Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Future of Books

The blog is back, fully medicated and on the mend. I was going to make this week's You Tell Me about whether whisky or the Quil family is the best cold remedy, but this is a family blog, and besides, knowing the people who frequent this blog, whisky would win going away. (Give yourselves a round of applause!)

There's been quite a bit of angst recently about the decline of the newspaper book page and the folding of some stand-alone Book Review sections into other section of the old newspaper. Some see it as a sign of the decline of books' place in culture. On the other hand, blogs and online review sites are thriving, each year sets a new record for number of books published, and the new Harry Potter has pre-sold seven kajillion copies to a new generation of readers (and their kids too!).

So you tell me: will more people read books in the future and will there continue to be more and more books published and sold or will books lose out to competition with other media and see its cultural foothold erode?


Merry Jelinek said...

I don't think the decline of book sections in newspapers has much to do with book sales today. More and more people are getting their news online rather than in print. No, I don't think the traditional book is going away anytime soon.

I know there's been a lot of talk about ebooks taking over and the ability to carry around hundreds of titles with you - but I don't want to bring my laptop in the bath with me and I think a lot of avid readers would agree that curling up with a good book on a rainy day just wouldn't be the same on a computer screen...

Dave said...

I think that there will always be printed books, but that new electronic forms will move into the field. It's like Cable TV now. Not everyone has it and even among those, some only have basic cable. However. the big market growth will be in electronic forms of writing.
Another change that could "presage" or "predict" are the changes happened in the record industry. Vinyl went to tape and then to CD. Now, IPODS and electronic forms are taking over. You couldn't carry a turntable around, but today, you don't even have to carry a CD. There are phones that load voice, email, text, and music.
I'm expecting books to do the same with some form of reader that is easy to carry.
Newspapers are like dreadnoughts or leviathan in the ocean - hard to turn and change. Look at all the book promotion and writing already on the internet and there is more to come, much more. I suspect that some will exist only on the internet but that the best will be printed on paper.
I am not sure how an electronic library with thousands of books will come into existence. It will someday.

Scott said...

I'm a little bit worried about books. I think the move toward mega-conglomerate publishers might stifle books to a certain extand, like has happened with movies. There's a sameness to Hollywood movies that, despite new technologies, has led to a sameness and has made movies boring. The big companies go for what seems like a sure thing, which usually means they push what has worked before.

I see books moving the same way. The fall of the independent bookstore at the hands of the megastore leads to Big Brands being emphasized. It's all about the money, which is fine to a certain extent, but there has to be a book subculture to support the big names. Independent stores used to provide that subculture.

I hope books follow the lead of music (and lately, to a smaller extend, movies) and we start seeing indie labels popping up. Like music (and movies), the indie labels will provide a lot of crap, but they'll also provide the interesting, vibrant, experimental work that feeds a subculture and stirs things up.

I don't think POD and self-publishing are quite the same thing. I think we need more small houses that take chances and put out some high-quality work that just doesn't have the money appeal that the big guys demand.

If that doesn't happen more than it is now, I'm afraid books will become boring. They'll still sell, like the movies do, because there's a huge number of people who want that sameness, and they drive the industry. But Literature(tm) will suffer. This might be what's behind the demise of the book sections. When there's so much sameness, there's not much interesting to review.

See, here's the thing. It's the younger readers, especially the teens and people in their early twenties who would support the indies, more than the oldsters like me. But those are the people who have so many other things competing for their entertainment time that, unless something interesting happens in the publishing industry, they might not develop the love for reading good books and lit will be marginalized.

Scott said...

Dang. Twice I misspelled "extent" in that post. I need to go back to bed...

David said...

I think the decline in book sections is part of a larger trend in newspapers: they're dying.

Books will continue, in some form or other, just as news and opinion writing will continue. Newspapers will become increasingly irrelevant to all of those. Writing of all kinds continues to thrive -- yes, and reading, too -- but increasingly in electronic form.

On the other hand, when I make confident predictions, I usually turn out to be wrong. So I could increase my chances of being right by first making a confident prediction and then switching it around 180 degrees, but then I'd get dizzy.

Calenhíril said...

I will always rather hold a book in my hands than have to stare at a computer screen. Maybe someday they will be able to make something that doesn't have a tiny screen, and then I might turn to e-books. But until that day, I'll stick with the original portable.

Marti said...

I think books in printed form will be around for a long time, because there is something unique about holding a bound copy in your hands.

Many people are uncomfortable reading long passages on a computer monitor. A printed newspaper can be replaced with an online version because the articles are short (in comparison to a novel) but two or three hundred pages of a full-length book is too much.

There's also a permanence to a printed book. Internet content can be fleeting...even if a reader did plow through an entire novel online, if they returned to read it again in a year, (as many readers do with printed books) it might be gone.

Best wishes to be over your illness soon!

Adrienne said...

Okay so I know the whole debate about books in hand versus books on screen was several weeks ago, but someone brought it up again here and I wanted to point out something.

I am way behind in watching Battlestar Galactica, working my way through season one. For those of you who don't know, the evil Cylons can only be defeated by low tech stuff (because of course they are high tech robots). As such paper is used a lot by our heroes and they read normal bound books.

So that is my argument. Keep the bound paper books in case of a cyborg attack. End of.

David said...


That's brilliant!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Merry Jelinek. Who in their right mind would want to curl up with a computer?

Books have lots of good things going for them:

1. They don't break if you drop it

2. If it gets wet, it can still be read.

3. It's batteries won't run low.

4. A book is less likely to be stolen.

5. If you lose a book, it's no big deal.

Just my thoughts.


Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan asked a multiple part question. I suspect the answers may depend upon expanded definitions of what we traditionally think of as "reading" and "books." And while I'm thinking about it, "market," too.

The National Endowment for the Arts commissioned a study that was released in 2004, which reported that, over the past 20 years, adult reading in America has been in dramatic decline with the steepest rate of decline (28%) in the youngest group.

It was very telling that this "decline in reading correlates with increased participation in a variety of electronic media, including the Internet, video games, and portable digital devices."

Last May, R.R. Bowker (the U.S. company that assigns ISBN numbers) reported they expected "U.S. title output in 2005 [to] decrease by more than 18,000 to 172,000 new titles and editions. This is the first decline in U.S. title output since 1999, and only the 10th downturn recorded in the last 50 years. It follows the record increase of more than 19,000 new books in 2004."

So, up until 2005, reading was declining, but the number of books being published was on the increase. That appears paradoxical, but it helps point to what I mean about needing to refine our definitions.

We're in an age in which we enjoy more choices than any other generation before us. I can read a traditional book, but I can also read an e-book I download to my laptop or to a smaller, more portable e-reading device. A British company is about to make books available for download on cell phones, something the Japanese have been doing for years.

What if I listen to an audio book on tape or on my Mp3 player? Am I still reading?

E-books tend to be shorter than traditional books, but lately traditional books seem to be printing more and more anthologies. While newspapers are dying, magazines are enjoying a renaissance of sorts as niche publications spring up.

If I had to predict, I'd say that non-traditional forms of "books" will continue to proliferate, and that social networking will lead to different forms of "reading." The Annenberg Center is funding an Institute for the Future of the Book. Their goal statement says: "Starting with the assumption that the locus of intellectual discourse is shifting from printed page to networked screen, the primary goal of the Institute for the Future of the Book is to explore, understand and influence this shift."

I also think that word count will shrink to more easily accommodate all the demands we have on our time these days. That doesn't mean that 150K-word books will disappear; it just means that the tent is getting larger to accommodate less traditional readers.

As for "market," my blog for Saturday talked about Bertelsmann buying the other 50% of Bookspan. The corporate parent of Random House is building new cottages in developing countries--bookclubs are flourishing in the former Soviet bloc, India and other nations where bookstores are not to be found on every corner.

We need to think outside of the box formed by the four corners of our books.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks so much for posting all that interesting info and analysis!

Liz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maya Reynolds said...

Nathan: Thank YOU for posing interesting questions.

After I hit "send," it occurred to me that another non-traditional form of "book" is the manga, the graphic novels that are so popular today.

The new Bowker ISBN numbers for 2006 should be out in the next couple of weeks.



Jillian said...

Even Jean Luc Picard keeps real books in his quarters.

I see the potential decline of books as one of many symptoms of the dumbing down of society. But I don't see books disappearing. There are those of us (rabid bibliophiles? Angst-ridden authors?) who are propelling a love of all-things-printed into the hearts of our children, raising up another book-loving generation.

The homeschooling movement is a boon to booklovers everywhere. There are hoards of us (myself included) who choose to use "real" books instead of textbooks (which we all know aren't real) while teaching everything from history to reading to travels in outerspace. I've heard of homeschooling moms who teach exclusively from the shelves of their local libraries.

I hate libraries, so I don't do that. I buy my books new -- they smell good, feel good, and they're mine forever.

I don't believe that I'm part of a dying breed. At least, not yet.

David said...

Society is not being dumbed down. It's simply changing, as it always has. Methods of communication and entertainment keep changing, too.

Every generation looks at succeeding ones and is convinced that the world is going to the dogs. Fortunately, it never gets there.

Jillian said...

David, I strongly disagree, but won't debate the issue here.

Have you ever seen a copy of the final exam for 8th graders from the latter part of the 19th century in our country? Most college students today could not pass that exam.

David said...

Jillian, yes I have seen such exams. Very impressive. However, the body of knowledge also changes, in the sense that its geography, or boundaries, keep changing. Children are no less intelligent today; their knowledge resides in different areas.

By the way, I'm an old guy, and I've been hearing people complain about the deterioration of society and knowledge and the young (and their music! ugh!) and common courtesy for decades now. Only I know the truth: that my generation is the only really smart one.

Nathan Bransford said...


I think that's an interesting point about the changing body of knowledge. I also think that people's brains today are filled with many, many more stories (whether books, movies, TV), and thus we are an extremely savvy audience. If you go back and watch old TV shows, they were very simple and basically beat people over the head with the plot points. I don't know if something as complex and sophisticated as, say, The Wire or Lost would have been possible back then.

Of course, when it comes to books, Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake have already been written, but still, there are many great books pushing the envelope and utilizing the vast reservoir of story knowledge that we have as a culture, such as Marisha Pessl's SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS, which is brimming with references to other works and depends on reader's vast body of knowledge about stories.

David said...


Yes, indeed! For example, I've almost always found that it's a mistake to watch an old movie that I loved at the time. My wife has had the same experience.

We like to joke that the failure of those movies to match our memories of them must be what movie types are referring to when they warn us that old celluloid is deteriorating over time.

Maya Reynolds said...

I agree with David. You cannot measure today's generation by standards set a hundred years ago. Back then, retention of dates and facts was the yardstick used. There is simply not the same emphasis on regurgitating facts in today's schools.

At the same time, I understand where Jillian's coming from. I find myself appalled sometimes at the things my 14-year-old niece doesn't know about history. However, her understanding of science FAR exceeds my level of understanding at her age. She is doing the kind of chemistry I didn't study until I was in college.

No one loves her books more than I do. The last time I moved, the movers wanted to know if I owned a bookstore somewhere. However, I now read e-books on my laptop, and I'm waiting for a viable e-book reader (durable, cheap and easy to use) to come along so that I can buy one.

I just don't see this as an either/or proposition. For me, it's deciding where on the continuum of choices I'm most comfortable while at the same time allowing others the freedom to choose to occupy their space without judging or denigrating their choices.

Jennifer McK said...

There was discussion like this after the advent of television. Yet, books are still here.
Published in the ebook industry, I have to say that there are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Books will always be here IMHO. Unlike vinyl, there is no equipment required to own one except the human mind.
That's trumps.

Len said...

To the many, many interesting and provocative comments, posted so far, I'll just add my two cents.

As regards the death of the book section, it seems to me that that is simply a symptom of the overall demise of the physical newspaper. the problem that newspapers are having now is that they don't understand that their online edition is their primary one, and so they don't work at attracting advertisers as they might. It seems like The New York Times is switching its focus, and I'm sure others will follow. The question here in Atlanta is less about the death of the book section than it is about the firing of the book editor. Eventually--I think--an equivalent job will open up for the online edition.

As for the future of books themselves, I think that people tend to underestimate the book as a piece of technology itself. It's quite extraordinary and is not improved by being digitized or electrified. An e-reader is no more portable than the average book, and it loses out aesthetically and texturally. Electronic devices cannot compete with the scan of a page and never will. And Jesse's five points are well taken.

Liz said...

I also agree with David that our body of knowledge is a constantly changing entity.

Society changes. Our knowledge base changes. The way we communicate and the information we value changes. Much better than the alternative.

Dan Leo said...

Hey Nathan, welcome back, dude. What we all really want to know, are you a Bourbon, a Scotch, or an Irish whisky man?

Oh, and my two cents on the current discussion: Gore Vidal (one of my heroes by the way) was saying about forty ago that novels are going the way of poetry, i.e. becoming a minority art-form enjoyed mostly by its practitioners. Well, that hasn't quite happened yet. But damn, the competition that books face! I'm another old fart and I know damn well I spent so much more time ten years ago, twenty years ago, "reading books" than I do now. For instance, twenty years ago I would be reading Dostoyevsky right now. Instead I'm, uh, writing a comment on a blog on the internets. Oh well...

Nathan Bransford said...

Don Leo-

I'm a bourbon man myself. Also, great point about Gore Vidal.

Jillian said...

David --

"Only I know the truth: that my generation is the only really smart one."

LOL -- But of course!

And you're right -- children are no less intelligent. It's everything AROUND them that is dumbed down, and many of them, therefore, never reach their intellectual and/or creative potential. That's what I meant by the term "dumbed down."

A substantial part of that 8th grade exam had to do with basic English grammar, which has pretty much remained consistent (though not delved into at the same level). Hence, the current "body of knowledge" has changed in a negative way.

I've had members of my (now defunct) Internet community who consistently spelled "-ing" words without dropping the "e" or making the requisite change to a "y" (e.g. "makeing" "dieing"). This woman was certainly not "dumb," but her knowledge level was definitely "dumbed down."

Prior to the advent of compulsory schooling in the mid-19th century, our country's literacy rate was almost 100 percent. It has been dropping steadily ever since.

Heidi the Hick said...

I can't see books becoming obsolete anytime soon. At least I hope not. I love reading and admit that part of it is the tactile experience- holding it in my hands, the look of the cover and the feel of the paper, the weight of it, the font...everything.

a screen is great for a short attention span thing like a blog but to read a book this way is a rip off.

I can't read my own work in its entirety unless I print it out. I miss stuff on the screen. I think my brain does't really register details unless the words are on paper.

...what were we talking about???

Katherine Hyde said...

I agree with Scott that the looming problem is not the quantity of books, but the quality, the sameness. The world is shrinking and becoming more homogenized. Branding has afflicted the book industry as it has everything else. Starbucks makes good coffee and Harry Potter is a good read, but are they really worth the sacrifice of the individuality of all the independent coffee shops and quirky little novels they're edging out?

I hope the indie book publishers will indeed save us from a literary landscape full of golden arches. (For one thing, if they don't, I'll never get published!)

writtenwyrdd said...

Printed books are a thing you can hold, treasure, smell. electronic books give you eye strain and a headache (at least they do me). I don't believe books will ever go away completely. And I don't see anything that is currently able to shoulder books out of the public's favor.

David said...

Lotsa support here for printed books and their eternal, lasting, er, eternalness.

But I think you folks are missing the point. Clearly, clay tablets and cuneiform are here to stay. Love the feel of 'em! The heft! The solidity, the realness. Yeah!

No, wait, I mean scrolls! Yes! So convenient. Pens cut from reeds. What could compare? They'll be with us forever. I'm sure of it. Truly literate people will never give up their scrolls.

Determinist said...

Ah, the future of the paper book - I think that while your ebook readers like the PALM and your standard computer screen aren't the way to go (i.e. eye strain etc...) - I would like to see the next generation of ebook readers and their e-paper, which looks just like real paper.

I hate reading books on-line, I end up printing them. However, I like the idea of downloading it and reading it exactly like paper.

Of course, it doesn't feel like paper, and doesn't turn like paper and doesn't smell like paper, so many people will resist, probably myself included. However, ultimately, we'll have a show-down between e-paper and regular paper, and e-paper will eventually win. It might take decades.

Anything that saves trees, even if not exactly the same as paper, I will endorse.

Heidi the Hick said...

Quote from David:

Clearly, clay tablets and cuneiform are here to stay. Love the feel of 'em! The heft! The solidity, the realness. Yeah!

No, wait, I mean scrolls! Yes! So convenient. Pens cut from reeds. What could compare? They'll be with us forever. I'm sure of it. Truly literate people will never give up their scrolls.

Hee hee!

Still though, all of those things feel more REAL than a glowing screen. to find a nice reed to hold a pen nib...

Len said...


Clay tablets and scrolls are not really comparable to the product of Gutenberg's invention. Prior to the invention of movable type, literacy was a skill employed by a small bureaucratic class. Movable type made literacy the norm instead of the exception. It has many advantages over any electronic versions that might try to displace it: The software never becomes outdated. It's extremely durable. It provides an intimate tactile and sensual experience. It is impervious to viruses. It never needs recharging or access to electricity in any manner.

And I doubt it will disappear. Look at how quickly the CD displaced vinyl. It happened, really, in a matter of months. the same can be said for the replacement of typewriters with word processing programs. DVDs replaced videotapes in no time. Again and again, whenever a new technology truly replaces an older one, that new technology spreads like a California wildfire.

The main argument that gets made in favor of the replacement of traditional books with ebooks is that they are electrified and newfangled. there's no clear advantage to it. CDs and DVDs were sold by claiming superior fidelity and greater durability. Word processing programs promised easier editing and an ability to use different fonts and effects easily. What does the ebook have to offer other than just being new?

A screen can't compete with a page for readibility. It's more difficult to skip back to refresh your memory about something that appeared earlier in the text. You might be able to argue storage capability, but there are risks there. My wife's boss trashed a BlackBerry but dropping it in a diet root beer. Store your library on an ereader and you're out a considerable some, plus all your books. Keeping them online means obtaining server space--for a fee--and having to connect every time you wanted to skim Winnie the Pooh.

The simple book, even though it doesn't light up or play games or play mp3s, is an amazing little piece of technology and difficult to replace. Unlike clay tablets and scrolls.

Gerri said...

Welcome to the hell that is statistics. Do any of these surveys or tests or whatever take into account that we've had population shifts, immigration from places with different standards of education, population increases, classroom size increases, and so on? I see percentages. I don't see raw numbers that I can get a ratio from.

And I don't see studies about the number of readers before and after the advent of radio and then tv. Did those change? How much? Is the change in line with the amount of change that happened when the internet boom hit?

I hate statistics.

I never read book reviews in newspapers anyway. They never review the kinds of books I'm interested in reading. About the only reviews I read about books are the ones on or that happen to be for the book I'm looking at, or if someone posts something on their blog that I happen to read.

Yes, I am a voracious reader. But I make my choices by the blurbs on the covers or by author, not by what other readers say about the books.

Speaking of which...does anyone else feel that those publishers who don't put a blurb on the back and a small sample just under the cover are just shooting themselves in the food in terms of sales? I've put back way too many books because of those issues. I hate it when they only put in lines of reviews. That's nice. I'm a new reader. Entice ME. Don't tell me how good other people thought it was to the exclusion of everything else about the book.

David said...

Interesting note about clay tablets:

A lot of our knowledge of the ancient Mesopotamian world comes from clay tablets that were baked when cities were overrun and set afire. The now-ceramic tablets survived for thousands of years.

In such circumstances, paper, of course ...

More and more, I'm convincing myself that clay tablets are the way to go. Converting my current, rather long, novel in progress to that format won't be a trivial matter, I kow. And submitting a partial could be a real burden. But archeologists of the future will thank me!

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