The Book, the eBook and the Future

As Wired proclaimed the death of the web, it struck me that many times over the years, I had read articles about how the paper book was dead, or about to die. It took only a Google search to find that the headlines proclaiming or questionning the death of the traditional (read: paper) publishing industry are legion. Since it is a topic that touches us closely, I thought I'd share my findings and some thoughts with you.

Amazon Kindle eBook Reader

Of the many "The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book" entries I found on the internet, I found two to be of particular interest. They date back to 2006, times when the Kindle, iPad and other such digital reading devices didn't exist for the layman, except maybe in the dreams of a few techies who were working on them. The first one is one by Jeff Jarvis, entitled...well, "The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book". Jarvis in his post addresses the question of digital over paper, which at the time was a threat looming upon the horizon, and focuses on content, arguing that most of the most successful books are simply badly written. He ends his post on these words:

I’m waiting for someone to lament that these kids today don’t read. But they read a lot. They may not read books as much and they may read their share of inspipid personal pages, but they also can now find and read information that is more relevant to them and that is recommended by people they trust thanks to the technology of the internet. I think — or, to be more accurate, I hope — that this will lead to more of a true meritocracy of writing. Good writing will rise. Bad writing may still be on the airport newsstand shelves. But then, when you’re braindead on a six-hour flight, sometimes a braindead book is still just what you need.

A day later, Stephen Baker in Business Week reacts to Jarvis' post, and defends books, arguing that he'd:

take a book over any of the interactive tools they’re building at MIT or Disney. Books give you access to great minds of the past, and they do a better job than any other medium I know of transporting you to those times and places.

That's a snippet of the debate back in 2006. What does this conversation look like today? Still searching, I stumbled upon two much more recent posts, written in the past week. First an extremely interesting post by Carly Z, asking "Is the Paper Book Dead?. Carly Z addresses a broad range of areas where the eBook has to come together before it can really take over the paper book, from pricing to format, content and audience. I recommend the read, it's a good one. In the end, I tend to agree with Carly Z in the conclusion of the post:

Honestly, I think the various declarations of “Print is dead in 5 years/10 years/already dead” are missing the broader picture. There are many moving pieces to making digital books dominant, and they aren’t as simple as “prices go down/availability goes up”. Consumers need to be comfortable with ebooks, the content and hardware need to work well together, and the most important part is remembering that just because ebooks may become dominant does not mean paper books are going to disappear.

Another post by Om Malik caught my attention. Titled (again!) "The Book is Dead! Long Live the Book!" touches upon his experience of slowly shifting to eBooks, mainly for practical reasons but most importantly how:

Internet connectivity and multimedia capabilities give us an opportunity to rethink what a book is, and even re-imagine the art of storytelling.

All of these reflexions got me thinking. Here at PediaPress, we bring digital content (wikis!) to paper. I won't hide that we've been thinking (and asked, by some people) about also offering eBooks made from wiki content. We still haven't gotten around to it. We might, or we might not. I see PediaPress' adventure as one that bridges the digital and the paper world. Our content is written, amended, updated and rewritten by you all, which makes it an ever shifting content. With this I guess we transcend Jeff Jarvis' lamentations on the quality of content, since the content of our books can change when it's needed, or deemed obsolete. Our books don't fit the definition Jarvis gives:

[Books] are frozen in time without the means of being updated and corrected. They have no link to related knowledge, debates, and sources.

Because books from wikis are of a different nature. They are rather a picture than a freeze, something like what Polaroid is to traditional photography. You can make your book, and remake it a year later, jsut to see the changes in the topic you've chosen.

The content being online to start with, they actually do give links and sources and you could even print the talk pages of Wikipedia if you wanted to follow the debate on a topic.

Although we don't exactly print out books that do storytelling in the strict sense of the term, our books tell stories of how knowledge evolves. And the sum of human knowledge, at that.

I am also still convinced that nothing replaces paper when it comes to annotations (ah, the feeling of conversing with the author that writing an exclamation mark with a pen in the paper margin gives!), personalisation (nothing compares to giving a paper book rather than send a pdf, I think), or to some extent, practicality (book on the beach, losing your book, taking your book in places where a Kindle or an iPad wouldn't survive...).

I guess I am biased. After all, we do paper books. But I'm curious what you all think. What's your take on the future of the paper book? Should we also go digital? Why do you even create and buy PediaPress books? Does paper have for you the same attraction that it has for us? Tell us in the comments.

[photo source: Amazon Kindle eBook Reader by goXunuReviews, on Flickr, CC-BY]

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