Overview of the report on "Future of Books"

By Sarah Glazer, May 29, 2009

The university bookstore ran out of the textbook assigned for your course? No problem. The young woman behind the counter can print one out in the time it takes to make an espresso.

Don’t like the way the latest episode of the novel you’re reading online has turned out? Write in a plot development of your own. (But be forewarned: Another reader may edit you out.)

Forgot to bring a book with you on the subway? You’ve got President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father on your cell phone, right at the place you stopped reading last night on your Kindle.

The world of reading is changing before our eyes. More books are becoming available than ever before, and in many more formats. It remains to be seen whether readers will flock to these or even more futuristic ways of reading. But already the innovations have caused anxiety in the troubled publishing industry because they suggest radical changes in how books are supplied to readers, much as technological changes are threatening the very existence of the newspaper industry.

“The publishing industry is in a difficult position,” says Mike Shatzkin, CEO of the Idea Logical Co., a digital-publishing consulting firm. “We have all these new challenges to invest in, and meanwhile the old model for producing money is in trouble. So publishers are squeezed from both sides.”

Amid troubling layoffs in publishing over the past year, cutbacks in new manuscript acceptances and tough times for bookstores, digital books have entered publishing’s mainstream for the first time. In this pivotal year for e-books, Amazon.com introduced the Kindle 2.0 and the larger-format Kindle DX – which both permit the wireless download of a book in less than a minute – and Sony Reader acquired 500,000 titles from Google. Both companies’ electronic readers employ a technology that does not require backlighting, making its glare-free text easier on the eyes than a computer screen.

For years, e-book enthusiasts have said the product couldn’t really take off until the equivalent of an iPod for books was developed. It’s not clear whether we’re there yet, but the sudden popularity of reading on Apple’s iPhone took many by surprise. Over 1.7 million users have downloaded Stanza software, which permits them to read a book on their cell phone from a selection of more than 100,000 titles. The announcements in February that both Amazon and Google were making their titles available on the iPhone only added to the buzz.

“Suddenly there was a sense in 2008 that an e-book program was something a publisher couldn’t be without,” says Michael Bhaskar, digital editor at publisher Pan MacMillan in Britain. And if 2008 was about e-books, “this year is about smartphones,” says Bhaskar. His company was one of the first major publishers to make its titles available on the iPhone and the BlackBerry and now plans to bring most new titles out in electronic as well as print format.

The fact that today’s new books start out from the writer’s desk as digital files has contributed to the growth of another way of producing books – print-on-demand. Theoretically, books can remain digital files until they’re ordered by the customer, at which point they are printed on laser printers, order by order. Increasingly publishers are using this method for books about to go out of print and for scholarly or obscure books with low readership. For non-bestsellers, publishers can print out one book at a time, saving the expense of big print runs, storage and bookstore returns, while retailers can avoid holding inventory that doesn’t sell.

Yet all these innovations still account for a small percentage of what passes for reading a book. Despite rapid growth, sales revenue generated by electronic books, whether read on a laptop, Kindle or cell phone, still accounts for only about 1 percent of the $11 billion adult trade book market in the United States, estimates Michael Smith, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum, a trade association.

Similarly, volumes produced through print-on-demand account for less than 1 percent of the more than 3 billion books printed each year in the United States, according to David Taylor, president of Lightning Source, the leading print-on-demand company.

The Espresso Book Machine, which can deliver a bound paperback in less than five minutes, is currently installed in only a handful of bookstores in North America and England, but its manufacturers envision widespread use in college bookstores, on cruise ships and in remote areas of the world.

Former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein, co-founder of On Demand Books, which markets the machine, says the publishing model of the last 500 years – in which publishers printed large runs and then had to warehouse and ship physical books at enormous costs – is headed for extinction.

Today, “you can go directly from the digital file to the end user with nothing in between,” he points out. “That means you can store in theory every book ever written in whatever language at practically no cost. And deliver that file practically anywhere on Earth at no cost. This has a revolutionary effect on the way books are made and distributed.”

Eventually, the traditional publishing industry would have collapsed anyway because of structural obsolescence, he says. “With this recession and the arrival of digitization, the process will be hastened.”

Publishers are still trying to figure out how to appeal to young readers – who do most of their reading online – by offering free multimedia content digitally, while still making money for themselves and their authors.

“We’re moving to a post-literate culture where YouTube is a search engine and video gaming is the main form of entertainment. How does that impact storytelling?” asks Pan MacMillan’s Bhaskar.

This spring, Penguin Books won top awards at the hip SXSW (South by Southwest) interactive media festival in Austin, Texas, for its online storytelling experiment. Over a period of six weeks, readers clicking on a Penguin Web site could read a developing mystery being written by a novelist online, search for clues planted on the Internet and contribute plot suggestions to the author as the story was being written. Access to the site, “We Tell Stories,” was free even though it drew on the skills of several published authors.

Penguin’s experiment “is fascinating, but I’m not sure how it ever makes money,” comments Shatzkin of Idea Logical, expressing a widely shared worry in the industry. And he’s puzzled by those who see it as the future of fiction: “Participatory content creation makes sense, but why are we calling it books?” he asks.

But those experimenting with online forms of literature suggest our definition of “book” itself needs to be more expansive. “A book is an experience, not a chunk of paper,” Chris Meade, director of the London literary think tank if:book, recently told an audience of book club members in Oxford, England. “If you think of the experience of reading a great novel and take the novel away,” you can still have a “fantastic” experience, he maintained.

An online book about William Blake recently launched by Meade’s organization displays Blake’s poems along with gorgeous graphics and videos of an interview with a Blake expert and an actor reading Blake’s poem “ London.” Over the next few months, readers are invited to help it grow by contributing via Twitter and Blogger (a free blog-publishing tool from Google) and the Blake “netbook” itself.

The ease of publishing a book from a digital file means many more actors can get into the act. Small presses can be formed in someone’s living room or at a local bookstore. Authors who could never interest a big publisher with their family genealogy or purple-prose novel can be listed on Amazon or simply publish online.

With the cost down to a few hundred dollars to have your book published by one of the author-services companies (the new vanity presses), who needs publishers? On the defensive, publishers say they still play an aesthetic filtering role as the curators of good writing.

Yet more and more books and experimental writing are becoming available online for free without publishers’ filters. And as publishers put out more digital books, it may be easier for hackers to convert copyrighted works into pirated editions. Some publishers are reporting that piracy has surged in recent months along with rising demand for e-books, raising concerns that piracy partly accounts for declining print book sales. Pirated editions of works by children’s writer J.K. Rowling have been posted on Web sites like Scribd, and other copyrighted works are cropping up on file-sharing services like RapidShare.

Still, some authors like Wired editor Chris Anderson and novelist Cory Doctorow claim that publishing for free online is actually the way to sell more print books because of the exposure it provides.

Indeed, rather than chasing printed books into oblivion, some experts say digitization is making more books available than ever before, even if they’re in a different format. A massive digitization project by the Library of Congress allows, for the first time, anyone with a computer at home to look at the first edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and other 19th-century books too brittle to be handled.

The recent Google Book Search settlement among Google, authors and publishers – if approved by the court – promises to make millions of out-of-print books available online that were once limited to great university libraries. But the fact that this vast collection of 20th-century literature will be in the hands of a private company has many librarians worried as the world’s treasure trove of books – past and future – becomes increasingly digital.

The Issues:

*Will the Google Book Search settlement restrict public access to digital books?
*Will traditional print books disappear from the marketplace?
*Will literary reading and writing survive online?

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