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The book of the future will look like the book of the past

Wednesday, Jul 26 2006
Let's play a game. Close your eyes and picture the house you lived in when you were 5. In your mind, walk through the rooms, paying special attention to the forms of entertainment. What do you see — a television? A radio or stereo? A computer? Board games? Books?

In my 5-year-old house, there's a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears, a huge stereo console with built-in speakers and a turntable (that's for records, kids; ask your parents what those are), a few dorky board games like "Life" and "Chutes and Ladders," and a wall of books in the spare bedroom. We didn't get a computer until I turned 14, and it had an amber screen.

Now think about the things that entertain you today. The TV is probably bigger and maybe flatter, with vivid color (perhaps even HDTV) and lots of attachments — DVD player, TiVo recorder. Your "stereo" is now an iPod the size of a pack of gum, and if you listen to the radio, it's mostly in your car. Board games have largely been replaced by gaming consoles and all their attendant paraphernalia. But the books — they look the same, right?

When your kids and your kids' kids eventually play this game, they'll see changes in most forms of entertainment that will be just as dramatic as those we've experienced in the last 30 years (even more so). But their books will still be books. Oh, sure, there will be new ways to read "content," just as you can now "read" a book by downloading it to an iPod, listening to it on a CD in your car, or perusing it page by page on the Internet. But the physical form — the covers and paper and ink — is likely to survive, eBooks and the New York Times Magazine's May 14 "Scan This Book!" article be damned. (The piece, by Pacifica's Kevin Kelly, posits that Internet search engines will someday replace physical books.)

Before you call me a Luddite, let me assure you that I am not afraid of technological change. I love my TiVo, my Nano, and all my other -o's, but I also love my books. They're cheap, portable, beautiful, never become obsolete, and never need upgrading. Can you think of any modern form of entertainment that fits that description?

That said, the publishing industry is in for a dramatic change. Whenever I talk to friends in publishing — as I did a couple of weeks ago at the regular Books & Booze gathering at 111 Minna and at the "Nobo JuBoo" (aka No Books Just Booze) event last week at the Edinburgh Castle — they sound a little nervous. They know American publishers are releasing way too many books, a whopping 175,000 new titles every year (that's nearly 500 every single day), according to the Book Industry Study Group. At the same time, the number being sold in the U.S. continues to drop. They worry that young people aren't reading anymore, and that all our many distractions will only make them less likely to do so as time goes on. They worry that the increasing sophistication of DIY tools — like Blurb, a San Francisco-based company that makes easy-to-use software (now in beta at to help you publish your own book — will dilute the market. (As a friend said dismissively of such products, "It's amateur night. If I wanted karaoke, I'd go to a karaoke bar." I disagree, but that's another column.) And articles like the one in the Times Magazine aren't likely to make them feel any better.

Kelly — a founding editor of Wired and the author of several regular old books — delivers a commentary that's thought-provoking, exasperating, and ironic. The irony came, for me, with the illustrations (which I realize Kelly probably had nothing to do with): luscious, richly textured black-and-white photographs by Abelardo Morell of, you guessed it, actual hard-bound books. The exasperation came with pronouncements about the "universal library" — that is, his predicted future online archive of all written knowledge — being "truly democratic, offering every book to every person ... from almost any device that sports a screen." I wouldn't be the first to point out that (a) plenty of people around the world will never have any device that sports a screen, and (b) many of the screens we do have are too small to read from easily, anyway.

But the piece was certainly thought-provoking, not least because Kelly correctly foresaw the rise of digital music years ago. This time around, he doesn't anticipate the immediate demise of the ink-and-paper book. In the near future, he sees volumes connected digitally, and he champions the folks making those connections (such as Brewster Kahle, co-founder of the Presidio-based nonprofit Internet Archive — and, oddly, husband of the founder of the San Francisco Center for the Book, as big a supporter of the physical object as you'll find in the city). But in the not-so-distant future, Kelly writes, "Copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won't mean much ... What counts are the ways in which these common copies of a creative work can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library."

If that happens, book publishers can either become like movie studios, licensing their goods to every available platform, or like the recording industry, realizing too late that in the absence of action their customers will take matters into their own hands.

Kelly's future doesn't scare me, and I don't feel sorry for book publishers. I'd love to be able to cross-reference titles I've read, to mix-and-match ideas and genres, to look things up within a book as I was reading it, or after (though probably not with a novel, which I'd rather just dive into). And publishers, well, they've been putting out so much junk, foisting fake new genres on us in a desperate bid for fresh readers (chick lit, anyone?), resisting every possible move toward digitalization with lawsuits and defensive postures, that I almost think they have it coming.

But then I think of my friends, the ones in publishing right now and the ones looking toward it, and I'm chastened. If physical books will continue to exist forever — and I believe they will, with a faith that might be more hopeful than logical — then there will always be book publishers. They'll just be a whole lot smaller. Like your stereo.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher


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