What Is A Book? How Will We Read Books In the Future?

Old bookshelf

I’ve been wondering recently about what is a book and what are the defining characteristics of a book? How will we read books in the future?

I’m very interested in new bleeding edge technologies and their impact on older forms of information storage, publication and dissemination like printed books.

Reading books and engaging with technology are two of biggest interests because I’ve studied Business/Computing in my undergraduate degree and Information Management in my post-graduate degree to become a qualified Librarian as well as lots of self directed learning by reading books, magazines, websites etc.

What Is A Book?

This is a question we will want to answer if we want to enable books to reflect the electronic age and not the ink-on-paper era, just as Gutenberg and his heirs fully exploited that once-new technology back when, well, the ink was still fresh.

I don’t think a precise definition is possible, certainly not one that will clearly and unambiguously delimit books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and any other print media, and also add electronicity without claiming blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, mail-lists, and website forums. Each of these are distinct entities, yet might share every salient feature with most of the others at its margins.

So let us begin with this: “A book is something you read.” And by that we will not mean something we watch or view.
– excerpt from Future of The Book: What is a book?

How Will We Read Books In the Future?

What I did was compare the experience of reading 1 book “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” by Arthur Conan Doyle in four different ways:

My conclusion: I love printed books but the inevitable momentum is for books to be read electronically in the future. Printed books may still exist for die-hard “dead tree book fans” but the mass market will be reading electronically. Just like the switch from film to digital photography, the change may only take a few years to take place.

If i had to make a choice I’d say no current technology will win but the dominant method of reading books will be a new device that mixes the best characteristics of touchscreen smartphones and larger dedicated ebook readers

Paper Book

paper book page

Pros

  • Doesn’t need batteries
  • Quite flexible and can often be read in bright or low quality light
  • Can last decades or centuries if made from quality paper & taken care of it
  • Each individual book is light, portable & cheap
  • You own the book copy you buy and can resell it or give it away
  • Relatively robust and not damaged much if it gets rained on or dropped

Cons

  • Requires resource intensive process to create it: trees chopped down, milled, made into paper, printed, transported, warehoused
  • Each book you buy requires more physical room
  • Holds information as at a point in time, cant be updated
  • Can’t be searched like an ebook
  • Highlighting, writing notes on pages and folding pages is destructive and permanently changes the book.

Touchscreen Smartphone (as Book Reader)

Book read on smartphone

Pros

  • Convergent device that more people are likely to carry in their pocket/handbag as they become used by more people
  • Can be searched as well as virtually highlighted and annotated without damaging the original book
  • Allows hyperlinking words/phrases to other books, dictionary definitions etc
  • Colour screen to view photos/images etc in full fidelity
  • Access via mobile/WiFI networks to a virtual library of potentially millions of books through means like the Amazon.com ebook market (paid books) or free out of copyright books via Open Library / Google Books for mobiles
  • Touchscreen is an easy way to “flip pages”

Cons

  • Small screen size (currently around 3-4 inches) and may not be easy to read in bright/low light
  • Limited battery life
  • Reading books via a network requires reliable network access!
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) on a paid book may stop you reselling it or giving it away after reading it.
  • The specific book you may want to read may not be available electronically

Dedicated E-Book Reader

Book read on ebook reader

Pros

  • Is designed solely to read books, so in theory it should be a pleasant experience
  • Current ebook readers use “E-Ink” technology which requires no front or backlight, is viewable under a wide range of lighting conditions, including direct sunlight
  • Requires no power to maintain an image – the model I had on loan said it could be used to read 300 pages/day for a month without needing a recharge
  • Can support reading books in many languages
  • Store many books via expandable memory card storage eg: SDHC

Cons

  • Greyscale screen – so photos and images cannot be viewed properly.
  • May be crippled by Digital Rights Management (DRM)
  • A small ebook reader with 6 inch screen is too small, but a larger screen eg: 10 inch means more weight and space in your luggage/backpack/briefcase
  • Because its a dedicated single use device you also have to carry around a phone and or laptop computer as well as an ebook reader
  • Have to pay for the ebook reader and then more $ for each book. Even if ebooks are cheap it may take a few years for the TCO (total cost of ownership) to be worth it
  • All the books you want to read may not be available for your e-book platform
  • What happens if the company you bought your ebook reader from goes bust?

Netbook/Laptop Computer (as Book Reader)

Book read on notebook/laptop computer

I gave up on this option really quickly. Notebook computers are too uncomfortable to read books with for any extended period. They have to be on a flat surface, have battery life of only a few hours, get hot if you put them on your lap, you cant lie down and read them etc etc.

Printed Book Will Give Way To Networked Electronic Book


For several hundred years, humans have used print – the book and its various page-based cousins – to move ideas across time and space. Radio, cinema and television emerged in the last century and now, with the advent of computers, we are combining media to forge new forms of expression.

For now, we use the word “book” broadly, even metaphorically, to talk about what has come before – and what might come next.

One major consequence of the shift to digital is the addition of graphical, audio, and video elements to the written word. More profound, however, is the book’s reinvention in a networked environment.

Unlike the printed book, the networked book is not bound by time or space. It is an evolving entity within an ecology of readers, authors and texts. Unlike the printed book, the networked book is never finished: it is always a work in progress.

– Excerpt from Future of The Book: Mission

My conclusion: I love printed books but the inevitable momentum is for books to be read electronically in the future. Printed books may still exist for die-hard “dead tree book fans” but the mass market will be reading electronically. Just like the switch from film to digital photography, the change may only take a few years to take place.

If i had to make a choice I’d say no current technology will win but the dominant method of reading books will be a new device that mixes the best characteristics of touchscreen smartphones and larger dedicated ebook readers

19 thoughts on “What Is A Book? How Will We Read Books In the Future?”

  1. It seems like e-books are the incredibly popular, but I have to say that I still love curling up with an old paperback. Will that ever go away?

  2. Hi Neerav

    I enjoyed reading your blog entry.

    I thought a couple of your cons for print could also be pros:

    Holds information as at a point in time, cant be updated – usually means that a discussion centers around the same story even if the interpretation is different…

    Highlighting, writing notes on pages and folding pages is destructive and permanently changes the book – for some this may be their form of personalising “customisation”

    Question: do the touchscreen smartphone or the dedicated e-book reader set off alarms (e.g. airports) or have to be turned off for take-off and landing?

    How about creating a “non-paper”, “non-electronic” book – best features of all …..?

    Therefore PROS from all current options:

    • Doesn’t need batteries or any power source to read
    • Quite flexible and can often be read in all light (doesn’t need a light therefore don’t disturb your companion)
    • Can last decades or centuries if made from quality ?? & taken care of – maybe it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t last decades in that format if there are others that can preserve it for “posterity”
    • Each individual book is light, portable & cheap and doesn’t take up much room
    • You own the copy you buy and can resell it or give it away or compost/recycle it
    • Relatively robust and not damaged much if it gets rained on or dropped, not able to be burnt
    • Doesn’t become obsolete quickly or get overtaken by version

    EDITOR: Thanks for your detailed comment Janet 🙂

    1. The touchscreen smartphone / dedicated e-book reader dont set off any alarms at customs to the best of my knowledge. Regarding use on a plane most new devices have a “flight” mode whereby all wireless/radio functionality is shut for the duration of air travel.

    2. Future innovation may well create a device thats the same size and thickness of a piece of A4 paper – with inbuilt storage and processing power

  3. Whenever I read about Kindle or other e-book readers, it reminds me of Hari Seldon’s journey through different sectors of trantor to find Earth (Isaac Asimov’s foundation series).

    I am a big fan of e-books and for years the only software I used on windows was Microsoft’s e-book reader. I am sure smartphone based readers and dedicated readers are the future. I do like buying books and arranging them in my shelf. But I did that with audio cassettes 15 years ago and don’t have any right now.

  4. Interesting I chose to read this today, shortly after I found Sherlock Holmes series on sale by BeamItDown for the iphone!

    I have downloaded a number of ebooks before and never passed chapter one when trying to read on either my mac laptop or desktop. From that, I was always fervent in my opinion that ereading would never take off. Part of my reasoning was that, while we read a great deal on our computer screen, we seldom do so intensely. We predominantly skim through articles or edit pieces and, while this is a great skill, it isn’t the same as relaxing reading or reading to gain in-depth knowledge. (The experience of reading the Sunday paper in bed clearly isn’t quite the same when online).

    I started to change my opinion last year when I challenged myself to mark a hundred student assignments online. While I have difficulty reading a Word document in detail on screen, given a purpose-built tool (a program called GradeMark) I found reading, annotating etc easier than with pen and paper.

    Following this, I was more open to trying out an ereader ap on my iphone. I am now a huge fan of BeamItDown, which differs from many ereaders as the text scrolls like an autocue. You can also change the font size, and the default looks a lot larger than that shown on the purpose built devices you show here.

    Traditional books have their advantages, but I am realising ebooks also have many I hadn’t thought of before. However, one of the main ones for me is that I don’t have to carry a book around when I can use my iphone. Of course, this is negated when you use a separate device for the purpose.

    I doubt traditional books will be completely replaced, but after a very slow uptake, I now think ebook will ultimately be very popular.

  5. This is a great little overview of the future of books. I think e-books will take off, & that it will offer more opportunties for self publishing, which may have an impact on the current publishing industry for savvy self-marketers. I don’t have an ebook reader now (like a lot of people I do love holding a paper book in my hands) but can see that I will probably look at getting some sort of device in the next 12-18 months.

  6. Hi Neerav, nice article. Something that has slowed the adoption of ereaders over paper books is that each paper copy is a physical artifact. A book is more than the text. A book has an individual identity which enhances the experience of the person reading it. I know people who re-read particular copies of, for example, Lord of the Rings, because the physical book enhances the reading experience. The texture of the paper, the smell of it, the quality of the binding and cover design, even the recollection of previous readings, why particular page corners had been turned over – in short, a physical book has a provenance which can enhance the reader’s experience. Of course there are some books that work well as e-books, possibly because they wouldn’t have a very long life as physical books, like text-books that get new editions every couple of years.

  7. Great article, very informative. The internet will always win against non-software based products now, if it is possible to reach the same goal. I am unsure about my feelings towards EBR, it is before my time – which shows how much of an impact the internet has had over the last 20 or so years.

  8. I just read this very interesting article :

    The age of the printed book is drawing to a close. But there’s no need to mourn its passing, says Jürgen Neffe

    In the shadows of the global financial crisis of the early 21st century, another revolution is gathering pace, whose repercussions reach far beyond the current correctable economic buckling. It impact on the world will compare with Gutenberg’s. And with it, the era of the printed book will come to a close. Dissolved digitally like sound and image beforehand, limitlessly copyable, globally downloadable by the million with the click of a mouse, the book is entering the world of multimedia like its disembodied cousins from film, photography and music. This is the disintegration of the oldest serially produced data carrier in terms of form and content.

    continue reading “The Disembodied Book

  9. Very well researched. I don’t think paper books will go as fast as you think. They are very cheap and easy to replace, making them, well, easy/simple. People still like simple.

  10. I’m currently using the Kogan netbook (like you have) for e-reading and it’s working well for me. Use Adobe PDF reader and rotate the screen 90 degs and also make it full screen and use the arrow up and down keys to change pages, or use the left and right buttons on the touchpad, or the touchpad itself to change pages.

    Quite nice. Been using it on trains, busses (while standing)and in bed too. Try that and let me know what you think. The only issue is the heat factor.

  11. I think of how sad our society is getting when it comes to reading books and then I think of myself and realize that I haven’t read more than 3 books fully in the past year. How sad is that?

  12. I’ve recently bought a book on Mobipocket because thats the only way to read it But I prefer reading paper books. Its just not as comfortable to curl up with a laptop.

  13. I really like the new ways of reading books, but I think that old-fashioned paper will never disappear and I wouldn’t like that to happen. The feel of reading book written on paper and staring at a screen can not be compared – the first it a lot better because it’s personal and it’s a lot easier to read from paper. Technology is good, but some things should not change, at least not for now.

  14. I love books, real books. They can be works of art in and of themselves, but my lifestyle means I have to have an eReader. I travel and live in too many places. Lugging around books on planes is miserable and moving my library every few months it just not practical. The eReaders have made life and traveling so much easier.

    However I think there will always be books, because there will always be people like me and Jean-Luc Picard.

  15. I haven’t tried ebooks yet. My wife and I have a massive library and i am not sure that the books we read are available in ebook form. Mostly we read history, biography and travel books. many may not have a wide appeal so I am not sure if they would even be considered for ebook format. I agree with the comment above though, books are heavy and difficult to lug around.

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