The Future of Books

Discussion
Jul 28, 2008

By Tom Ryan

Kids are reading fewer books, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not reading as much. Many are doing plenty of reading – as well as writing, debating, researching and other creative pursuits – on the internet. This shift has stirred up a debate among educational policy makers and reading experts around the world over the value of digital reading versus books.

Traditionalists, according to the Sunday New York Times, assert teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated precisely because of the hours spent on the internet and away from books. The damage has been diminished literacy, short attention spans and “destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books,” according to the Times.

On the other side, web proponents claim the internet has created a new kind of reading. This includes not only reading stories that run as long as 45 web pages, but also might include five websites, an op-ed article and a blog post or two on a daily basis. Strong readers on the web, they argue, may eventually surpass those who rely on books.

“It takes a long time to read a 400-page book,” Rand Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the internet, told the Times. “In a tenth of the time,” he said, the internet allows a reader to “cover a lot more of the topic from different points of view.”

The internet is also getting teens to write more, including stories as well as discussion blogs tackling different viewpoints online with others. Children, web evangelists argue, should be evaluated for their proficiency on the internet just as they are tested on their print reading comprehension.

Moreover, the internet beats television. While web reading proponents don’t discount the value of books, they also believe it’s unrealistic to expect all children to read classic literature for fun. Moreover, digital reading – which typically avoids the beginning, middle and end pattern of books – may help children fare better when they begin looking for digital-age jobs.

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Professor Spiro. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

But traditionalists believe the internet’s melding of words, pictures and sounds “distracts more than strengthens readers,” according to the Times. They also believe most internet time is spent playing games or sending instant messages.

“Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media,” Dana Gioia, the chairman of the N.E.A., wrote in a recent report on declining reading test scores, “they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.”

Discussion Questions: How will the digital age change the commercial viability of books? How should retailers be positioning themselves around the book category? Secondly, what, if anything, can retailers be doing to position themselves for the ongoing shift toward reading online?

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20 Comments on "The Future of Books"


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malcolm neil
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malcolm neil
13 years 9 months ago
The argument over the format of reading is often conflated with the existence of a ‘publishing industry’ as a critical component of a country’s culture. The book has been the most convenient delivery platform for ideas for the last 500 years, but the status quo is no argument for that being the case in the future. The decline of the purchase of books, like the decline of print newspapers, CDs, printed research journals et al is inevitable as people choose new formats for their leisure and research reading. Digital Publishing is affecting the book industry. The entire industry is geared to a paper product, and solutions to issues like rights maintenance, global distribution etc do not appear to being developed at pace with the development of the market. There will be some shakeout as certain business models fail as digitisation impacts on traditional sales. Readers are already choosing to use these new formats. Rather than there being an ‘iPod moment’ for the e-book, e-reading will develop to the point where e-books catch up to some… Read more »
Li McClelland
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Li McClelland
13 years 9 months ago

As a society, we are already contemplating the almost unbelievable possibility that before long there will be no print newspapers to read and spill morning coffee on. Obviously, the beautiful art and permanency of stamped letter writing is almost gone, evaporating into the world of email and texting. Many of us cannot bear the thought that hard bound books will go the same way. I certainly don’t want to see the phrase “curling up with a good book” become archaic.

Books must be encouraged for preschoolers and then throughout school years by parents, and teachers. Once book reading becomes ingrained as a habit it is hard to break. (One addiction that is good!) Most authors and editors would say that a book should be as many pages long as what they feel they want to say, takes to say. Purposely designing and marketing “shorter” books to appease people’s slight attention spans is not the way to save the industry.

Mel Kleiman
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13 years 9 months ago

I wondered where the research for this article came from. Before I responded to this post, I went to the web and look up book sales statistics for the last couple of years. Book sales are up. Publishers need to worry more about audio book sales that are up 19% compared to 2 and 3 percentage point gains in all of the other categories. As one of my children’s teachers said years ago, “I don’t care if they read comic books as long as they get in the habit of reading.” Today, both of my sons read even more then I do.

Warren Thayer
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Printed books will slowly shrink in popularity, as we shift to electronic alternatives. That in itself is not bad. No different from the shift from wind-up Victrolas (gawd, in my youth we actually had one) all the way to iPods. And we’ll be saving a lot of trees, shipping costs, etc., in the process. The other issue is whether or not computers are destroying a part of our shared culture–that kids will read fewer books. That’ll depend in good part on our lackluster school systems. But much of our culture is now online. It’s different from what we’ve known, but not necessarily any better or worse. It’s up to us to manage expectations for our kids. Computer games and IM-ing are wastes of time. Not the fault of the computer; it’s the fault of the parent or the school system for not setting standards. You could have the same argument over controlling computers and guns. In the proper hands, and handled responsibly, both are fine by me.

Joel Warady
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Joel Warady
13 years 9 months ago
It is difficult to believe that books will ever disappear. They might become shorter in length, they might have chips embedded in them that allow readers to access the Internet for further information and discussion, but books themselves are here to stay. Does that mean that digital will not work? Not necessarily. Obviously Amazon’s Kindle has made a splash in the marketplace, and Amazon claims that 7% of all new book sales from their site are digital. But I just don’t think that digital will replace bound books. That being said, retailers need to change the way that they think about books. Print on Demand technologies will allow larger retailers to “inventory” a greater selection of books, and allow a shopper to enter a store, choose a book that they want from a digital kiosk, and have the book printed, bound, and delivered at checkout…all within an hour. It won’t be surprising to see your local supermarket have an inventory of 100,000 titles. The Internet can’t replace books; at least not for next 20 –… Read more »
Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
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Pradip V. Mehta, P.E.
13 years 9 months ago

The Digital Age is not going to change commercial viability of books. It is simply an over hyped subject. In the early 80s, video conferencing was over hyped and it was said that there would be no need to travel for meetings and that the business travel industry will suffer and so on. But nothing happened.

Yes, video conferencing has its place. And so will digital books. The convenience that the conventional books offer, such as one can take a book anywhere, can mark it up, can copy certain pages, can read it on a plane as well as while laying down on a bed, etc, can not be matched by the digital media. Therefore, in my opinion, the future of books is quite sound!

Dick Seesel
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

“Digital reading” is a sea change for the publishing industry, just as digital music has helped make conventional media (CDs, for example) obsolete. This movement may take longer because there haven’t been the same advances in small, portable technology lending themselves to the written word, until recently. But it’s hard to ignore developments such as the Kindle (Amazon’s digital device) or the shrinking circulation of print newspapers and magazines to see the writing on the wall (so to speak).

The real question is whether younger consumers become less attuned to the whole idea of reading books as the technology improves. This is the question that publishers and authors need to grapple with, not the evolving technology itself.

Jeff Weitzman
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Jeff Weitzman
13 years 9 months ago

There shouldn’t be a controversy over “books.” The danger is that our kids don’t develop an appreciation for, and ability to enjoy, literature. This isn’t a technology issue. A copy of Moby Dick on the Kindle is still Moby Dick. Literature exercises the mind in ways that a “45 page web article” can’t even begin to. There are all sorts of reasons for reading, and the multi-source, multi-media, non-linear experience available with today’s technology is a huge leap forward for research, information, etc. But it isn’t literature, and it doesn’t allow kids or others to understand character development, creative expression, the beauty of language, and on and on.

Fortunately, I don’t see any danger in literature disappearing from our schools. It’s still a cornerstone of our reading education, as is writing. Someday soon we’ll be reading literature on a singe sheet of ePaper, but it will still start with “Call me Ishmael.”

George Whalin
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George Whalin
13 years 9 months ago

For many years, companies have been teaching people how to read faster, yet most read at the rate that is most comfortable for them. After all, savoring a book is part of the enjoyment and the experience. As for children, the book industry just has to make sure the books they publish are interesting. The Harry Potter books are a wonderful example of how children will devour books they find interesting.

While many of us get a great deal of our information on the Internet, we still love to read actual books. It is quite unlikely that anyone alive today will live to see the day when adults and children will not be reading books that capture their attention and hearts.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
13 years 9 months ago

Books are physical, tangible, and show the wear of loving consultation. Perhaps the marks from dried tears. A highlighter or two along with margin notes. Books can be passed along. Books can be autographed and annotated. Books have typographical individualism and appeal. Books are personal and an expression of who you are. Carry a book, and you are viewed as cerebral. Display books on a shelf and you are a sex magnet (in certain conditions when Mars aligns with Venus or something like that). Reading on a computer, well, there’s nothing sensual about that (including these remarks).

James Tenser
Guest
13 years 9 months ago
Media sage Marshall McLuhan once stated (I paraphrase here) that new forms of media do not replace old media, but merely displace them. Displaced older media, once rendered less relevant, morph from technologies into art forms. This might be said of hand typeset and leather bound books versus the mass market paperback. And it might be said of printed books in general versus books rendered in digital formats. A great example is the encyclopedia–once an investment in buckram, bookshelf space and feather-dusting, now an online search for most people. The NY Times article this weekend questioned whether the linear past-time of book reading would be replaced by the dynamic, branching, interactive experience of reading online. The answer is no, of course. Displacement is another matter, however. Digitalization and print-on-demand will keep an unlimited number of titles available in near perpetuity and permit the virtual expansion of even the smallest local library branch or book shop to a scale that dwarfs the Library of Congress. Online access to many more books and other forms of written… Read more »
Steve Bramhall
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Steve Bramhall
13 years 9 months ago

I can’t see the day when books will disappear, maybe I am getting old. It will be a sad day if it arrives. From my perspective, language skills have slipped in younger people today and there is less focus within schools on this issue. Sad times. I agree with the traditionalists on this topic. I love going to my bookstore, browsing, having a coffee and buying a book that I can read and keep on my office bookshelf. I spend a large portion of my life working online, the last thing I want to do is read a book on it.

Steve Weiss
Guest
Steve Weiss
13 years 9 months ago
Dear fogies – You must disabuse yourself of the notion that book reading is sacred and that computer piloting is a waste of time. The strategic, perceptual and social (yes!) skills of online geeks and gamers will be no less than survival attributes in the years ahead. No less an authoritative source than the Harvard Business Review has published a serious study on the symbiotic relationship between multi-player gaming and leadership. Why this is relevant to the topic at hand is that civilization has and continues to change. I’m am old-fashioned author by the way, and I have an 18 year-old son who will be attending an elite honors college in the fall. At least I hope he will be attending, for he just received his reading list for a compulsory freshman humanities course that involves reading a dozen ‘classics’ in his first semester. This is a young man who will one day, I am sure, be a terrific computer information systems specialist…and (once again speaking as an author and a humanities major) I have… Read more »
Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
13 years 9 months ago

Books won’t disappear but they do represent a less efficient means of transferring knowledge and entertainment in many areas. The iPod and its clones, CDs and DVDs allow one to enjoy a book while doing other things. I often rent a DVD/CD from Cracker Barrel to listen to on automobile trips. I often download ebooks and listen on my iPod when working in the yard. Technology has certainly made entertaining myself easier and I have not actually read a real book in the last three months even though I have bought three.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

In relation to the whole of human history, the mass possession/consumption of printed matter (books, magazines, newspapers) is a fairly recent development, having to do, of course, with the rise of universal literacy; will it ultimately turn out to be “blip,” and we return to cave paintings and Neanderthal grunts? I certainly hope not; and I don’t think so either, since–as others have pointed out–books still provide unique attributes (portability, romance, etc.) that digital doesn’t. But computers have nevertheless changed how we do things…how we look at things: the comment/complaint that “it takes a long time to read a 400pp book” might ultimately be the most telling observation here.

John Crossman
Guest
John Crossman
13 years 9 months ago

I have daughters that are 3 and 5. We have a ton of books and are just starting to use the computer regularly. While the computer will become more dominant in their lives over time, real books are a huge part of our daily routine now. You can’t really snuggle up at bed-time with a computer.

As for the future of books, I still see a market for preschool books. Having said that, the publishers should have interactive websites that children can visit with their parents.

Doron Levy
Guest
Doron Levy
13 years 9 months ago

Digital is the way to go baby! My 4 year old found my MP3 player and, surprisingly, knew how to operate it! Digibooks open up a whole new buying group as techies no longer have to put up with a 600 page bulky Harry Potter book. Everything should fit nicely in an iPhone or an HTC Diamond and I can read anytime is the feeling I get. This opens up a bunch of new possibilities for th publishing industry.

Kai Clarke
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Books are not the real concern here. It is simply the printed word. Although there may be fewer books and magazines/newspapers sold, there is larger use of the Internet and TV. A picture is often worth a thousand words, but a thousand words can be worth many different pictures to different people. We can’t write off the power of the printed word, even though the medium it is delivered on (e-books, online, etc.) is changing to reflect the capabilities of a more modern technology.

Mark Lilien
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Book purchasing is largely correlated with education. Folks who can’t easily read don’t buy books. Education can be acquired by going to school. And it also can be acquired by using the internet. Furthermore, new media don’t replace old media. The old media just adapt, as noted above. TV didn’t replace movies or radio or newspapers. Movies didn’t replace live theater. Yes, most daily newspaper profits are declining, but their profit margins are still very healthy. The owners just want monopoly margins, like they used to have.

Brian Anderson
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

New technology always opens new windows of opportunity. X and Y Gens will embrace this and continue to improve on how they lean. Leaning starts at home, so the real question is, will parents of today embrace, inspire and equip tomorrow’s knowledge workers with the tools they need, whether that’s the hard cover book or downloaded MP3s?

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