Books Are Not Dead!
From Book Spotter’s Guide

Not for thith little black duck …

So here are some notes from a short talk I did last night for ALIA Sydney on The Future of Reading. (It is also posted here What follows are really just some random thoughts, not a deep, definitive or comprehensive prediction. It is a bit like Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses: My theory, which belongs to me, is mine.

I started by talking about the books in my own library, many of which I’ve not yet coloured in. You can view those I think highly enough of to catalogue, here on LibraryThing.

The Web & rich media
Only this week I saw the “Howl” animation on YouTube and was amazed. I’d not yet seen the entire film nor read much of Alan Ginsberg’s writings, but I will now. In these clips James Franco reads Ginsberg’s poem and it is brought to life, illuminated by his voice, Carter Burwell’s music and Eric Drooker’s brilliant animation design. I think it is a great example of using the web at its best to encourage reading. From there I think it is easy to see how the web has restored reading and writing as central activities in our culture (vice sitcoms on TV) as Clay Shirky said in the Wall Street Journal in 2010.

Yes, parts of the web are ephemeral, but so too should be a lot of printed text. Just because it is printed on paper does make our reading material more valuable.

Aggregation & Disaggregation of content
I see and use a number of things that are all positive signs for the future: aggregators and personalised reader advisories (like Zite, Huffington Post, & FlipBoard – and sometimes I wonder how long they can survive as free services), piracy (Neil Young says it is the new radio for recorded music); and we could also talk about those authors who give away online books for free online  and then sell more print books accordingly, like Cory Doctorow and Seth Godin. Then there is the wonderful Interactivity we see in Zite (an app for iPads and iPhones) which learns what you like to read via voting up and down and your ongoing selection of subject matter and creators.

Disaggregation of content comes in here too because that is how aggregators work. They select and aggregate disaggregated content. Disaggregation has already happened in music (e.g. buy a song rather than whole album on iTunes) and is happening in some publishing (buy a chapter, article etc rather than whole book or issue). Some see it as a bad thing, quoting death of the book, loss of narrative form, negative effects on literacy, etc. but it can also lead to new forms of non-linear story-telling, plus it’s also not new. The great Victorian novels like those of Dickens often were serialised. I think disaggregation is particularly important for journalism now because over the last decade we’ve become more exposed to the variety of news sources that are now available to read via the web and hardly anyone is really going to continue to be satisfied by the one subscription to a particular news publisher (IMHO).

Revenue – new streams?
I’m an optimist here too, but we might need to be patient. I don’t think we see a stable digital publishing market, particularly not for ebook lending and newspapers. As well everyone is still trying to protect and defend IP and ownership of content on a copying machine that now has global scale via outdated, unworkable and inappropriate models (e.g. Copyright law and DRM). Solutions will probably come from a range of options like micro payments, subscriptions, advertisements, application sales, premium upgrade options, renting like films, marketing associated product and memberships. Perhaps the publishing industry has a bit to learn from film and music? It does seem to be slow to react and evolve, and resistant to inevitable change

For Librarians, every year should be the National Year of Reading (NYR), we must be more active in encouraging reading, get more involved, and should not just stop what has been happening this year after 2012 comes to an end. There are many great causes that need our support like the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.  Don’t stop now!

Books are not dead & neither are bikes 
Books and bikes are both great models that will survive. Just as bikes survived the motor car and aeroplanes, books too are really good at what they do. I think those of us in the reading industry (if you can actually call it that) need to understand deeply why the model and power of the printed word (and illustration!) will survive. There’s a lot more to books and reading than just efficiency of digital storage and the ability to transport 453 books with you on the tram or on holiday. Who cares that you can carry more than 400 books in your small Crumpler bag? Do we have the same experience with all ebooks? Do they form the same lasting relationships and remind us of holiday reads? Can you decorate a whole house or even one room with your Kindle? Do they capture the same attention? I’m not so sure.

Maybe some of the future for printed books will be as art and artefacts. A colleague at UTS Library Dr Belinda Tiffen says you only have to think of illuminated manuscripts or even coffee table books as art objects rather than (or as well as) just a means to convey text. So one possible future for reading could be that a lot of ‘ephemeral’ material could become purely digital (popular novels, etc.), and printed books could become more niche or specialised editions. We are also starting to see the emergence of ebooks as conveyers of design, more interesting typography, illustration, alternative endings and even interactivity with regard to story-telling, so the game isn’t up yet. (My thanks to Belinda for a few of the ideas I’ve used here!)

The future for reading is richer for the digital age. We have even more options and the old formats like books, newspapers and magazines will have to evolve to survive. That’s all!

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