Will the book survive?

February 16, 2011

I wrote a post on my blog 'Literacy, Families & Learning' back in 2008 about the possible death of the book (here) and concluded that it would survive. I've also considered recently the question 'Are Picture Books Dying?' (here) and have written a variety of other posts on electronic books, literacy apps and online reading.

A few weeks ago Nikki Barrowclough wrote an interesting article in the Good Weekend magazine of the Sydney Morning Herald, and framed it with the question "Can the book survive"?  This has motivated me to write on the topic again, because the question isn't simply can traditional publishing survive, or even literature for that matter. I think we need to ask a number of different questions:
  • Will literature survive? Yes! The form and delivery might change, but literature will be written and published.
  • Will paper books survive? Yes, but there will be casualties, with the most likely being some of the less adaptable publishers, libraries and bookshops.
  • Will sacred and religious books like the Bible survive in paper forms? I think so. While electronic forms will grow in use, I suspect that we will want to hold on to paper copies too.
  • Will scientific journals and reference books survive in paper form? No, I doubt it.
  • Will the way we read be changed by e-books? Yes, but we're still not sure what form the changes will take and many of us are doing research on this topic.
Two of my grandchildren enjoying reading on my iPad
The answer to the question Barrowclough posed is complex.  The book as an object will survive, but increasingly it will be in an electronic form rather than simply being a paper object. At the 8th International Conference on the Book (St Gallen, Switzerland) that I participated in during November, there were a number of sessions that considered the future of books. Amongst the presenters were representatives from three of the world's major publishers, academics, web content providers, IT specialists and librarians who collectively suggested that:
  • Scientific journals will cease to be produced in paper form within 5-10 years.
  • Increasingly, authors will publish e-books themselves, creating major problems for publishers and even bookshops.
  • Bookshops will only survive if they change to become places where lovers of books meet, chat, eat, share books (in whatever form) and purchase e-books and paper books as well as associated products. Some are already moving down this path.
  • The power of authors will increase as they realise that traditional publishing routes can be circumvented. This is happening already.
  • Libraries will survive but in different forms. They will continue to be archives for books and will still act as mediators for readers, but they will also be virtual hubs and gateways for online resources
  • Electronic libraries and virtual communities of readers will grow in importance and might well lead to more reading of 'books' not less.
  • There will be a different relationship to libraries with readers moving between virtual and 'real' sites for book exchange, discussion and advice; we already see this in universities where our students rarely visit 'real' libraries.
  • Children's literature will be much slower to move from paper to e-book formats, and may not make the transition completely. There are obvious challenges here and the book as an object has great significance for the younger reader; durability for the young toddler will also be an issue.
  • The importance of the book as an aesthetic object will remain; many of us will still want to hold, smell and stroke books, and visit great libraries like that at St Gallen (see the image below).
Some Challenges

There will be a lot of challenges as we negotiate this period of transition from paper books to far greater use of electronic books. At the moment the sales of electronic books are low in the non-scientific categories, but they will continue to rise.  What will this mean for our libraries? How do we ensure access to books for those without the resources to buy their own books online? How will we sustain libraries as 'real' communities where lovers of books dwell?

How will we ensure that as electronic forms of the book grow, that children (and adults) don't end up just 'playing' with books rather than reading them? I have already signalled in my post on e-picture books that children are easily distracted with e-picture books, and play much more with the interactive elements on electronic books than reading the text (here).

How do we make sure that the reading process isn't changed by electronic books (as it probably is) with detrimental effects for children (in particular) in comprehension, early learning and enjoyment? As well, what might be the impact on 'deep' reading of texts for adults?

How do we ensure the longevity of books? Is there a chance that the life of an electronic book might be substantially less than the paper book? Some of the world's greatest books have survived for over a thousand years; can we be confident that electronic storage will be able to match this? When I visited the medieval library of the Abbey of St Gall (St Gallen in Switzerland) in November I was amazed at the collection of 175,000 books and manuscripts some of which dated from the 7th century. Over 1,000 of their manuscripts have survived for over 1,000 years. I pondered my own inability, due to technology failings (& mould), to read old floppy disks containing the manuscript of my first book, in comparison with my ability to look at a map drawn in 650AD.

Part of the library of the Abbey of St Gall (St Gallen, Switzerland)
Some opportunities for Christian publishing

While I've voiced some concerns above, I also see great possibilities.

First, the most obvious one is that the Bible is now available free and online in many different languages and in audio forms. Readers also have the ability to increase font size at the touch of a button and translate books from one language to another.

Second, Christian books of all types will be available increasingly at cheaper prices making them more accessible.

Third, authors now have more power to publish and sell or give away their own books if they don't like what publishers do for them.  We have seen this already in Christian publishing with people like John Piper making their books available as free downloads.

Fourth, having books available electronically should increase our access to books in all their forms. Many of us marvel at how much easier it is to buy books today thanks to the Internet. Some of us (like me) have already discovered how much faster and cheaper it is to get books delivered to a reader like the iPad or the Kindle.

Fifth, there are now new opportunities to distribute the written word in association with images, sound tracks and supporting video material.

Sixth, having the Bible and biblical reference material available in digital form has changed the way many Christian scholars are able to work, mostly for the better.

Summing Up

There is no doubt that the electronic book is going to increase in popularity in the next few years.  This will cause some adjustments for readers. We need to make sure that nothing is lost in this transition and that all of the possibilities I mention above are realised. We have a great opportunity to increase access to the Bible and Christian teaching using electronic books. Rather than seeing the electronic book as a problem I have no doubt that we will embrace it and see its many possibilities. The paper book will still be important, especially for literature, children's books and sacred texts like the Bible, but the way we access books, share them and read them will continue to change.

Related resources & posts

'Can the book survive?' Nikki Barrowclough (HERE)
'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)
'Literacy and the iPad: A review of some popular apps' (HERE)
'The electronic book: The death of the book?' (HERE)
'Literacy and the iPad: A second review of children's literature apps' (HERE)
'Are picture books dying?' (HERE)

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