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Books Have a Bright Future, Just Not Like You Expect

As the function of reading is disrupted by convenience of consumption and construction, it changes “the book.”

Editorial by Chris Rechtsteiner

This week the future of the book has been widely lamented. From the Wall Street Journal to Slate, everyone seems to think the book is doomed — or at least in for a very bumpy ride.

Chris Rechtsteiner is already looking toward the future.

Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The future of the book is actually very bright. It just won’t look anything like you expect.

To be fair, there are similarities between the past, present and future of the book. Books have always been one of the purest points of intersection between form and function. The proper form of the time (parchment to paper to pixels) has had limited to no impact on the proper function (reading) throughout its history.

We’ve seen, time and again, that form follows function.

However, right now, a debate is raging about form — and the debate is seriously misguided.

While everyone’s arguing about HTML vs. apps vs. ePub vs. KF8 (form) — the function of reading is being seriously disrupted by the convenience of SMS, Twitter, Hashtags, Facebook and a host of other new elements — and very few people are paying attention.

The function of reading is being disrupted by convenience — convenience of consumption where information or a story can be read or played back, regardless of medium, at the reader’s discretion — and the convenience of construction — where authors can leverage every single technology and vehicle imaginable to tell their story.

Let’s look at two examples that are far closer to reality than most authors and publishers care to admit. We’ll use picture books and fiction as examples, but this disruption applies to any type of book or genre.

The future of the picture book is far more to apt to look like an Instagram-laden Twitter stream than anything else. Why? Because its fast, easy, inexpensive and allows for insane amounts of creativity to come forward in an instant. This type of model allows the author to adopt the latest tools to tell the most amazing and most available stories to a global audience.

By the same token, the future of fiction is far more apt to look like an annotated chat conversation than anything else. Why? Because the conversation can be played out by the authors at their convenience and then be made available for feedback, comments, insight, etc. in near real time by their audience.

Once you stop laughing, keep reading. This makes more sense than you realize.

The real issue about books is that books aren’t just being disrupted by e-readers and tablets. The very act of reading and information consumption is being disrupted by a thousand new technologies being used millions of different ways each and every day – around the world.

These transitions are having a very real and very material impact on books (and many other mediums). To watch for the disruption of the book via a slightly modified digital form is to miss the giant, global societal shift in information consumption — and the rapid assignment of trust to voices rising up from these new platforms. (This is a really important point.)

The question of money always remains, so thinking of monetization also needs to be done in completely new ways, too. Once these stories have a life of their own, they will be beautifully rendered (packaged) as physical and digital collectors items for the true fans and spawn an untold number of derivative products that may generate even more interest. The sum of these efforts will provide the ongoing revenue stream needed for the authors (creators) to continue doing what they’re doing. The income streams won’t go away, they, too, will just look very different.

As implausible as this sounds, don’t short the ideas. Who would have ever thought sharing pictures of what you’re eating for dinner, or “checking in” when you’re buying an ice cream would have become completely acceptable parts of your daily life? Three years ago that would have been laughable. Now, you can’t walk into a restaurant or ice cream shop without seeing someone perform these actions.

While many want to lament the future of the book, it’s important to realize the future is very bright. Boooks will, however, look significantly different in the near future, and they will look very little like they ever have in the past.

Chris Rechtsteiner is the founder and chief strategist for BlueLoop Concepts, a research and advisory firm focused on helping companies establish defensible market positions for mobile / digital media. He is also the publisher of Thinking Out Loud, a weekly newsletter uncovering the top trends in digital media. You can follow him on Twitter @Rechtsteiner and read other posts on his blog. When Chris isn’t working with clients to help shape their product and customer engagement strategies, he can be found snowboarding with his two sons.

DISCUSS: Is the Future of Fiction an “Annotated Online Chat”?

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4 Comments

  1. Anthony Monturano
    Posted May 11, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Thanks for providing such an interesting and exciting perspective about the future of books. We are headed into a new world of publishing that will give authors more opportunities to be creative while at the same time providing them with so many new outlets to reach their audience. My concern is that the quality of content may suffer as writers begin to fall in love with the immediacy of the new mediums.

  2. Posted May 11, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Anthony –

    There is no question the quality of content, especially books, is going to be a paramount concern. Paul Biba @ Teleread had a great suggestion on this earlier this week – relative to an editor’s “seal of approval” so that, at a minimum, you know someone paid serious attention to the quality of the work. The piece is located here.

    While I don’t ultimately know if this idea would work, it is very well thought out, practical and, best of all, reasonable.

  3. Dan
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, I disagree. This sounds like more garbage to me and a lot more effort to dig for “real” books in an increasingly noisy environment. You’re not talking about works of fiction, but about some sort of literary happenings. I can’t really picture them as a mass option, not even as a hip trend. But who knows?… I only hope you’re wrong. :)

  4. Posted February 13, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    As this discussion expands I’ll remain like an observer at a tennis match, doing the left and right movements following each response as if you’re sitting left & right of me…..I can understand everyone’s point of view, but I’m not up to scratch with the various shapes this different ‘form’ will take. I know and enjoy ebooks. With this new discussion, I’ll bow to more knowledgeable artistic techies, which I’m not. Keep it coming as I haven’t dropped by the wayside…just yet.

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