I have recently started a publishing course and it has reminded me of some of the questions that face the publishing industry in the digital age. I don’t claim to have any of the answers either but I think that it is worth revisiting the big questions every once and a while to look at the different ways they can be answered and to remind ourselves of the discussions. One of those big questions is the future of the book. What is the future of the book? Does the print book have a place in this increasingly digital world or will we see print culture disappear?
The second question is a big question because it hits people where it hurts. The only reason we don’t hear about the second of my two questions as often as we hear about euthanasia and abortion is because, as much as it pains me to say this, not everyone reads or cares about books. Yet as we enter the age of the eBook academics and publishers alike find themselves wondering about the future of the printed book.
What are the advantages of the printed book? Let’s envision a textbook because there is little real difference between a digital or print novel and other than nostalgia no one is going to fight the future of the print book battle over a trade paperback. You, of course, are free to disagree with me but I expect a reason why not just a cri de coeur. So back to our example. Looking at an ancient history textbook. Assuming this is a recent textbook, the book will be divided into sections, well illustrated and visually appealing. If you open it at a random page, you will see a seamless integration of text and image. The text will be broken into easily readable sections about different but related events in ancient history. The images will relate to and enhance the story the text is telling. There will be explanatory footnotes on the bottom of each page. If you own the book you can take notes right on the page. If not, you can still insert stickies to mark important pages and mark passages. Print textbooks are set up to present information easily and you can jump back and forth with little trouble.
Now I haven’t really been fair in picking a textbook for my example because this is where eBooks are weakest. So instead of outlining what is currently on the market on Amazon, I’m going to juxtapose the ideal eBook based on the technology currently available as well as the industry standards currently in place. Again envision your Ancient History textbook. Now, say the reading for the week is on the Battle of Actium. You might be able to watch a clip from the movie Cleopatra enacting the famous battle or tap a photo of Augustus and be taken to a site to learn more about how Octavian earned the name Augustus. Then say you were reading along and you got to a footnote. You could tap on the footnote, the information would pop-up, and then you could dismiss it and be back reading the page. Then say you remembered something about Cleopatra in an earlier chapter. You could search for the information, jump to the relevant page, and then return to your original page. Finally, for notetaking, you could write directly on the book just like the paper version. All of these capabilities exist, they simply have yet to be packaged together. Once they are should print be obsolete? I don’t know, how much do you trust your computer?
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