[Editor’s note: Andrew P. Mayer’s comments, although timely sent, were delayed in the email ether. We’ve added them in this updated article.]
The Book has come a long way from ancient carvings in clay and papyrus scrolls. The current eBook trend mirrors the launch in 1939 of affordable paperback books, which transformed publishing and our relationship with reading. Almost a century later, can the Book survive competition for our attention (and our money) from film, television, Internet, and other media? Here’s what Dragon*Con authors predict about what may change and what will endure as the Book evolves into the Future Book.
Daily Dragon (DD): Can the Book survive competition from other media?
Philippa Jane Ballantine (PJB): I’ve been doing the convention circuit this year, and I’ve been delighted to see lots and lots of impassioned readers in a variety of genre. A book offers a particular experience to its consumer that no other media does—allowing the reader to build in their own mind the whole landscape of the story.
E.C. Myers (ECM): Books have coexisted with film, television, the internet, video games, etc., for decades. I really don’t think that books, whether print or electronic, are going anywhere because there will always be a need for stories and books provide them in their purest form. Every media format offers different kinds of story experiences, but books are unique because they rely heavily on the imaginations of readers to complete the stories. That said, I think it’s important for a variety of reasons to make reading a daily activity with your children to instill a familiarity with books and words and hopefully cultivate a love for reading.
Les Johnson (LJ): People predicted that television would be the end of reading and books—they were wrong. There will always be people who like to read. How they read will change, and we are seeing the continued evolution of the book happening at an accelerated rate right before our eyes. I believe paper books will continue to be popular until the current generations raised on reading them have passed away. Electronic books are slowing growing in popularity and market share. I predict they will one day mostly, but certainly not completely, replace the traditional printed-on-paper book.
Sam Sykes (SS): Considering that nearly every film, TV series, and even a few games have been adaptations of books, I’d say we’re probably not doing too bad.
Michael Z. Williamson (MZW): While I expect the format of books to change, I expect them to stay with us. Radio and film didn’t end live theater. There is more theater now than a century ago. Nor did VCRs and later DVDs end movie theaters. They simply allowed more options for viewing and for artists to present their work.
Andrew P. Mayer (APM): Absolutely. With the internet mire, people are reading more now than ever before. As long as we remain in a print-saturated world the concept of the book will not only grow, but thrive.
While other media (such as comics and television) still struggles to find its place in the new digital landscape, the book has already proven that it is a viable digital format with staying power.
DD: Does the growth of eBooks, interactive novels, web novels/wovels, electronic choose-your-own-adventures, audio/eBook combos and other enhanced editions signal that the Book is more popular than ever?
PJB: I think the book is actually reaching more people. Particularly the rise of the eBook is making it easier and easier for consumers to get instant access to what they want, when they want it.
ECM: Perhaps not more popular but certainly as popular as ever. Some of these seem like gimmicks to encourage or trick people into reading. “Look! Reading can be fun!” But this may only be attractive to people who haven’t already developed a love for books in and of themselves. Books are fun. So I think new methods of book delivery and kinds of story experiences are valuable for getting reluctant readers to read something, anything. Everyone can find something they will enjoy if they are open to it, and many of them will embrace reading in their lives.
LJ: Yes! The scientific publishing world has already mostly gone electronic, with many journals now only being published online. Filled with hyperlinked references to other technical papers, the knowledge web is growing rapidly. Audio books, eBooks and shared universe/fan fiction is only growing the base of interested readers. The challenge is trying to figure out how to protect intellectual property while at the same time embracing widespread and mostly open distribution of books.
SS: Anyone in the publishing industry is at least a little bit of an author, and every author is always more than a little worried about anything at any given time: the apocalypse, low-sodium diets, and particularly the state of the publishing industry. The eBook might have thrown things for a loop, but when all is said and done and the ashes are either from paper or eInk, people will still want to read stories and the author will always provide.
MZW: Audio, also, is making huge strides. I would like to see audio books done with multiple actors and sound effects to heighten the experience. Then there’s the possibility of further expansion of interactive stories with various outcomes, depending on what the reader chooses at crux points. Both this and audio are likely to blur the lines between old fashioned books and games/video. I think it is well worth embracing.
APM: To my mind, these are actually changes in the business model and not the book itself. Since books are small pieces of media in a world of big data, there needs to be ways that make them feel “richer,” so that people will pay for the book itself, and that there is value in purchasing over simply downloading.
DD: What do you predict may change as the Book evolves into the Future Book?
PJB: I think a lot of the traditional ways of selling books will alter under pressure from the eBook evolution. Things like publication regions will start to mean less and less as people worldwide demand access to books they want now.
ECM: Maybe this isn’t a prediction so much as a hope, but I think that just as DVDs and Blu-Rays are now offering digital copies for download for portable viewing, print books may start offering eBook editions with each purchase. So you’ve just bought the hardcover of the latest J.K. Rowling novel, and you can also access an electronic copy for your eReader. You can read the eBook on the train on the way to work, but you might want to curl up with the print copy at home. And I do think that eventually, DRM will go away.
LJ: With ePublishing, everyone can be an author. The problem with this model is that not everyone can write something worth reading. How do you discern the good from the bad? Will we tolerate a good story from a good writer who self-publishes and is therefore not carefully edited? (And all writers need good editors!) This will also allow the breaking through of new talent that might otherwise never see print under the traditional model. There will be risks and great potential benefits.
APM: I think we’ll see changes in format and the inclusion of more images/illustration. I’m dubious about adding too much rich media to text. Books (as opposed to the web) are defined by the fact that they are complete experience, unsurrounded by distracting elements (advertising, video, links, etc.) that take attention away from an uninterrupted reading experience.
DD: What do you predict will endure as the Book evolves into the Future Book?
PJB: I do think there will always be a place for the paper book. Despite everything, there will always be those consumers who want the satisfaction of owning a physical book. I imagine there will be a market in small, high-quality print runs to satisfy the demands of those collectors.
ECM: Amidst all the talk of independent publishing and eBooks as the death knell of publishing, I think that at its core, we will always need publishers, editors, copyeditors, proofreaders, and agents. The very foundation of publishing as we know it will continue to exist, but delivery methods, payment structures, workflows, etc., will have to evolve. They were predicting that network and cable television were dead only a decade ago, and publishing is finding itself in a similar situation. We still have cable TV, but we also have digital delivery systems. It’s all about adapting, giving consumers what they want for a fair price, and finding a new equilibrium.
LJ: Readers demanding good writing will endure. Non-fiction writing that is clearly written, concise, and accurate. Fiction writing that appeals to our human nature, frailties, and strengths in engaging and thoughtful ways. Stories that take us elsewhere and make us believe we are actually there will endure and prosper in the future as they do today.
SS: The Book, as it were, is not going anywhere. Because the Book, as it is, has never gone anywhere. It’s the same as it was when it was a story passed from withered lips to young ears. It’s the same as it was when someone chiseled a sex scene onto the wall of the pharaoh’s tomb. It’s the same as it was when a bunch of tight-assed, high-collared Victorian ladies wrote about how awesome it is to see dudes wearing top hats and codpieces. And it’s the same as it will be when we’re all downloading Fists of the Vampire Love Affair II: Buttpunchers in the Night directly into our brains.
MZW: As far as books are concerned, collectors will continue to want hard covers. I expect that ePublishing will lead to a drop in the number of mass market paperbacks printed. At the same time, with less distribution costs and no returns of unsold copies, this may be beneficial to readers, publishers, and authors. More of this will happen online, but it’s entirely possible bookstores will remain simply because people enjoy getting hands on books and being able to move from title to title in a given genre or field by eye. The experience of browsing down a bookstore aisle and seeing what jumps out at one isn’t readily matched online. The stores will likely be smaller, with kiosks for samples and downloads, and of course, online sales will continue to grow.
APM: I’ve pretty much encapsulated it above, but people will turn to books for richer, deeper experiences, even as books themselves get smaller. I’m guessing 10K-20K is going to be the key “unit” of fiction within the next decade.
DD: How will the Future Book make reading and the stories and information books contain more accessible to all in the future?
ECM: I don’t think the Future Book is going to accomplish anything like that. Making information universally accessible, for free or not, requires deeper, fundamental changes in society primarily on an economic level. Many people don’t have access to computers, let alone free Wi-Fi or eReaders. Even as libraries and schools continue to suffer budget cuts that take books away from the public, and physical bookstores dwindle, there are still many families who don’t own a single book and have no way of getting one. We need to get books, print or otherwise, to the people who can benefit from them–especially to kids–and that requires a massive investment in resources that no one seems willing to commit.
APM: Smaller, more well-defined chunks of purchasable text. I also think that the way media is sold will be packaged differently than just the idea of a “book” as a large chunk.
I look to the success of Wool and other collections that are more spaced out and “bite-sized” to pave the way for novels that aren’t one hundred thousand words or more.
PJB: As a former librarian, there are still questions of equitable access for all and format issues that are pretty concerning. As long as everyone has access to the technology by which everyone accesses the future book, all will be rosy. I hope once the price point of eReaders becomes ridiculously low, everyone will have a chance to reach that wealth of information. However, by having the Future Book a seamless part of the public’s reading choices (imagine a family’s library as accessible and easy to access as, say, Netflix) it will assure the place of the written words into the future.
DD: Many thanks to editors Toni Weisskopf (Baen Books) and Lou Anders (Pyr) for their aid in wrangling authors for this discussion.
Two issues (of many) remain to be pondered regarding the Future Book. First, both Weisskopf and Anders frequently praise artists for their amazing cover art provided for speculative fiction. Will the Future Book continue and fortify artistic enhancements? (Is it time to wrangle artists for a discussion of Future Art?) Second, does the concept of the Future Book embrace accessibility to disadvantaged readers with reading or other learning disabilities? Read about Baen Books Read Assist program in the Daily Dragon as an example of how fans can make a difference.