The Future of Paper
The Observer has an interesting piece on the future of the book. For some the future of the book is electronic:
[Bloomsbury chairman Nigel] Newton is certain that ‘within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. When the e-reader emerges as a mass-market item, the shift will be very rapid indeed. It will soon be a dual-format market.’ That prediction makes a lot of sense. E-books will not replace the old format any more than the motorcar replaced the bicycle, or typewriters the pen.
This 50–50 division may occur largely between genre, where electronic books are largely used by reference and technical publishers. Meanwhile to survive the ordinary book trade will turn to
‘on-demand printing’, in which on-demand printers, installed in bookshops and service stations, will enable the reader to access a publisher’s backlist and make a high-speed print-out of a single copy of a book.
Print on demand already exists, of course: Many of the books you order from Amazon are printed in response to orders. But not by the bookseller: that technology has still to come. But I remember how as a bookseller in the early 1980s we dreamed of that world. If smaller bookshops were able to do that they may yet stand a chance against the big guys. Imagine knowing that any bookshop you walk into, however small, could zip off a copy of some obscure, out-of-print tome while you wait? Bookshops would suddenly become more like a Kinkos or a Post Office: A place where anything can be done. (But then again, the technology to do this in music already exists, so why hasn’t HMV and Tower Records made it possible to burn a CD on demand?)
This all said, the book is not dead yet:
There is every reason to want to see the printed word enhanced by something more in tune with current information technology, but until the geeky entrepreneurs of MIT, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the rest can come up with something that looks like a book, feels like a book and behaves like a book, those who handle such items every day, and marvel over the magical integration of print, paper and binding, will probably continue to read and enjoy books much as Caxton and Gutenberg did.
The point really is that the book is not just a sentimental throwback to a happier time, but a superb piece of technology that maximises all those things we digital generation hold dear: great screen and easy to read in poor light conditions, indefinite battery life; light and highly portable; cheap; won’t break in water (just put on heater to dry); easy to navigate through content (just flip pages); nice to hold.
The other point worth making is that e-paper is much more likely to catch on in other areas before it catches on with books. Newspapers, magazines, journals, reports and exhibition flyers are much better suited to this kind of technology, because they need to be read while mobile (the newspaper on the train); they have no emotional hold on the user (a book is usually kept; a magazine is thrown away. The user therefore handles a book better and preserves its condition). Newspapers, getting smaller as our lives get more crowded, are an obvious target for a digital makeover, since we rarely keep them and yet every day fill the same space in our briefcase with an identical replacement.
In the case of flyers and reports, the ability to share and broadcast the content is an important part of the process. E-paper would be great at this, since it would be no harder (or easier, for that matter) than beaming what’s on your e-paper to someone else’s. Indeed, wherever reading is not a solitary activity, e-paper makes sense: bring an agenda into a meeting and fire it around the room by Bluetooth to other attendees (rather than printing out copies and stapling them, or demanding bring their laptops). Instead of walking around exhibitions weighed down with brochures and flyers, attendees could carry around one e-paper and receive blasts from each booth they are interested in.
I don’t think publishers need to worry that much. But elsewhere e-paper is long overdue.