The digital future of the book

February 21, 2006 | 2 3 min read

So, think about this: In the last 5 to 10 years the way we consume all sorts of media has changed drastically, everything, essentially, except books. From a new Business Week article:

“Every other form of media has gone digital — music, newspapers, movies,” says Joni Evans, a top literary agent who just left the William Morris Agency to start her own company that will focus on books and technology. “We’re the only industry that hasn’t lived up to the pace of technology. A revolution is around the corner.”

The idea here is that a confluence of improving hardware, reader readiness and the prevalence of digitized books are setting the stage for the digital revolution to finally reach the world of books.

In a minimal sense, the hardware already exists in the form of Treos and similar handhelds which some people find comfortable enough to use as a book delivery device, but just around the corner is “digital ink” and “e paper.” I had once thought that such technology only existed in the realm of science fiction but was surprised to find during my graduate new media journalism studies that these technologies are not far off and are much anticipated by some (and dreaded by others) in the journalism business. Between current handhelds and the “e paper” future are dedicated reader devices set to come out this year. The Business Week article references the Sony Reader, which I’ve heard is astounding in its ability to make reading off of a screen feel like reading off of a page. Last spring, Jason Kottke tried out a Sony device that presumably uses similar technology and was quite taken with it. But even this will be a far cry from “e paper.” For a peek at that technology, take a look at the slideshow that accompanies the Business Week article.

The other two pieces of the puzzle – reader readiness and digitized books – are already in place. People are used to consuming their media on handheld devices and I think many, especially younger folks, would like to be able to do this more. Meanwhile, between Google and the publishing companies trying to compete with it, it seems like we’re approaching a future when all books will be available digitally.

An obvious response to all of this is to wonder whether or not the book as we know it will die. I don’t think that question is as pertinent as it seems. In all likelihood, books, like magazines and newspapers, will be marginalized somewhat, still available in their current forms, but not necessarily thought of as tethered to paper and bindings. The content, of course, will live on, and these new ways of reading books will allow them to evolve as they have evolved since words were first written on papyrus.

One side note. From the article referenced above:

George Saunders, a short story author and professor of English at Syracuse University, says he’d like a way to get his work out to readers more quickly. After the scandal broke over James Frey’s falsehoods in his hit book A Million Little Pieces, Saunders penned a humorous essay stemming from the events. It was a confession to Oprah Winfrey that all of the fiction he’d written had, in fact, been true. But Saunders had a hard time getting the piece published quickly, and now it feels dated. “There might be a different model for a literary community that’s quicker, more real-time, and involves more spontaneity,” he says.

George! Such a thing already exists. If you had a blog, you could have posted it there. (And how awesome would a blog by George Saunders be). If you don’t want to start a blog yourself, feel free to send your spur of the moment pieces my way and I’ll happily post them here for (potentially) millions and millions to see.

Update: George Saunders responds via email:

George Saunders here. Just wanted to thank you for the mention at The Millions. Great site. I’ve considered a blog but knowing how obsessive I am, worried that I might get consumed by it and my family would expire and my house crumble to dust. Plus I worry about how much I would have to pay myself to keep my blog supplied with content. My fear is that, knowing I was working for myself, I would start cheating myself, only submitting my worst pieces, then get into a labor dispute with myself and never speak to me again.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.