The Future of the Book

At SXSW, I moderated a panel on the future of the book. Folks who have followed this site for a long time know that this is an idea I pursued in the distant past. September 14, 1999, I wrote a post about “What Makes a Book A Book?”, which in turn inspired a pretty good online discussion of the future of books.

It’s too big a topic for an hour-long discussion. But, I found a thesis emerge from what transpired.

New technologies are providing new opportunities for readers to define the experiences they want to have with books.

For me, the most interesting development since I first started writing about the books is how the technological advances have not been in e-books (I’ve seen no advancement whatsoever there), but in enabling opportunities in printed books. Clearly, ink (or toner) on paper is not going away.

Panelist Eileen Gittens is the CEO of Blurb, a print-on-demand book service, and Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive contains many books which can be printed on demand, and whose Internet Bookmobile, demonstrated the mobility and cheapness of printing books.

Our discussion dovetailed quite nicely with what I wrote about how technology has exploded the range of delivery sizes for media. The books on Blurb.com aren’t the kind you would see in stores — they tend to be smaller, briefer, and thus not typically marketable. But with the infinite shelf-space of the print-on-demand internet, there’s an opportunity for a 32-page book that simply wouldn’t have been available 5 years ago.

(It’s also worth noting that the quality of the photographic imagery of Blurb’s books was quite stunning, and seems to be used by many photographers for presenting their portfolios.)

We dipped into the discussion of e-books, because Brewster had with him a working prototype of the $100 laptop, on which he’s placed many Project Gutenberg texts. The $100 laptop has a tablet mode, and a 200 dpi screen, which makes it a good candidate for book reading.

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