The Book is not dead


Posted on March 31st, by Liam in Blog, Digital Books, eBooks, Writing. No Comments

The Book is not dead

Every day I log on to Twitter, Flipboard, Pinterest, Instapaper, Quora, Facebook, several blog readers and newspapers, and of course email; and every day I feel overwhelmed by it all and try to make sense of it. So much to take in, too much to take in. There are so many different ways to absorb information and learn. It’s habitual now, and I’m pretty sure I’m ‘brain chunking’ a lot of it without really taking much in. One of the ways that I try to deal with the constant stream of information is to file it away. This gives me a sense of completion and I don’t feel guilty about not having read it. So I ‘save for later’ with Instapaper or tag it as a bookmark on Diigo. Or I might tweet it or throw it at my friends feed on Facebook. I’m scanning articles and curating them.

I do enjoy longform reading. I grew up reading paper books, but it’s been at least a year since I finished one. I now engage with books mostly on an eReader. At any one time, I might have 5 or more books on the go and I find myself occasionally swiping through the pixels and skipping over entire sections, something I would rarely do with a paper book.

My book just went flat!

Criticisms of digital book readers include sore eyes, screen visibility and flat batteries. The issue of readers who grew up reading books on paper not wanting to read on screens should not be under­es­timated. It’s one of the reasons it has taken so long for consumers to embrace digital books. Although, prior to the recent intro­duction of tablet devices, reading digital books was only practical on desktop and laptop computers.

I think it’s because I feel less invested in them; they are just one of hundreds that I carry around on an iPad. But I’m into tech and an early adopter. Most of my friends tell me they just don’t like reading books on a screen and also feel somewhat senti­mental about paper books. I can understand that, we think of books as defined by their physical containers, but we’re the last generation that is going to think that way.

The Book is not dead, it’s just changing context. For The Book to be dead, we would have to no longer care about stories or under­standing complex ideas that take more than 140 characters to convey. Books are more alive more than ever before. They don’t have to be linear. They don’t have to be bulky. Text and diagrams can move and be played with. Pictures can be zoomed or rotated in 3D. They can be person­alised to the extent that if we downloaded the same book, your experience of it could be completely different from mine. They can also be updated in real time. There’s no reason now why you couldn’t read the latest chapter of a book in real time as the author was writing it. It might not be too long before students have to include a time and date with a book reference as well as the year in order to refer to the specific version of an ever changing and updating text. Some of these things are already happening; some are possible but not widely adopted, and some of them are possible but not very useful.

The Book is not dead, it’s just changing context (again)

Google stated: ‘Counting only things that are printed and bound, we arrive at about 146 million. This is our best answer today.’ The 129 million does not include serials.

In 2010, Google estimated that 129,864,880 books had been published in print. Johannes Gutenberg started the modern book printing revolution with his invention of the printing press that allowed the mass production of books in the 15th Century. Prior to this, books were either written or copied by hand or metic­u­lously printed with wooden blocks. The next major change in the production of books occurred with the invention of the steam printing press in the early 19th Century, when books became signi­ficantly more affordable.

Typewriters were invented in 1868 and are considered another signi­ficant innovation in the production of printed words. While the first electric typewriter was produced in the early 20th century, they didn’t gain wider acceptance until the electronic models of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, by which time the personal computer revolution was underway, with accom­panying printers and word processing programs. Microsoft Word was introduced in 1983 and became the world’s most popular word processing application, as part of the world’s most popular personal use software.

Microsoft claimed Office had 500 million users in 2009.

Word processing changed the way authors could write, making it much easier to edit their writing and format their manuscripts. Printing technology also changed and advanced in the areas of design, format, colour repro­duction, paper stock and affordability.

There is some debate over who invented eBooks (and when), however they did not surface in signi­ficant numbers until the 1990s and the sharing of digital files on the internet became easier. It has only been in the last few years with the intro­duction of smart­phones, tablets and dedicated eReaders that eBooks have gained widespread use and acceptance. In January, 2011 Amazon — whose success is largely based on their cheap prices, Kindle eReaders and apps, and importantly, crowd sourced customer reviews — announced that its eBook sales had overtaken its paperbook sales.

Initially, eBooks were simply text, and then they were text with inline images and hyperlinks. They didn’t look very good and weren’t that useful for anything other than novels and non-fiction. Now eBooks are available in fixed-layout colour, and even offer ‘enhancements’ like video, audio and user-initiated animation. It’s early days and user experience varies widely on different devices, but they’re resembling tradi­tional printed books less and less. There are also some advantages of eBooks for authors breaking out of print that don’t even involve adding any enhancements or multimedia. Whereas in the past, an author might have had to pad a story out in order to justify its print production (it’s a fairly logical notion that buyers perceive at least part of a printed book’s value on the size of its physical container), they can now sell a book of any length that they can reasonably justify for a certain price. Estab­lished authors can go through their archives and publish that short story that was rejected by their publisher. Amazon became a proponent of the ‘shortform’ eBook with the intro­duction of 5,000–30,000 word ‘Kindle Single’ in 2011, ironically consisting mainly of ‘longform’ journalism.

While .ePub has become the standard eBook format, there are now several more advanced proprietary HTML5-based formats — such as .iBook on the iPad and KF8 on the Kindle Fire — that only run on certain devices or within branded mobile applications.

The Book is not dead. It’s now also available in HTML (the stuff used to create this page).

Amazon.com was founded in 1995 as an online bookstore. It is now one of the biggest online retailers in the world, selling a large variety of products, including sporting goods, software and even groceries.

In 2007, Apple released the iPhone and Amazon released the Kindle eReader. Digit­isation completely changed the music industry, with file sharing programs like Napster (1999–2001), personal mp3 players like the iPod (2001) and online music stores like iTunes (2003). With the intro­duction of smart­phones and eReaders, many commentators were sounding the death knoll of the tradi­tional print publishing industry. What has actually happened is less dramatic. While slow to adapt to a changing marketplace, publishers have started responding to increasing market demand for digital versions of their authors’ books. However, as anyone who has ever worked with a big publisher will tell you, the wheels of change turn slowly in an industry that is based on estab­lished workflows and resistant to changing its distri­bution model. This has meant more agile indie software developers, entre­pren­eurial authors and agents, and online eBook retailers have been the real innovators in this space to date.

One of the big stumbling blocks for the estab­lished print publishing industry has been control over eBook pricing and potential return on investment. The fear has been that ‘books’ will be devalued, and they wanted to avoid the race to the bottom seen on Apple’s AppStore with the minimum pricing of apps at $0.99. It was argued that there would be a flood of eBooks under­cutting publisher titles on stores like Amazon from authors whose manuscripts were either rejected by publishers, had never been seen by an editor or were simply not very good. To some degree the review and rating system on sites like Amazon exist to address the quality of content, but this is reader-generated and publishers have no control over it. Consumers generally demand that digital versions of books cost less — as there are no paper print costs, they cannot resell a DRM-protected eBook, and their ‘ownership’ of the book is even in question. Some argue that it is more like renting the book. If Amazon went bust (ok, unlikely) what would happen to your Kindle library? So it’s not hard to understand why readers would be frustrated when a digital book costs more than its print equivalent.

DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, which involves copyright protection for digital products, and has sparked a contro­versial debate between publishers and copyright owners who are attempting to protect their content from piracy, and users who may feel that access to the content they have purchased is too restrictive. DRM and the online piracy debate is an important part of the evolving digital book industry. For an inter­esting and creative approach to copyright and free/paid distri­bution of books, see author Cory Doctorow’s writings on the subject at his website — craphound.com

Publishers have also struggled with the policies of online stores like Amazon. For example, following the intro­duction of the iPad and the iBookstore in 2010 — when Apple’s eBook retail shop opened with the publisher-preferred ‘agency model’ — MacMillan pushed Amazon to do the same. Macmillan proposed two options: the agency model, or the wholesale model of releasing digital versions several months after the initial hardcover version. Amazon responded by temporarily removing all of MacMillan’s titles from sale before eventually capit­u­lating and accepting the agency model, although noting that it would lead to ‘needlessly high’ prices for eBooks. They concluded their announcement with:

…we know for sure that many independent presses and self-published authors will see this as an oppor­tunity to provide attractively priced e-books as an alternative.

Since then, believing that the market ultimately determines what people will pay, there have been many examples and stories of authors doing just that, with $2.99 generally considered the best price point with the least buyer friction.

Joe Konrath, arguably the most vocal critic of the estab­lished publishing industry, is a fiction writer who self-publishes his books on Amazon. His blog, ‘A Newbies Guide to Publishing’ is inspir­a­tional reading for aspiring or estab­lished authors disil­lu­sioned with big publishers. Konrath’s critique of the ‘legacy’ publishing industry is legendary:

Legacy publishers offer the author 17.5% royalties on ebooks, and keep 52.5% for themselves…

Legacy publishers are a cartel. I suppose it could be a coincidence that the Big 6 all have exactly the same (low) royalty structure, and shockingly similar contract terms. But collusion seems easier to believe, and this collusion is aimed at limiting the income and power of authors. Legacy publishing contracts are painfully one-sided…

Legacy publishers fix prices. That’s what the agency model is. Even worse, these prices are too high and hurt authors’ sales.

I’ve spent hours upon hours talking to these publishers, trying to get them to innovate, to evolve.

They didn’t listen.

And finally,

The industry is broken. It cannot continue to treat its content providers as if it’s doing them a favor. It cannot continue to engage in business practices that are so one-sided.

Writers are necessary. Publishers are not.

Digital self publishers on Amazon and the iBookstore receive 70% of the retail price.

However, some argue that Konrath’s strategy of self-publishing only works for well known authors, or people like Seth Godin who have a large online following and can market their books to their followers through social media channels. Konrath himself admits that self-publishing authors are more likely to be finan­cially successful if they have a backlist. There is also the argument that estab­lished publishers identify and support good writers (‘profitable writers’). We could go on and explore other stories, such as tradi­tional bookstores going out of business, the difficulty of producing good digital typography, or the current problem of delivering eBook titles across a range of online stores in a number of different formats for a number of different devices. But the purpose of raising these issues is to make the point that the way books are made, how they are distributed, how they are bought and sold, how they are promoted, and how they are read is changing dramatically.

The Book is not dead, its multiplied into many different forms and the future is one where print is simply one option. More pixels and less paper. Digital first or digital only, and affordable print on demand. And that’s great news for readers.

Craig Mod, ‘Designing books in the digital age’, Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto, book.pressbooks.com

Digital is changing the way books are made, but it’s also changing the way books are written. Commentators on the digital book, like Craig Mod, have argued that the ‘true value of an object lies in what it says, not its mere existence. And in the case of a book, that value is intrins­ically connected to content’:

When Danielle Steele sits at her computer, she doesn’t think much about how the text will look when printed. She thinks about the story as a waterfall of text, as something that can be poured into any container.

While there is meaning in designing a format (like a printed book) for ‘formless content’, there is inevitably a greater focus on individual content in a digital context, and less on the book as an object or container. The old paradigm of book publishing author > (agent) > publisher > printer > distributor > retailer > reader is breaking down and simplifying. It was generally a one way street with authors (‘content creators’) writing once, perhaps updating the work in a 2nd edition, but generally creating a stand alone static work. It doesn’t have to be that way anymore. Authors don’t need publishers or agents to sell their work, as evidenced by the success of writers like Joe Konrath. Content creators (‘authors’) can develop and present their stories in a number of different ways. This can include developing stories across a number of digital platforms, even putting out work that is unfinished or not yet fully realised, with the potential to change direction based on parti­cipation and feedback from their community. This is an exciting devel­opment for creative storytellers, who have an oppor­tunity to engage with their audience in much more direct and meaningful ways than was possible in the 20th century.

King, S. (2000) ‘On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft’. Scribner, NY.

Stephen King encouraged writers to ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open’. Digital takes this one step further.  Authors can propose a concept and ship an early draft to readers, who can give feedback to the author or even contribute or collaborate on future drafts or chapters. Imagine the fiction writer who discovers through conver­sations on social media or parti­cipation on online forums that the majority of her readers think the story will play out a certain way in the next book in a series. The author can completely rework events in a way to either confirm expect­ations or introduce new elements to take readers in a completely different direction. Bloggers can also take advantage of this inter­action to produce a ‘book’. They start writing a blog and engage with their readers in the comments section. After a while, they might decide to publish their blog as a book. For example, David Thorne, an Australian design profes­sional, started posting his email conver­sations with work colleagues and clients on his blog 27bslash6.com. The irreverent site was so popular that he eventually produced a book from his posts that made it on to the New York Times bestseller list.

Crowd-sourcing’ or ‘crowd-funding’ sites like Kickstarter.com and AppBackr.com encourage users to invest in projects before they’ve even begun. This is a completely new way for authors, film makers and software developers to not only fund their projects, but gauge their popularity before personally investing in it. ‘Backers’ often receive a copy of the final work, and can choose to invest at a higher rate for a number of ‘extra rewards’, such as a signed copy of a printed book, an acknow­ledgement in the credits of a film or a person­alised version of the final product. But there is an even greater advantage for authors in getting their readers to back their projects. Implied in the trans­action is a personal stake in the final product, a small level of ownership that encourages ‘backers’ to think positively about the project, and by sharing it with their friends and social networks, help with marketing. For an author successfully utilising this strategy, their readers are effectively paying to market the book for them.

The Book is not dead. It’s online and being promoted by its readers.

It’s a well estab­lished marketing principle that people change their buying habits when their life circum­stances change. In my case, I used to buy a lot of print books from Australian publishers. This changed when I got access to eBooks for the simple reason that most Australian books weren’t available yet. When I did discover an Australian title on Amazon.com, I couldn’t buy it because I lived in Australia! I wrote to the Australian publisher who replied outlining the difficulty of negotiating digital rights across the worldwide market (the reason a lot of people in Australia download television shows illegally instead of waiting another 12 months to buy them). When the book finally became available in a digital format in Australia, it was priced higher than the printed version, which I finally bought, read and handed on to someone else so they didn’t have to buy it. Publishers are still stuck in the paper model of distri­bution. And that’s a problem for them, their authors, and their readers, but an oppor­tunity for new content creators, especially those who can be creative about overcoming the problem of discoverability.

Niche content creators and ‘transmedia storytellers’ can poten­tially overcome the distri­bution problems of the past (and present), by plugging in to what Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, dubbed the ‘long tail’ of the internet. For example, if an app developer has access to a worldwide distri­bution network such as Apple’s iTunes AppStore, they can produce a niche app that targets a small percentage of customers drawn from a large pool of people. In the same way, authors might find a market for a profitable eBook on a niche topic that they sell on Amazon that a tradi­tional publisher would never have printed. Producing shorter books might even be a better idea as our reading behaviour is being shaped by the stories we read on social media and blogs, and less of us are prepared to engage with longform reading. Digitally literate authors can also connect with their readers by building their online communities through social media or courses like Dan Blank’s ‘Build Your Author Program’.

The Book is not dead. There’s an app for it. If you can find it.

Mobile apps based on books gained traction in the smartphone market with the intro­duction of the iPhone AppStore in 2008. There were basic ‘flip the page and read the book’ apps which sometimes had audio, then there were book apps that had more inter­activity or animation, like Graeme Base’s ‘Animalia’. Unlike eBooks, they resembled games more than printed books. However, after the initial burst of enthusiasm for children’s, ‘education’ and ‘book’ apps on the Apple AppStore, parents and teachers started demanding more educa­tional content that adheres to curriculum. A criticism of many early storybook apps on the iPhone and iPad was that they weren’t much different to CD-ROMs, which were never very exciting. One of the problems with the currently available ‘enhanced eBooks’ is that they are basically CD-ROMs in another format. They almost always provide an inferior user experience to their app counterparts and many of their ‘enhancements’ seem trivial and can even be considered an unwanted distraction rather than an immersive experience that extends the author’s vision.

The restriction with currently available eBooks has a lot to do with publisher’s fear of the internet. eBooks are capable of so much more, yet are limited and locked down in an effort to control them. Yes, they compete with a free internet, where readers can copy and paste and share without restrictions… but they resemble print books more than the internet, which is ironic because eBooks, like the internet, are built with HTML.

Developers of apps and eBooks are being challenged to engage more with educators on forums such as iEAR.org (Education Apps Review) and MomsWithApps.com in order to produce more useful apps for children. Some developers have responded by producing apps that allow students, teachers and parents to create their own story books within their apps. A popular Australian app ‘rED Writing — Learn to Write’ was #1 in Australia in Education on the AppStore at the time of writing. Released in January 2012, rED Writing was co-designed with an Australian teacher and aims to teach 3–7 year olds how to write letters and numbers using an ‘Australian education approved font’. Children learn by tracing the numbers on the screen and the app rewards students with ‘stickers’, ‘achievements’ and ‘trophies’. It has received great feedback from parents and teachers, summed up by this review from the AppStore:

Three reasons I would recommend this app …

  1. It uses fonts they will learn at ‘big school’. No point learning something that is wrong.
  2. The reward structure is perfect for my ‘sticker obsessed’ children.
  3. My children are volun­tarily picking this app to play when given the iPad…
The Book is not dead. It’s just not defined by its container anymore.

There are several ways you can access ‘books’ now. You can start reading a paper book at a friends house and download it onto your mobile phone on the way home, then read it on a tablet or laptop later. If you want to go for a run, you can continue reading by downloading an audio version to your iPod. So many options. But this is the ideal scenario, that does not take into account the problems of digital rights and regional avail­ability, and assumes a relatively high level of digital literacy, access to the latest techno­logical devices and a connection to the internet. While iPads can be great in school classrooms to engage students with an inter­active learning experience, not every school can afford them. Literacy programs that utilise new techno­logies like HTML5 also have a lot of potential to engage students, but what if the school’s computers are too old to run them, they are only in English, or the developer of a software program has not worked with an educator to produce their product?

Apple made a big push for the education market with the release of their proprietary ‘iBooks Author’ software in January, 2012. iBooks Author allows anyone with an Apple computer and the latest operating system to make iBooks that can be run on an iPad. These iBooks can be shared with others and teachers can poten­tially create custom books or course materials that can be delivered to students’ iPads. Expect to see more inexpensive and free story authoring tools software widely available on all major platforms and devices in the next few years. The current content creation and software authoring tools (and their associated distri­bution systems), which have been largely ignored by the print publishing industry, are already being enthu­si­ast­ically embraced by a new generation of independent and creative content creators to publish innovative apps, games and books. Among them is Tyler Poon, who taught himself computer programming from books and online tutorials. He created the iPhone game ‘Balloons and Bombs’ using third-party app creation software Corona.

He was nine years old at the time.

The Book is not dead. It has an exciting future.

It’s easy to forget, but it’s only been in the few years that software updates and new releases transitioned from physical packaged products you would buy from a retailer to internet downloads. Software is also now heading in the direction of subscription-based ‘versionless’ online ‘cloud’ applications.

Let’s assume that the current limit­ations of devices and access to techno­logical resources will be overcome. That some of the divergent standards and platforms will converge in a more compatible future. That eBooks will update in the same way that mobile apps and software do. That consumers will be able to buy a product once and access it in a number of different ways. That digital rights management and market region­al­isation will be overcome and digital enterprise distri­bution systems will make sense. If that’s the case then what is possible?

Hugh McGuire, the founder of PressBooks.com and LibriVox.org, has argued that, ‘The distinction between “the internet” & “books” is totally arbitrary, and will disappear in 5 years. Start adjusting now.’ I remember reading this tweet and not being completely convinced, but then I realised that I read more words in an internet browser each day than I do in printed or digital books. @damiengwalter responded:

@hughmcguire No. Books are researched, written, edited, published, marketed…and hence paid for. The internet is ego noise, hence free.

@hughmcguire, quoted in ‘Why the book and the internet will merge’ by Hugh McGuire, book.pressbooks.com

But, as McGuire asks, what will happen when books are on the internet — not just linked to or sold from — but actually available on the internet? Who knows what new models will emerge to pay writers and artists for what they create? However, Amazon now want you to buy Kindle books that only run on Kindle devices or Kindle ‘apps’ that run on other devices. Apple want you to use their devices and buy apps and iBooks from iTunes. Barnes and Noble have the Nook Reader, and Sony the Kobo Reader. Google have licensed their mobile Android operating system for a number of manufac­turers, as has Microsoft. They’re all competing with one another and they’re all trying to hook consumers into their proprietary formats and stores. In the short term it makes for a confusing marketplace, but in the long term it is inevitable that cross-platform and ‘device agnostic’ content will prevail. It will run on desktop and laptop computers, mobile devices and tablets, and will not be tied to a particular platform or online store. Am I being too optimistic? I hope not. It seems logical. While there will no doubt be some products (or their initial releases) that will be available exclusively through certain stores/devices/applications, a signi­ficant amount of content will be available on everything.

Publishing is becoming less about distri­bution channels and more about context and discov­er­ability. There is also the issue that is often not addressed very well in tech journalism, that ‘potential’ or even ‘possible now’ is not always practical or affordable. To address the difficulty and expense of building natively for each platform, a number of third party solutions have been developed as ‘one stop shops’ to create and deliver content across multiple platforms. HTML5 — the latest iteration of HTML — is emerging as a strong contender in this space. Currently however, if you google how to make an eBook, you are presented with so many options for formats and platforms and compat­ibility issues that you might not know where to begin. While there is information for authors, publishers and teachers, and much discourse on the future of the publishing industry, the death of paper books, the latest ‘e’ or ‘i’ platform that will save the industry or revolu­tionise education… The cutting edge of technology is a long way from the reality of imple­menting many of these digital ‘solutions’ to engaging students and improving literacy. But this will change. Despite the current prolif­eration of proprietary systems, it’s somewhat inevitable that we are heading towards a cross-platform and device agnostic future. And this is good news for educators and students. But, in an envir­onment of such rapid change, where a new device, mobile OS, SDK or IDE seems to pop up every week, it can be difficult for anyone working in this space to fully grasp the practical application of the technology. Authors wanting to make the most of the new technology are required to be digitally literate and become more like software developers, and need to learn to market themselves and their products in a very competitive worldwide marketplace. The challenge for educators is not just to find quality content in a sea of digital books and apps, but find content that is relevant, engaging and has educa­tional value for their students. Great digital products — software and books (is there a difference anymore?) — created by authors, artists, educators and software developers will address the needs of their ‘users’ by finding ways to ‘localise’ or ‘personalise’ their content in an effort to connect (with their community of ‘readers’, ‘fans’, ‘users’, ‘consumers’, ‘co-creators’). Great digital education platforms are ones that allow students and teachers to extend and adapt them for local curriculum or local languages.

Digital technology opens up alternate pathways for learning, partic­ularly in special education or the bilingual classroom (digital products can easily transition between two languages). The Ma! Iwaidja mobile app project (launching in May 2012) is an initiative of the Iwaidja Inyman (‘Iwaidja language’) project to create a mobile app that includes an Iwaidja-English and English-Iwaidja dictionary, with the initial capacity to record audio phrases and later, to upload and share them on a server. It is just one example of the way new technology can poten­tially be used to address local needs in a way that is engaging to young students. While social media may present a challenge in the classroom due to privacy concerns, the true value of the social media revolution is in the way it is changing how we think about sharing and exploring ideas together. Teachers will increasingly have the tools to curate digital learning exper­iences, explore the ideas that interest their students, choose creative ways to navigate and engage with curriculum, and connect with other teachers and their PLNs to collaborate on teaching resources. Digital learning products will be created that allow students to move beyond passive reading and engagement, to extend the experience — localise and personalise it — and ultimately create their own versions. The potential of new digital technology to inspire creativity in the classroom is enormous.

We live in an unpre­cedented time in history for The Book and Education. There is more than a lifetime of learning on wikipedia.org, just one website (or is it a book?). But it’s up to educators to not only embrace the technology, but provide guided learning exper­iences through under­standing and adapting it. That may mean under­standing how software works, how to manage a classroom of tablet computers, or discover, organise and structure digital content. It may also mean knowing when the right time is to do something crazy, like unplug everything and read a paper book. All the techno­logical tools in the world — all the different ways content can be displayed, swiped, manip­ulated, shared, adapted or automated — doesn’t change the basic principle that content must be meaningful, accessible, affordable and curated, and make sense to those who engage with it. Just ask any teacher who has a disused ‘inter­active’ whiteboard sitting in the corner of their classroom.

The Book is not dead. It’s become something much more.




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