The general impression of many appears to be that the publishing industry is on the brink of changing completely. It is certainly true that we are seeing major shifts already – be it the Amazon Kindle that has given digital publishing a jump-start, or the Apple iPad that not only offers its own app, iBooks, but has also seen an increasing interest from magazines and newspapers, most recently the integration of the Guardian’s daily edition into Newsstand. Digital, it seems, is everywhere and digital is now. Yet none of the changes we are seeing today are radically new ideas or even technologies, but rather the (preliminary) end point of an evolution that has been taking place for four decades, started by the late Michael S. Hart who, in 1971, created the very first e-book, the US Declaration of Independence, which he typed himself into the University of Illinois’s mainframe, and subsequently founded the Project Gutenberg, which, to the delight of many Kindle owners, offers e-book versions of out-of-date books for free.
After forty years, we are still very much at the beginning of ebooks. The Kindle, now available in various different incarnations ranging from the traditional with keyboard to touchscreen to tablet (the latter of which is expected to be sold at a loss in order to make the device more attractive to the consumer and bind them to the platform), was launched less than four years ago – and reportedly sold out within five and a half hours. The other big player in the e-book reader market, Barnes & Noble’s nook, was launched only two years ago, while Apple’s tablet is a mere eighteen months old.
With all this sudden innovation the question that you might ask yourself is where it’s all headed. Considering that five years ago we didn’t have any of the three devices that now dominate the market, it seems foolish to make predictions and yet certain trends are starting to appear. While the traditional reading experience is dominant on the Kindle and the nook, on the iPad a different genre is starting to appear, that offers a more interactive experience. London-based Nosy Crow is one such example: they not only publish children’s books in the traditional form, but also and apps which add another dimension to the story and lets the children engage with it. Another example which Wired has hailed as “a game-changing e-book app” is Moonbot Studios’ The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which is as much a short animated movie as it is a book. If you have not checked this one out yet and you own an iPad, I highly recommend it.
The definition of what constitutes a book is blurring – yet another industry has taught us that the arrival of one form doesn’t necessarily mean the end of another: the music industry. Despite ubiquitous services such as Spotify or last.fm and, predominantly, iTunes, and their respective digital formats MP3 and MP4, the physical form still survives. We may now own or subscribe to most of our music as digital files, but artists are still publishing LPs. They are not part of the mainstream market anymore, but they have become collectors’ items. And if that teaches us anything, it’s that in a few years time we’ll probably be reading most of our books on e-readers or interacting with stories on our tablets; and we’ll have a few select books that we adore – and have maybe managed to get an author’s signature in – in the physical form we still buy today. Either way, there is no doubt that the book is, in one form or another, here to stay.
Really then, the question we need to ask ourselves isn’t where books are headed, the question is whether there will still be any bookshops five years from now – and the final, global collapse of Borders last month is certainly not a good sign.