As well as the conventional printed book (and there is little doubt that people will always be taking that old printed and bound artefact to the beach or to bed, for the foreseeable future at least), the same text may also be available in a range of alternative media. It is available on computer screen or printed to paper on the spot, as there is hardly a computer without a printer. It is read on an ebook reading devices. It can be rendered to audio via speech synthesis. And soon, it could find itself coming to life through new electronic media currently in development, such as the paper-like plastic substrates that can be read from reflected light. The result is greater and easier access to books, and new markets: the student who needs to have a chapter of a book tonight for an assignment due in tomorrow; the person who is visually impaired and wants the voice synthesised version, or another person who wants to listen to the text while driving their car; the traveller who instantly needs just one piece of information from a travel guide and for whom a small piece of text on their mobile phone, about a particular monument or the nearby restaurant, is sufficient; or the teacher who wants to use some textual material as a ‘learning object’ in an electronic learning environment. Will the definition of the book be adapted and extended, or will these become new textual forms?
The traditional book business ran on economies of scale. There was a magic number, often considered to be somewhere around the 3000 mark, that made a book viable—worth the trouble to write, print and distribute. Of course, the longer the print run, the better, at least according to the underlying logic of mass production. Costs reduced the longer the run, and access was at the cost of diversity. Mass production made for mass culture. Supporting this was a cumbersome infrastructure of slow moving inventory, large scale warehousing, expensive distribution systems and heavily stocked retail outlets—bad business in many troubling respects, and providing
Today electronic reading devices that change the economies of manufacturing scale. Variable digital print does the same thing. One thousand different books can be printed in one run, and this entails no more cost than printing one thousand copies of the same book. Small communities with niche markets now play on the same field as large communities with mass markets. Compact book printing machines can be located in schools, in libraries and in bookstores, all of which will now be able to ‘stock’ any or even every book in the world.
These developments favour small communities of interest and practice. They lower the entry point to the world of publishing. Now museums, research centres, libraries, professional
Thousands of publishers and millions of new titles need not add up to information overload. There is already more than any one person can digest, yet we manage to find ways to locate what suits our particular needs and interests. The result of expanded publishing opportunities can only be good—a more healthy democracy, a place of genuine diversity. Digital print also provides a means to cross the digital divide. If you can’t afford a computer for every person in a
So what is the book’s future, as a creature of and conduit for human invention? The digital media represent an opportunity for the book more than a threat.
For that matter, on closer examination, what’s supposed to be new in the digital media is perhaps not so new at all. Hypertext’s contribution is mechanical: it automates the information apparatuses that the printed book managed by page numbering, contents pages, indexing,