Fast Company

Forget E-Books: The Future of the Book Is Far More Interesting

Coming soon... It's the end of the book as we know it, and you'll be just fine. But it won't be replaced by the e-book, which is, at best, a stopgap measure. [Viral Loop Chronicle #8]

horseless carriage 1886Take a long hard look at a book, any book. Pull a favorite off a shelf, dust off the top--maybe it's the Bible, the Koran, a novel by Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy. Perhaps you're more into Dan Brown or Jacqueline Winspear mysteries, Doris Kearns Goodwin biographies, or you've dog-eared page after page in Skinny Bitch. You may even gravitate toward business books like Viral Loop, my latest. Now say your goodbyes, because there will soon be a day that you may view such analog contrivances as museum pieces, bought and sold on eBay as collectibles, or tossed into landfills.

Coming soon ... It's the end of the book as we know it, and you'll be just fine. But it won't be replaced by the e-book, which is, at best, a stopgap measure. Sure, a bevy of companies are releasing e-book readers-there's Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook, and a half dozen other chunks of not-ready-for-primetime hardware. But technology marches on through predictable patterns of development, with the initial form of a new technology mirroring what came before, until innovation and consumer demand drive it far beyond initial incremental improvements. We are on the verge of re-imagining the book and transforming it something far beyond mere words.

Take note: The first battlefield tanks looked like heavily armored tractors equipped with cannons; early automobiles were called "horseless carriages" for a reason; the first motorcycles were based on bicycles; the first satellite phones were as clunky as your household telephone. A decade ago, when newspapers began serving up stories over the Web, the content mirrored what was offered in the print edition. What the tank, car and newspaper have in common is they blossomed into something far beyond their initial prototypes. In the same way that an engineer wouldn't dream of starting with the raw materials for a carriage to design a rad new sports car today, newspapers won't use paper or ink anymore. Neither will books. But mere text on a screen, the stuff that e-books are made of, won't be enough.

armored-tractorThe first movie cameras were used to film theater productions. It took early cinematic geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin and Abel Gance to untether the camera from what was and transform it into what it would become: a new art form. I believe that this dynamic will soon be replayed, except it will star the book in the role of the theater production, with authors acting more like directors and production companies than straight wordsmiths. Like early filmmakers, some of us will seek new ways to express ourselves through multimedia. Instead of stagnant words on a page we will layer video throughout the text, add photos, hyperlink material, engage social networks of readers who will add their own videos, photos, and wikified information so that these multimedia books become living, breathing, works of art. They will exist on the Web and be ported over to any and all mobil devices that can handle multimedia, laptops, netbooks, and beyond. (Hey, Apple, are you listening?)

For the non-fiction author therein lie possibilities to create the proverbial last word on a subject, a one-stop shop for all the information surrounding a particular subject matter. Imagine a biography of Wiley Post, the one-eyed pilot from the 1930s who was the first to fly around the world. It would not only offer the entire text of a book but newsreel footage from his era, coverage of his most famous flights, radio interviews, schematics of his plane, interactive maps of his journeys, interviews with aviation historians and pilots of today, a virtual tour of his cockpit and description of every gauge and dial, short profiles of other flyers of his time, photos, hyperlinked endnotes and index, links to other resources on the subject. Social media could be woven into the fabric of the experience--discussion threads and wikis where readers share information, photos, video, and add their own content to Post's story, which would tie them more closely to the book. There's also the potential for additional revenue streams: You could buy MP3s of popular songs from the 1930s, clothes that were the hot thing back then, model airplanes, other printed books, DVDs, journals, and memorabilia.

kindle dxA visionary author could push the boundaries and re-imagine these books in wholly new ways. A novelist could create whole new realities, a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user, offering metaphors for artistic expressions. Or they could warp into videogame-like worlds where readers become characters and through the expression of their own free will alter the story to fit. They could come with music soundtracks or be directed or produced by renowned documentarians. They could be collaborations or one-woman projects.

Before you add your comment to the comment thread at the end of this column, or hustle off an email to me to vehemently disagree with my vision, I want to emphasize I'm not predicting the end of immersive reading. I see a future in which immersive reading coexists with other literary, visual and auditory modes of expression. You get the full book--all the words on the page or screen--but you also get so much more. And ask yourself: Which would you rather have, the hardcover book of today or this rich, multimedia treatment of the same title? Suddenly mere words on a page may feel a bit lifeless. And remember that today's youth are tomorrow's book buyers, and they have been brought up on a steady diet of entertainment on demand, with text, photos, and video all available at the click of a mouse. I'm skeptical that simple text will cut it for them.

Now, I realize that many can't imagine life without a good book to curl up with, but these may be the same people who might have thought they'd never forgo the pop and hiss of vinyl records, jettison the typewriter for a laptop, spring for high speed Internet access, or buy a BlackBerry or iPhone. In an earlier age they might have even resisted adopting the Qwerty keyboard (what's wrong with ink and feathered quill anyway?) And sure, there will be some books around. After all, even today there exist vinyl records--just not a lot of them.

As the author of three books, I'm excited by the possibilities. Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding newspapers, magazines, and books, I think all writers should be optimistic. Because where there's chaos, there's opportunity.

And besides, it's inevitable.

Adam L. Penenberg is author of Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter, How Today's Smartest Businesses Grow Themselves. A journalism professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Penenberg is a contributing writer to Fast Company.

Read Viral Loop Chronicles #7: Need An Agent? Here's How to Find One.

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27 Comments

  • Luis Casstle

    Great post! I see this as the future, in essence it's co-creation. This would add immense value to books! An d it would be sustainable as it would eliminate vast amounts of paper from being used. My work is in green graphic design and I am always looking for ways to move printed material into the digital realm, and this seems to do it really well.

    Thanks again,

    Luis Casstle
    Founder/Principal
    Brilliant Design Elements
    http://www.brilliantdesignelem...

  • Meghan Hughes

    "We live in an age of more and more information and less and less meaning." I think at some point we should pause from talking about how cool new technologies will make our gadgets and have a chat about whether it is going to improve literature; access; society....I am super keen for where technology can take our literature, but when the technology itself preceeds the inspiration to take literature to new levels, it will always end up being a gimmick.

  • David Molden

    As a non-fiction author there are times when I would love to describe something using video, a graphic, or link to some other resource. Sometimes words alone are clumsy, and because of the limitations of the book (number of words, pages and style etc) its only possible to give something a scant overview when you really would like the reader to grasp a deeper understanding.

    There will always be word-only books and audio for people who still like to listen to the Archers on the radio, but thats only 20% of the population (according to NLP). 80% of people prefer to see images, graphics and colour, which is why youtube and the like have grown so rapidly across the globe.

    Bring it on!

    www.quadrant1.com

  • J Heinlein

    great post!

    I'm a "publishing professional" (translate former executive - now hands on consultant for all things books - book marketing focus -indie projects, trad'tl publishers.

    There are several ongoing "raging discussions" and much pontification going on re "our industry's future..." and, the reality is that none of us really know the ultimate outcome as it evolves before us in real time... but, we can excitedly speculate about the possibilities!

    and, "your vision" nails it!

    -especially like, "I see a future in which immersive reading coexists with other literary, visual and auditory modes of expression. You get the full book--all the words on the page or screen--but you also get so much more."

    -as with all creative enterprises - innovation is not limited to just one-dimensional channels of expression... eReaders/eBooks/digibooks are a wonderful way among many to experience content... but multi-dimensional experience and many choice options will always be the objective... particularly in "our world".

    Cheers to the future!

  • Scott Abel

    You totally missed the mark on this one. You're assuming eBooks aren't capable of providing these experiences. They are. Today, eBooks can contain multimedia (video), 3d graphics, sound files, and more. In fact, a plain ordinary PDF can contain and present these multimedia elements. Technical writers and instructional designers have been creating publications with these very features for the past few years.

    The real challenge isn't the eBook, it's the way books are created. Publishers still use old school publishing approaches (desktop publishing) and create eBooks that are device-specific...often as an afterthought. What's needed is a change in approach in which content of all types is brought together directly to the reader -- regardless of what device they choose to view the content on. This involves a fresh new publishing approach that separates content from formatting (a la XML) and delivers it on demand, using open, device-agnostic standards. The irony is that many of the biggest publishing houses have been using these techniques and standards to publish internal technical, training and other content for the past few years, but their "we've never done it that way" fears prevent them from changing the publishing process for the books, magazines and newspapers they sell to their external audience. This isn't universally true, some publishers have been doing ultra-cool things with content for the past few years. Just check out http://www.safariu.com for an example.

    Hardware manufacturers like Amazon will have short-lived success as long as their readers use proprietary formats and limit functionality. And, should Apple enter the market with the iTablet, I'd wager you're going to see some pretty big improvements in functionality, accessibility, extensibility, etc. immediately.

    So while I don't disagree that books will change (I predict they'll even include holographic images in a few years time), declaring the eBook dead is ridiculous and nothing more than a dramatic headline designed to attract readers. If that was you goal, then "mission accomplished". Do you remember the last time that phrase was used?

  • Richard Geller

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious... an eBook work of fiction may or may not benefit from illustrations, animations, videos, etc. Non-fiction eBooks (e.g., a human anatomy textbook, a survey of Art History and so forth) however do stand to benefit enormously from the lower production costs of including full-color illustrations, animations and/or videos. Undoubtedly new forms of fictional eBooks will also be experimented with, but novels in their current form will (and do) fare quite well on eReaders. It's all good. No worries.
    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Bill Ingle

    You can view external, physical reality as an exteriorization of inner realities, including the marked acceleration of changes in technology from, say, horse and buggy days to today. This acceleration then becomes an acceleration of changes in consciousness.

    Focusing on a projection of external technology change into imagined futures misses the truly disruptive changes in consciousness that underlie them -- doing so is simply another way to view imagined futures in terms of the past.

    Note changes occurring now in the decriminalization of marijuana; these changes in the external -- in this case legal -- environment are as much a part of accelerating change as accelerating technology changes but perhaps a bit closer to the core changes, as here we deal with what might be called a temporary "loosening of ego" associated with cannabis use.

    Egoic consciousness, associated with symbolic masculine traits, has predominated in many parts of the world for the last 6,000 years or so.

    (Look at the forms of divinity that have predominated in those parts of the world -- religious myth is an excellent indicator of the development of consciousness.)

    Egoic consciousness has gradually become tighter, more restrictive, and so on as it has become refined over time -- note how Augustine was the first writer to use "I" in literature in the same way we use it today.

    The core changes in consciousness reflected in the acceleration of technology in the outer world, with the related apparent shrinking of space and time (compare horse-drawn wagon newspaper distribution common not that long ago, historically, to contemporary and nearly instantaneous electronic distribution of information) symbolize the end of the long egoic era, the outer connectedness of the Internet symbolizing a nearly forgotten inner connectivity (associated, in our culture, with the symbolical feminine -- think of intuition vs. rationality).

    Gradually, more and more will become consciously aware of the core changes, this continued ego loosening and increasingly expansive consiousness; this will reach a crescendo as this happens. (The best predictions I'm aware of suggest this peak may be some decades from 2010).

    Focus on this, not technology, to gain a glimmer of probable future realities -- again, the technology only reflects these deeper changes.

    Bill I.

  • Richard Geller

    At the risk of pointing out the obvious... an eBook work of fiction may or may not benefit from illustrations, animations, videos, etc. Non-fiction eBooks (e.g., a human anatomy textbook, a survey of Art History and so forth) however do stand to benefit enormously from the lower production costs of including full-color illustrations, animations and/or videos. Undoubtedly new forms of fictional eBooks will also be experimented with, but novels in their current form will (and do) fare quite well on eReaders. It's all good. No worries.
    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Duncan Long

    On the face of it, the new and improved "book" sounds great.

    Yet none of the 13 novels I put into print with HarperCollins and Avon books would ever have seen the light of day had I been expected to create videos of go with the stories, because to have done so would have required thousands if not millions of dollars in production costs (given that they were science fiction and action adventure stories).

    I'm not saying future books won't be like what you describe; but I suspect that big corporations will be producing most of these "books" (I can't imagine we won't have another name for these, just as we have "cars" today instead of "horseless carriages).

    It's easy and satisfying for an author to write, "The two armies of a million men faced each other across the fog-filled valley." But quite another to create a video for readers to see.

    I suppose a writer could link to re-enactment sites and web pages about the armament used by characters in the book, etc., etc. -- but basically a reader has access to all of this via Google already. So basically we are presented with a rather lame book format having links to sites that anyone could find with a little searching on one hand, or a production with a cast of thousands to be bankrolled by either one very rich author or a corporation (that will have tight control over the story and how it is presented).

    If these are the only viable choices (and hopefully they are not), then I hope books as we know them today, remain as an option to writer and reader alike for a good long time, even if only as a niche market. Otherwise authors will face a future where they're in about as much demand as blacksmiths are today.

    --Duncan Long
    =====================
    Freelance illustrator for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Solomon Press, American Media, Fort Ross, Asimov's Science Fiction, and many other publishers. See my illustrations at: http://DuncanLong.com/art.html

  • MCM

    As a counter-argument, I offer the guts of a post I made a month ago about enhancing eBooks...

    I love eBooks. I really do. I think they’re the way the majority of people are going to read in the future, and I think it’s great. Less paper, less waste, better delivery… it’ll be great. But I’m really iffy about this notion that eBooks will be able to break down the walls that separate literature from TV, movies and games. No, I’m not just iffy. I’m downright scared.

    I think maybe the issue is that a lot of the writers and pundits who go googly-eyed at the notion don’t write in other media. If all you write are novels, integrated video is like free candy for a six-year-old. Ooo! Gimme! Tasty and shiny and wonderful! Everything I do will have some!

    But stop for a minute and think: you know all those novels you’ve seen turned into movies, and you say to yourself: “Damn, they ruined the book.” That’s not just because the filmmakers were stupid. Many books are unfilmable, and many others require absolute genius to film them right. If you integrate something half-assed into your eBook, it’s not going to “enhance” the experience for anyone, it’s going to ruin it. Your carefully-crafted words will be meaningless next to a poorly-acted scene, or sound that wasn’t quite up to snuff, or a director who picked an angle that was too jarring.

    And you think to yourself: that won’t happen to me. I’ll make sure it’s the best of the best, and everything will be just as I want it. But then I have to ask: what is the budget of your book? Even just five minutes of video will run you tens of thousands of dollars. If you insist on quality, it’ll grow exponentially. Do you want to spend a hundred thousand dollars getting a few “extras” for your eBook? How much will that raise the sticker price, and how much of the increase will you see? You’re not “increasing value” for your customers, you’re giving them risky gimmicks, and probably paying through the nose to do it. eBooks should make everyone MORE money, not less.

    Novelists are used to a world where they control the whole picture. The desk is mahogany, the heroine has curly chestnut brown hair and freckles, and the sky was a gorgeous shade of orange and yellow mixed with purple. That’s the way it was. You can’t control those things in real life. Your desk might be oak, your heroine might not have freckles, and your sky will just be a standard orange sunset. That’s the best you can do. Get used to it. It’s what you’re signing up for.

    Don’t be in such a rush to declare fancy eBooks the future of writing. They’re not going to be nearly as good as you think.

    (from http://1889.ca/2009/11/why-fan...

  • Richard Geller

    There are compelling benefits for all concerned to eBooks: ease of access, convenience, near zero cost of production and distribution, lower environmental impact. And there are broad categories of content that will undoubtedly be more enjoyable and commercially viable in multimedia format; for example, check out at the Sports Illustrated demo at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntyXvL.... The eBook versions of my novels (by way of contrast) utilize Adobe AIR & Flash so that they preserve the typographic design, are scalable so you can make them as large as your screen will allow without distortion, and built on a flip book engine, so they behave exactly like books down to the sound of the page turn. I can sell these downloads for far less money than a traditional publisher, and I can distribute them anywhere in the world practically for free. Better and more capable readers are on their way. More effective eTextbooks are a near certainty. The bigger story is probably less about the hardware and more about the emerging software side of things. Bottom line: Gutenberg's world is changing fast. As Michael Eisner once quipped, "You're either part of the bulldozer or you're part of the road."

    --
    Richard Geller
    http://www.aSiteAboutSomething...

  • Ivo Quartiroli

    Wonderful, but some things give their best with less instead of more. For instance, organic food is healthier because there are no preservatives, no chemicals, no GMO, no colorants.

    Ebooks won’t make books extinct: they will just eclipse the inner experience of reading books, in spite of what tech people say that supports don’t matter. What are usually taken into consideration are the technical issues around clarity of the screen, available memory, and the facility of reading in different light conditions. But since many technologically-oriented people don’t give much attention to the subtle inner changes, for many of them it’s probably the same. What matters for them is what we can do, not what is being done on us by technology.

    Being alone with a book, electronic or paper or whatever, with no Internet, no links, no videos, no electronics and nothing and nobody else popping up on the screen while we read, will probably become rare, but it is that very solitude which can give non-interrupted mutual feedback between the words, as the semantic bricks of our awareness, and the depths of the soul.

    Disclaimer: I am not a luddite, I am into technology since 30 years.

  • Stephen Baldwin

    Crouch's book title didn't make the earlier post. It is Culture Making:Recovering our Creative Calling. Credit where it is due....

  • Patrick Garmoe

    I believe there's a lot of truth to this post, but one wonders whether today's authors really want to be directors and curators of all sorts of information related to a topic. As a former journalist, I remember how frustrated many journalists were and are about having to sometimes shoot video and record conversations and obtain additional images for websites. It takes time and energy one could spend on writing, or vice versa. I wonder if this means a whole new generation of "autors (authors and directors)" rather than today's authors all wholesale taking on additional roles.

  • Stephen Baldwin

    In his book <culture calling="" creative="" making:recovering="" our=""> Andy Crouch makes the point that any cultural artifact makes certain things possible and certain other things impossible. He offers an insightful illustration about what the Interstate Highways system made possible...and what it makes impossible, or at least harder. Yes, that is a teaser to read the book.

    The new medium Penenberg extrapolates based upon current technological trends and capabilities will do as Crouch suggests. It will make certain things possible and others less possible. The new medium can do all that Penenberg suggests but it cannot do what the medium of print and paper does. We interact with it differently than we do a screen: it is a tangible object it has weight, texture, a smell and all that those sensory responses evoke are part of the medium of a book. A book also is linear rather than fractured into multiple possible pathways. Indeed a book engages the imagination in ways that are similar to the difference in how we respond to the film and print versions of a story. In the film version we are seeing (passively) what the filmmaker's vision is. In the book we (actively) supply the imagination interactively with the author's intent.

    The analogy of theatre or film is apt as several have observed. It is not that one is superior and replaces the other, it is that each does different things. Books will always do some things that digital media cannot do.</culture>

  • Jared Black

    I don't see anything "visionary" or even controversial about this. The sort of thing Penenberg is writing about here is not really new; at most he's writing about an expansion of something that has been around since the early '90s and, even at its visionary, has been 100% technologically and commercially feasible since around 1999: it's called a WEBSITE.

    Think I'm being overly simplistic or "just not getting the point"? Here's a point Mr. Penenberg conveniently overlooked: film never replaced theatre. Last time I checked, people who attend plays -- and even prefer them over movies -- are not looked upon as in the same category as people who are nostalgic for quill & ink. His theatre-to-film analogy is very apt because he is describing a new tool performing a new function: therefore it contradicts the carriage-to-tank analogy and all the other analogies used in the article, which were about new tools performing an existing function only better. "Immersive reading" is cool, I'd love to see more of it, but far from replacing the book, it will hardly even compete with it (!) except in the sense that plays compete with movies, or people who prefer to read the book then watch the movie 'compete' with people who prefer to watch the movie then [maybe] read the book: as irreconcilable differences in taste, not at all as an issue of old vs. new.

    The only thing those two types of people tend to agree on is that it is better to watch the movie itself before checking out the deleted scenes and all the DVD bonus features, though the first type is predictably stricter on that. In the near future, the read-the-book-first type (to which I belong) will make an easy transition into 'Those who read the "real" book before checking out the bonus features'. Rumors of the book's death are highly exaggerated.

  • Douglas Case

    Shouldn't this sensationalism be published in the the Weekly World News tabloid or is Fast Company expanding into a new genre?

    You make a fantastic prediction that: "A visionary author could push the boundaries and re-imagine these books in wholly new ways.... whole new realities, a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user..."

    Hmmm, sound like a movie to me.

    Also, it's common knowledge that tanks were quite evolved by 1942 . . . your "khZT-16" photo implies that in 1942 "First battlefield tanks looked like heavily armored tractors equipped with cannons;"

  • Douglas Case

    Shouldn't this sensationalism be published in the the Weekly World News tabloid or is Fast Company expanding into a new genre?

    You make a fantastic prediction that: "A visionary author could push the boundaries and re-imagine these books in wholly new ways.... whole new realities, a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user..."

    Hmmm, sound like a movie to me.

    Also, it's common knowledge that tanks were quite evolved by 1942 . . . your "khZT-16" photo implies that in 1942 "First battlefield tanks looked like heavily armored tractors equipped with cannons;"

  • Dan Soltzberg

    Like so much of the dialogue around books and e-books, the focus here is on the book as a content delivery platform. And were that the only function books are performing, it would be hard to argue that a multimedia, hyperlinked, cross-channel, crowd-sourcing approach isn't better in every way. But what the discourse often misses is that reading is a set of activities – a whole experience. We (Portigal Consulting) recently conducted an exploratory research study on reading, books, and digital readers, and saw how printed books are supporting this total reading experience; something that device makers and publishers would do well to understand and leverage as they develop future platforms. Our findings are at http://www.portigal.com/blog/r...

  • Dan Soltzberg

    Like so much of the dialogue around books and e-books, the focus here is on the book as a content delivery platform. And were that the only function books are performing, it would be hard to argue that a multimedia, hyperlinked, cross-channel, crowd-sourcing approach isn't better in every way. But what the discourse often misses is that reading is a set of activities – a whole experience. We (Portigal Consulting) recently conducted an exploratory research study on reading, books, and digital readers, and saw how printed books are supporting this total reading experience; something that device makers and publishers would do well to understand and leverage as they develop future platforms. Our findings are at http://www.portigal.com/blog/r...