Originally posted at the Huffington Post
Slate’s technology writer Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a very interesting article about some off-base predictions of yore about our digital future. He focuses on a whopper of a Newsweek column from 1995 (which is actually titled “The Internet? Bah!“) about how the Internet would be a passing fad because, among other things, online shopping can’t replicate the experience of a salesperson, an online database can’t replace a daily newspaper, and the Internet was so jumbled he couldn’t even find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Rather than just hardy har har-ing at the article, Manjoo takes a different, and very insightful approach. He notes that the author of the article was hardly a Luddite – he was actually deep in the weeds of the early Internet. The problem with the article wasn’t that the author was dumb, the problem was that he was looking strictly at the Internet of 1995 and ignoring the potential for innovation and change.
Manjoo lays out four principles for more successful predictions about our digital future:
1. Good predictions are based on current trends
2. Don’t underestimate people’s capacity for change
3. New stuff sometimes come out of the blue
4. These days it’s best to err on the side of (technological) optimism
When people make predictions about our e-book future, I find myself mystified that some people are so dismissive of their inevitability. I see blog posts and comments around the Internet from people who look at the nascent e-book landscape and think, “Blech. Expensive grayscale Kindles in a white piece of plastic? No way e-books are going to catch on!” Some people admit that they’re going to be a part of our lives, but do so grudgingly and see them as yet another signpost that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.
Here’s the thing they ignore: e-books are only going to get better.
Move over Nostradamus, here are some predictions about our digital book future:
1. The e-book reading experience is only going to improve.
Sure – not everyone loves the current grayscale Kindles and tiny iPhone reading experience, particularly for books that are illustrated or are beautifully designed. But better devices are coming and it’s going to open up a new era of book design of unlimited possibility.
I remember that my high school English teacher told us that when William Faulkner was writing The Sound and the Fury he wished he could have published the text in different colors to denote the different perspectives, but obviously that would have been prohibitively expensive for publishers at the time. Not anymore. With the iPad and other devices coming soon, E-books are going color.
Tomorrow’s writers are going to have almost limitless ability to include beautiful color photos and art and interactivity and creative design even in the mass-est of mass market books, the ones that are currently printed on cheap paper and sold on supermarket racks and where the idea of including anything colorful or design-y besides the cover is laughable.
Think of how much a fancy illustrated book costs now and then think about how cheaply that can be done digitally. E-books may be uglier than print books now, but they’re about to get more beautiful.
2. E-readers and e-books are only going to get cheaper.
Sure, right now e-readers are out of reach for much of the population. That’s going to change. Every new technology is out of reach until it gets cheaper. Digital toys that would once have sold for $100 are now given out in McDonald’s Happy Meals. Lower prices for iPad-like devices of the future are inevitable.
And while publishers are currently taking a stand against deeply discounted e-books, the $12.99-$14.99 price point that they are fighting for is still half the cost of a $25 hardcover.
It’s soon going to be possible to buy e-books cheaply on an affordable e-reader device, and they’re going to be more colorful and interactive than most of their print counterparts.
3. Finding the books you want to read will only get easier.
One of the most common fears about the coming era is that no one will be able to find the good books in a time when anyone can just upload their novel to Amazon. It’s the Fear of the Jumble, which was also expressed in that column at Newsweek, where the author complained that (in 1995) you couldn’t even find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar on the Internet. He didn’t realize that Google and Wikipedia would come along to give you that answer in mere seconds.
Already there are sites like Goodreads and Shelfari cropping up that allow people to swap reviews and recommendations about books. People increasingly find new books through blogs, forums, and heck, hearing from an author directly. It was never really possible before for authors to reach their audience directly – now it’s a piece of cake.
Humans are really, really good at organizing things. If we can organize the billions and billions of web pages out there so that we can find what we want within a few seconds I think we can manage a few million books.
4. People are ignoring the digital trend.
I was watching a Seinfeld rerun the other day and there was a funny moment when Elaine hated a movie she was watching so much she called the video store and threatened not to rewind it. I’m going to have to explain this joke to my kids. And then I’m going to tell them about this funny thing we used to have where used to get these things called DVDs in the mail rather than having them downloaded straight to the TV (or wall or inside our eyeballs or whatever we’re watching movies on in the future).
Everything that can be digitized is being digitized because it’s cheaper and easier to send pixels around the world than physical objects. First it was music, then newspapers, then movies. Books are next in line.
5. Habits change
Yes, yes. The smell of books, reading in the bathtub, writing in the margins, a bookshelf full of books, etc. etc.
People will still have that choice and there are some books that simply can’t be replicated digitally. But when faced with a better option, consumers shift extremely quickly. Right now the benefits of e-books are a little murky except for early adopters and those that can afford the devices. But that’s just right now. Pretty soon they’re going to be better (color! design! portable! interactivity! instantaneous!) and cheaper. Readers won’t pay a premium for an inferior print product out of habit and nostalgia in great numbers.
The e-book era is going to be one of incredible innovation and unlimited opportunity, and people who don’t see e-books dominating the future of the book world are ignoring the coming innovation and creativity and affordability. I refuse to believe the skeptics and pessimists. Books are about to get better.
Laura Pauling says
E-readers don't bother me. I'm sure some day, I'll have one. I mean I did switch over to loud, obnoxious musical toys for my babies, even though I think all the blinking lights and sounds are a little much. Maybe too much stimulation. That's what I'm afraid will happen to e-books. That it will be so interactive and colorful and noisy that kids won't really be reading – just entertaining themselves.
The only thing that causes me concern, an issue that I've not read anything about, is the cost of keeping all of these e-books charged. How long does the battery keep a charge? How much more will these e-readers strain our fossil fuel resources? Yes, the cost of e-readers will drop, and maybe the cost of a book download will drop too, but these costs will just be transferred to our electric bills, trying to keep the things charged. At least books are made from trees, a renewable resource.
I wonder what will happen if the hard-drive crashes. Did I just lose my entire library?
On a positive side (since I'm a teacher by day), I do see a market, a HUGE market for e-readers in textbooks. Where I work (high school), the textbooks are getting very large; many students will not bring their books to class. E-readers would solve this problem.
Claude Forthomme says
I AGREE with you, Nathan, well said! E-books are the FUTURE…
And yes, there'll still be space for paper versions – I have a Kindle and I loooove it too, but…
BUT when I read a really GOOD book on my Kindle (and it's true, there still aren't that many available titles yet – most are the fluffy, forgettable type), then I'd like to own it in paper version. A traditional hard-cover paper book, sitting there on my shelf in concrete splendour so I can reach out to it, flip the pages and get back to the passages I liked…and KNOW that they won't disappear if my Kindle crashes!
Because that's my greatest fear: the short(?) life of my Kindle. Just like any other computer or electronic device, it can't last forever…
SO WHAT'S THE BACK-UP TO A KINDLE?
ANSWER: traditional paper!
What I would REALLY like to see is Amazon letting you buy a paper version of the title one has loaded up on one's Kindle at a REDUCED PRICE!
That would really help expand the book market, wouldn't it?
Because, bottom line, I'm convinced e-books aren't going to displace traditional books. No, they will EXPAND the market!
amelia jane says
I feel that this list leaves out one very real concern about "ownership" of e-books: the current situation with digital rights management means that e-book readers are merely renting the books rather than owning them. After all, Amazon can remove a book from your Kindle anytime it wishes (though they say they won't do that again), and "ownership" of your e-book doesn't mean you can lend it to your friend, or re-sell it on Amazon. I hope these issues are addressed before e-books reach the height of popularity predicted here, or our rights as book owners may never be the same (cue ominous music).
Anyone looking for a flying car might find this interesting:
The real thing was sold last week. It folded up its wings and sat on a trailer. I really do not think the flying car is that far away.
Or even a flying/hover/amphicar. In which you can sit quietly reading e-books while it automatically takes you home from the office, over hill, down dale, across water, and over traffic jams.
When I look back on my sixty odd years of life I think I can safely say that the future comes a lot quicker than you think, and is accelerating all the time. I seem to recall a book from my youth that discussed this: "Future Shock' by Alvin Toffler. I suspect that long before my children are old they will view paper books much as we view stone tablets (or vinyl records and turntables) – just heavy and inconvenient.
You know Nathan, I used to read your blog every day. Now though, I'm tiring of all the e-book talk. To be honest, I'm really starting to feel like you're preaching. I get it. You like e-books. A lot.
But instead of post after post of the greatness of e-books and how they'll inevitably revolutionize the world, why not spend some time discussing some possible negatives that e-books could bring to the industry and ways that publishers should address this? Not every technology is flawless. Plastic saves lives; it also fills up land-fills, etc. I would see this as a more valuable conversation that the repeated rambling. I feel like you're just trying to coerce those who are against e-books over to your side by wearing them down, and you're starting to get a little insulting, especially in your last section, "Habits change." You might keep in mind that not everyone thinks that something without a pretty digital screen is an "inferior" product.
Nathan Bransford says
I've posted plenty on possible downsides, including some less-than-rosy scenarios in the Choose Your Own E-book Adventure posts.
But look, e-books are the biggest news in publishing right now by far. Everyone is talking about it. Part of the goal of this blog is giving people publishing news. This is the news.
And while I absolutely understand that not everyone likes them or will like them or wants them, I'm not scared of e-books. I'm sorry, I'm not! Would it be better if I lied? There are plenty of people out there who are full of doom and gloom and fear when it comes to e-books. You're not going to find it here.
E-books are rocking the publishing world, and I'm not going to sit back and ignore them.
I'm ebook published and I've always had an editor.
I would never write something and send it out without editing. My crit partners go through it, then I find more stuff to fix (writing is re-writing you know) and when its time it goes through the editing process.
I agree, there are some books out there that fall into the less-than-desirable category but not all ebooks are bad.
I've read some pretty bad New York City traditional published books. I think that's true in all genres and areas of writing and creativity.
NYT bestselling author, Angela Knight started out with ebook publishers Red Sage and Changling Press. Also add authors Dakota Cassidy, Bianca D'Arc, Devyn Quinn. I write romance so I only know my genre, but still, I think I've made my point.
Give ebooks a chance. You don't have to stop reading print books. I love my print books, but there's room in my life for ebooks, too.
Tambra Kendall/Keelia Greer
Nick Travers says
Nathan, great article. I’m pleased to find a publisher with such a positive attitude to ebooks – hopefully, you will do well in the new environment. Effectively marketing books on the internet will be a great challenge, where the real money is made, and where authors will need the most help from experts – agents/publishers. I’ve teamed up with Smashwords because they are also a marketing company and can take some of this burden from me, but I still crave a publishing contract.
Ruthanne Reid says
I hope this doesn't seem like any kind of flame, because it isn't. I absolutely love your blog and read it all the time.
But I have a question.
There really is no doubt ereaders are the wave of the future, and that sickens me – but probably not for the reason you think.
It's all well and good to talk about the affordability of ebooks, but it doesn't touch the price and fragility of an ebook reader.
That price affects three significant portions of the world: 1. children (who's going to give a $200 device to a five year old?), 2. low-income families, and 3. libraries.
The libraries serve those who can't afford to buy books – and if they can't buy books, they really can't afford to buy ereaders. So far, the same people who speak of an ereader-only future are fairly consistent in saying libraries are dying out, as well. In the future, will we have to have money to read? What is someone in an underprivileged country supposed to do? All those lovely schools where they teach children in Africa to read – those are going the way of the Dodo bird?
Children can carry books outside, toss them under the bed, be rough with them while developing the habit of reading and learning, all without fear of breaking them (at least not too much). Ereaders, on the other hand? Not gonna happen. Only an idiot would give an ereader to a child until that child was old enough to be responsible with it – which means young children won't be reading. Not on their own time, not when they want to. Reading will become something only done in school, or "later" – after they've developed the habit of entertaining themselves *without* the written word.
I want these two issues addressed. I want someone to talk about the fact that we seem to be heading back toward a culture where only the wealthy and privileged can access education. Yes, I know we already have a problem with fewer books being read, with fewer children reading, but I doubt the answer lies in making books even less accessible than before.
I really hope this is something that can be dealt with before we end up with generations of people separated into the haves and have-nots of books.
Nathan Bransford says
Libraries have already embraced e-books and many are available for free. Thousands of libraries offer free downloads. Check out this post for more.
I'm absolutely not saying everything I've passed on is bad writing. Far from it. I have to pass on really good stuff all the time.
Ruthanne Reid says
Thanks for the reply – and that is FANTASTIC news about the libraries. That will be passed along.
The other issues are still up for answering, but hopefully time will find a compromise.
Daisy Harris says
I know this is an older post, but I happened upon it and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. What a great perspective! I wasn't so into movies or music so their evolution didn't rock my world, but I'm watching this e-book thing happen in real-time and it's very exciting/interesting.
And I read my iPhone Kindle app in the tub. I don't get why one wouldn't.
Nathan Bransford says
I already deleted anon's comments, we just had someone trolling.
I was actually responding to the rather patronising post that preceded that one.
I received the deleted one by email and well understand you deleting it!
Nathan Bransford says
Ah, I missed that one. Thanks.