By Bob Pritchett, CEO of Faithlife Corporation
Four thousand years ago the Epic of Gilgamesh was recorded on tablets. A scribe held a small tablet in his hand while using a wooden stylus to impress marks into the clay.
Today, after papyrus and scrolls, vellum and codices, moveable type and the paperback novel, we are again reading the Epic of Gilgamesh on small tablets in hand. (And the tablets are still full of silicon!)
Some things never change: A hand-held tablet is a pretty convenient form for reading. An epic story is timeless in its appeal. But the process of getting the words to the tablet in the reader’s hand — and what can happen once they are there — is undergoing the most significant change in millennia
The words in the book can now be delivered independent of any physical object, and they can be endlessly copied at no cost. We’re still sorting through the implications — and the opportunities:
1. Form and genre are no longer connected. It used to be that the length of a text implied a particular genre: short articles, long books, etc. Today there’s an outlet for every length of text, and the association of certain topics with certain appropriate lengths is gone. Some topics that formerly would demand a book-length treatment are being delivered as a series of slides; others are written in public on a blog over the course of several years.
2. Books can integrate commerce. A book on kitchen knives sent me to Amazon to purchase the author’s favorite, but a smarter e-book could have facilitated, or even bundled, that purchase.
3. Every book is a reference book. While publishers are waking up to the importance of book-level metadata for discovery, in-book metadata is in its infancy. Properly tagged e-books make every book a reference book. While this might facilitate micro-payments for portions of books, smart publishers are going the other way and aggregating dozens or even hundreds of books into higher-priced reference libraries for people who will never read them all.
4. Variable length books. Not everyone wants all the details. (What reader didn’t fantasize about a fast-forward button to skip the Catalog of Whales in Moby Dick? What business book wouldn’t be served by an integrated abstraction you could choose to use or ignore, chapter by chapter? What if I only want the highlights of the 900 page Roosevelt biography?) No longer does the author have to choose how comprehensively a subject is covered; depth-of-treatment sliders, optional sidebars, and expand-in-place paragraphs can let a book adapt to the reader.
5. Books that keep changing.Wikipedia, and the occasional breaking news story, provide an under-exploited model: books that grow to reflect new information or reader feedback. Better user interface can serve both the new reader and the watcher who is looking for fresh updates.
6. In-place reading communities.There are many digital equivalents of the venerated book club, but few publishers have tightly connected the text and the community. It’s great that your book is being discussed online, but why isn’t it being discussed in the book?
7. Selling relationships with authors. Musicians, who have been feeling the changes of friction-free copies longer than writers, are finding that touring, merchandise, and special relationships can make up the lost revenue from selling physical copies of their work. Authors can take advantage of new delivery mechanisms to easily bundle disparate services, and even relationships. A book might teach you how to write a business plan, and even offer digital blanks to fill in along the way. At the end you could have the option of having the author critique your plan, or even consult over a video call, for an extra charge.
The earliest written tablets delivered words to instruct, to inspire, and as tools of commerce. Our tablet-delivered books do the same today. But today’s tablets don’t share the physical and logistical constraints of baked clay. It’s time to take better advantage of this freedom.
Bob Pritchett is the co-founder and CEO of Faithlife, where they have been pioneering new ideas in e-books since 1991. Faithlife’s Logos Bible Software is used by millions around the world; the free Faithlife Study Bible app exploits all seven of these ideas.