This week, Amazon unveiled a new line of digital consumption devices under the Kindle moniker. Along the way, it may have provided us a view of the future of the book.
At some point between 7000BC and 4000BC, writing appeared and, along with it came the idea of record keeping. Clay tablets then papyrus made such records more portable but required that each record be manually created. Meanwhile, printing popped up in China in 2000BC and South America around the same time (Chinese had a system to print on wood while meso-American cultures used some kind of loom to “print” using knots). Papyrus was replaced by parchment but still required manual transfers of text, making books a rare good that generally was only available to rich (and therefore educated) people.
At some point between the 2nd and 4th century, paper replaced parchment and monasteries starting generating bigger books, with scriptoriums appearing in many places. Because of their close ties to the church, the scriptorium mostly produced religious texts. The rise of paper over parchment however, made books cheaper, which meant that their diffusion became somewhat wider.
And then it was 1440!
That year, Johan Gutenberg was inspired to combine a wine screw (used to press grapes or olives) with paper and hot type to create the first priting press. Books could now be reproduced quickly and cheaply, allowing for substantially lower costs and more widespread distribution. The rotary printing press was introduced in the 19th century, speeding things further, but apart from that the printed book one gets today is basically produced in the same fashion as it was in 1440.
In the 1930s, the paperback book appeared, making printed goods a complete mass medium. The book world then became stratified with paperback at the bottom of the pile, aimed at mass distribution, hardcovers in the middle as somewhat better produced and more durable, and collectible books, produced in small quantity and created as art objects to be appreciated by collectors.
Then came e-readers!
E-readers were initially a curiosity, offering new technology to read books but mostly without having any content on them. But in 2007 Amazon, which had already established a dominant position in selling printed matter, unveiled the Kindle, an e-reader that had access to a wider collection of new titles than any other. The company introduced a second version in 2009 and the low price of the device, combined with access to hundreds of thousands of books help fire up a new revolution for books, with readers getting more interested in the device.
Barnes & Noble, a large American book chain, introduced the Nook, a competing device that offered e-book reading in color, something Amazon did not have, as it chose e-ink, a technology that reproduces the printed page but is mostly available in black-and-white.
I think future generations will look at this year as the year the book radically changed. Already, the data seems to point to a decline in the sale of paperback books and trends seem to indicate that consumption of certain book types has moved to e-readers as the preferred form. I was recently chatting with a book seller for one of the largest publishers in the world and he remarked that thrillers and romance novels now sold more widely on e-readers than they did in print. Another person recently told me (and a quick check on the New York subway confirmed) that women are the prime users of e-readers right now, with the tablet market being more male dominated.
So if large segments of the population are moving to e-readers, what’s to become of the printed book? Is it the end of the road for something that has existed through most major technological changes? Will centuries of history go digital? Will future generations see the latest Harry Potter volume in museums, scratching their heads as to why someone would think of carrying something as heavy to read it?
What I see is something a little different. I think we’re about to see the book split down two paths and people will go down one or the other depending on how they feel about books.
Before I look at the two paths, I must highlight that there are two types of book readers:
I am not assigning judgement to either category but I wanted to create a clear distinction because it has relevance to what happens next to the book. And let me get into that now:
In the next entry, I will look at some of the impact those changes may have on society as a whole.
© Tristan Louis 1994-present Some rights reserved.