Take 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.
The 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.
A 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.