When Peter James published his novel Host on two floppy disks in 1993, he was ill-prepared for the “venomous backlash” that would follow. Journalists and fellow writers berated and condemned him; one reporter even dragged a PC and a generator out to the beach to demonstrate the ridiculousness of this new form of reading. “I was front-page news of many newspapers around the world, accused of killing the novel,”James told pop.edit.lit. “[But] I pointed out that the novel was already dying at an alarming rate without my assistance.”
Shortly after Host’s debut, James also issued a prediction: that e-books would spike in popularity once they became as easy and enjoyable to read as printed books. What was a novelty in the 90s, in other words, would eventually mature to the point that it threatened traditional books with extinction. Two decades later, James’ vision is well on its way to being realised.
That e-books have surged in popularity in recent years is not news, but where they are headed – and what effect this will ultimately have on the printed word – is unknown. Are printed books destined to eventually join the ranks of clay tablets, scrolls and typewritten pages, to be displayed in collectors’ glass cases with other curious items of the distant past?
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Indeed, despite the hand wringing that Jones’ Host – said by some to be the first digital novel – caused in 1993, publishers weren’t too concerned. “In 1992, I spoke to CEOs at probably five of the seven major publishing companies, and they all said ‘This has nothing to do with us. People will never read on screens’,” says Robert Stein, founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book and co-founder of Voyager and the Criterion Collection.
In 2007, with Amazon’s release of the Kindle, that attitude abruptly changed. Almost immediately, the device began causing palpitations in the publishing industry. “Amazon had the clout to go to publishers and say, ‘This is serious. We want your books,’” Shatzkin says. “And because Amazon is Amazon, they also didn’t really care as much about profit on every unit sale as they did for lifetime customer value, so they were happy to sell their e-books for cheap.”
From 2008 to 2010 e-book sales skyrocketed, jumping up to 1,260%, the New York Times reports. Adding fuel to the e-book fire, Nook debuted, as did the iPad, which was released alongside the iBooks Store. “By that time, the publishing industry had lost all possible ability to regain any initiative and momentum,” Stein says. In 2011, as Borders Books declared bankruptcy, e-books’ popularity continued to steadily rise – though not exponentially, as it turns out.
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While no one can say with certainty what the future holds for paper books, Stein believes that what is a plateau now will, at some point, return to a steep incline. “We’re in a transitional period,” he says. “The affordances of screen reading will continuously improve and expand, offering people a reason to switch to screens.”
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Stein imagines, for example, that future forms of books might be developed not by conventional publishers but by the gaming industry. He also envisions that the distinction between writer and reader will be blurred by a social reading experience in which authors and consumers can digitally interact with each other to discuss any passage, sentence or line. Indeed, his latest project, Social Book, allows members to insert comments directly into digital book texts and is already used by teachers at several high schools and universities to stimulate discussions. “For my grandchildren, the idea that reading is something you do by yourself will seem arcane,” he says. “Why would you want to read by yourself if you can have access to the ideas of others you know and trust, or to the insights of people from all over the world?”
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“I think printed books just for plain old reading will, in 10 years from now, be unusual,” Shatzkin adds. “Not so unusual that a kid will say, ‘Mommy, what’s that?’ but unusual enough that on the train you’ll see one or two people reading something printed, while everyone else is reading off of a device.”
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Shatzkin does believe, however, that the eventual and total demise of print “is inevitable,” though such a day won’t arrive for perhaps 50 to 100 or more years. “It will get harder and harder to understand why anyone would print something that’s heavy, hard to ship and not customisable,” he says. “I think there will come a point where print just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Frankly, I reached that point years ago for books that you just read.”
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But for all the worries about e-books changing the way we comprehend the written word and interact with one another, Wolf points out that “never before have we had such a democratisation of knowledge made possible.” While too much time on devices might mean problems for children and adults in places like Europe and the US, for those in developing countries, they may be a godsend, Wolf says – “the most important mechanism for giving literacy.”