Five years is an eternity in the digital age. The Book is Dead was published in 2007 (and written in 2006) so it’s no surprise that the book world is now dramatically different. Back then, suggesting that the future of books was electronic was pretty provocative. Luckily for me, things unfolded pretty much as I’d expected (or hoped!) While printed books are obviously still around, it’s clear that the momentum in publishing (whether it be books, magazines or newspapers) has shifted from paper to screens. Amazon now sells more electronic books than printed ones and almost all the things we used to read on dead trees — from The New York Times to Ulysses — have migrated to an electronic format. The entire book industry from publishers, through booksellers to readers and writers is in the midst of enormous upheaval – mostly to do with how they might survive in the brave new digital world. Yes, some doomsayers continue to cling grimly to old leather bound editions and scare young children with their gloom, but I think we’ve reached the tipping point, and ebooks are fast becoming normal. But 2006 was a long time ago. Back then, I devoted a chapter to the Sony Reader, which was state of the art at the time and concluded that we weren’t there yet. Whilst Sony tried hard, there was no online ebookstore that resembled the iTunes ecosystem that Apple had built around music; and so my expectation of a ‘heavenly library’ was based on hope rather than any inside knowledge that someone would build such a beast. But the iTunes store had been around for a while and to me, it was a pretty clear model for the future. Sure, there were differences between listening to music and reading books, but I thought that the big picture would surely play out the same way; someone was bound to build the iPod/iTunes equivalent in the book space; to me, the efficiencies of digital were irresistible. The unanswered questions were who and when...
As things turned out, several companies did actually build the heavenly library. Google’s book project was the most visible, provoking as it did an angry response from publishers and authors thus guaranteeing headlines amongst those versed in arts and letters. But Google Books was more about search and storage than actual reading and the iPod of books emerged from Amazon. The Kindle was the first to combine device and bookstore and turn it into a commercial success. Before the Kindle, there was an unresolved stoush about formats and distribution and the whole ebook environment was a labyrinth that most consumers couldn’t be bothered entering — not unlike the mp3 player situation in the late 1990s, prior to the introduction of the iPod. While it took a couple of years to become an overnight success, Amazon’s ereader came to dominate the global ebook market. Yes, there were (and are) viable alternatives, and we still argue about proprietary formats, distribution rights and territories, but the Kindle was the tipping point; it was the device and ecosystem that made it easy for my mother to enter the world of ebooks. For all intents and purposes, Amazon built the heavenly library.
What’s more, the Kindle ecosystem brought opportunities for writers as well as readers. By allowing anyone to self-publish into a global distribution network, it legitimised authorship without the need for traditional publishers. Writers such as Amanda Hocking demonstrated that publishing for Kindle was a viable means to access a global market and make real money. Of course, there are relatively few authors who have succeeded on her scale (around 100,000 ebook sales a month, followed by a contract with a traditional publisher), but many authors are embracing the new possibilities. And doing alright.
So, to me, the Kindle and its affordances weren’t unexpected. What has proven more interesting is what happened after the Kindle. For me, the iPad (and the iPhone before it) really have changed everything. In some ways, the iPad is an innocuous device. Über-geeks argue that it represents no great breakthrough, and yet, its particular combination of features have paved the way for rethinking some paradigms. For me, the iPad takes a significant step towards making computers invisible; it removes layers of abstraction and allows users to engage directly with what’s on the screen in a way which transcends our older ideas about computerised information technologies. And in so doing, it enables a range of new media possibilities.
And while people can, and do, read traditional ebooks on iPads (Amazon’s Kindle titles work perfectly) the true significance of the iPad is that (unlike the Kindle) it is capable of much more than replicating the print on paper experience. The iPad and its peers represent a future where we habitually use a portable, lightweight screen to do a plethora of everyday things; from watching videos, surfing the web, playing games, making music or reading all manner of content. And that range of activities enables new thinking to emerge.
Apple’s iBooks store may not achieve the sales success of Amazon’s Kindle store, but its App store points towards a range of new possibilities for books. Of course, there will always be a place for long-form texts and the possibilities of the digital realm re-energises old-fashioned reading and writing. But the activity in the App space suggests that (as well as recreating the paper-based long-form text) authors, publishers and readers are rethinking the very idea of what books can be. Add in the further blurring of roles as media consumers discover the ease with which they can be producers, and there is genuine excitement in the experiments in enhanced books, the reinvigorated notions of multimedia and the increasing convergence of books, games and video. And intriguingly, it is in the App Store that economic innovation is also occurring. Whilst remediated print publications in the form of traditional ebooks still struggle with legacy pricing regimes, App Store titles like Al Gore’s Our Choice, which blur the boundaries of all media forms are a tenth the price of their print equivalents.
Of course whilst Kindles and iPads are now an accepted part of our media environment, their use is by no means universal. There are many, many people who still refuse to countenance the idea of electronic books. Some of them are readers. And, for very good reasons, book publishers sometimes seem to struggle to embrace the electronic way. Book publishing emerged in an analog age, with profitability dependent on managing scarcity. The ebook ecosystem, built on internet technologies (as so much media currently is) simply has no respect for the constraints on which the book industry has traditionally made its profit. So, it’s no surprise that redirecting the business culture of book publishers to meet different consumer expectations is a challenge. This is obvious in the local context where the range of available Australian titles is still far from comprehensive; a situation not helped by a territorial copyright approach that made absolute sense in the age of sailing ships but seems archaic to any digital sensibility.
Despite this, the future is clear. We’ll be reading on screens, downloading books over the internet, discovering new writing in interesting new ways and engaging with things we call books, but which will incorporate possibilities we are only just beginning to imagine. Five years on, the book is still dead. Long live the book.
Associate Professor Sherman Young is Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University. He is also the Deputy Head of the Department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies, where he teaches new media theory and production. His research focuses on the cultural impact of the new media technologies. Sherman is the author of The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book (UNSW Press 2007). http://shermanfyoung.wordpress.com
Image is a detail from Portrait of an articulated skeleton on a bentwood chair from Powerhouse Museum Collection.