Three possibilities for the book in the digital age:
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 little return for anyone who made books their livelihood, least of all authors.
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 associations and schools might all become publishers. They’ll be more than happy if a title sells a few hundred copies, or is perhaps provided to the world for free—options that were not previously feasible. As for quality, publishing decisions will be made by communities who feel deeply for their content interests and domain of expertise. It has never been the case that quantity, the traditional mass market measure of success, equates with quality. This equation will prove even less tenable in the future.
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 readership (a school in a developing country, for instance, or a new literature in a small, historically oral language), proximity to computers and digital print will still allow cheap printed materials to be produced locally. There is no need to buy someone else’s language and culture to fill a local knowledge gap. This could be a world where small languages and cultures flourish, and even, as machine translation improves, find that smallness does not mean isolation.
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, citation and bibliography. And as for the virtual, what more did the written word and the printed image do than refer, often with striking verisimilitude, to things that are not immediately present. Indeed, the information architecture of the book, embodying as it does thousands of years’ experience with recorded knowledge, provides a solid grounding for every adventure we might take in the new world of digital media.
These are just a few of the principal concerns of the Book Conference, The International Journal of the Book, and the Books and Publishing Book Imprint and News Blog. They provide a forum for participants in the book publishing industry, librarians, researchers and educators to discuss the book—its past, present and future. Discussions range from the reflective (history, theory and reporting on research) to the highly practical (examining technologies, business models and new practices of writing, publishing and reading).
The digital media have arrived. Let’s hold them to their promise of access, diversity and democracy. The book is dead. Long live the book!