience of purchasing and downloading the books.  I have the Kindle app for iPhone, eReader app from Fictionwise, the Barnes & Noble eReader app, and Stanza.  I have tried each one, and my favorite two so far are the Kindle app and Stanza.  Kindle because of it's flow (they have changed it a lot since Amazon purchased Stanza), and Stanza because it's so convenient to download books from the Gutenberg Press (free books in the Public Domain).  They are easy to configure, and easy to manage.  Within a few seconds I will have several new books that I have purchased and downloaded, ready to read.  It sure beats waiting for a book to ship, I can tell you!


Some day I hope to be published, as soon as I write something that I wouldn't be embarrassed to have someone else read.  I would also like my book to be quickly accessed by those who are interested, and I want to write a story that will flow well enough regardless of which format it is in.  So you can imagine that the interest in eBooks has had me thinking, and I'm watching this very closely.  Adding multimedia components for higher-end readers or computers (like the Slate, hint, hint!) can change a story as much as adding slides to a presentation, or video to a musical performance.  All of a sudden you have more content to relate to, all at the same time.  It's challenging, it's exciting, and it's a little scary. 

So what exactly will be the future of books?  I think most analysts out there are right:  the codex book will not be going away anytime soon.  There is a feeling of intimacy that comes from reading a well-worn and well-read book again and again that you don't get from an eBook.  Because of this a good hardcover or even paperback will not go away entirely.  But I think you will see a huge shift from the published book to the eBook by casual readers in particular.  The idea that one can turn on their device while waiting in line, riding a bus, or riding in the back seat of a car, read a couple of pages, and then turn around and do something else when the need arises?  It's huge, and it's happening more every day.  Add always-on 3G or 4G networking and integrated media, and you have a revolution that will absorb the mainstream out of pure convenience. 

Are there problems?  Of course!  But there were problems with first Gutenberg Press, the codex, the papyrus scroll, and even the clay tablet.  The real question is not whether or not we will manage with what we have, but rather how soon it will take the industry to adapt and make the situation better. 

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