Subscribe to

New media generally don’t replace old media, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out. After TV we still have radio. After telephones we had telegrams for a good long while. So what about books? After we have networked digital books, we’ll still have and produce physical books. But will physical books be as ubiquitous and culturally important as radio? Or will they be as cherished but infrequently attended as live theater?

In my interview with Cory Doctorow, I wondered, in the midst of an overly-elaborate three-part question, whether ebooks will provide enough of what we value about physical books (pbooks) that pbooks will lose the historic significance Cory had pointed to.

We won’t know the answer until we invent the future. But, I’m going to hypothesize, predict, or stipulate (pick one) that at some point we will have ebooks (which may be distinct hardware or be software running in something other device we carry around), with paper-quality displays that are full-color and multimedia, that are fully on the Net, with software that lets us interact with the book and with other readers, that are a part of the standard outfitting of citizens, and within a physical environment that provides ubiquitous Net connectivity.

Those are a lot of assumptions, of course, and each and every one of them could be disrupted by some 17 year old at work in her parents’ basement. Nevertheless, if the future is something like that, then what of pbooks’ value will be left unreplaced by ebooks?

Readability. I’m assuming paper-quality displays, which may turn out to be unattainable without having to wheel around batteries the size of suitcases. But, even without that, the ability of ebooks to display text in various fonts and sizes should remove this advantage from pbooks.

Convenience. I am assuming that ebooks will be more convenient than pbooks: as good in sunlight as pbooks, at least as easy to hold and use, easier to use for those with certain disabilities, long enough battery life, possibly self-lit, etc. The biggest open question, I believe, is whether it will be as easy to annotate ebooks…

Annotatability. The current crop of ebooks make highlighting passages and making notes so difficult that you have to take a break from reading to do either of those things. But, that’s one big reason why the current crop of ebooks are pathetic. With a touchscreen and a usable keyboard (or handwriting recognition software), ebooks of the future should be as easy to annotate as a pbook is. And those annotations will then become more useful, since they will be searchable and sharable.

Affordability. The marginal cost of producing ebook content is tiny, which doesn’t mean prices will drop as dramatically as we might like. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a world in which ebook content costs more than pbooks.

Social flags. You probably carefully choose which book you’re going to bring with you on a job interview, and which books get moved to the shelves in your living room. We use the books we own as tribal flags, as Cory points out. Ebooks can serve the same role when introduced into social networks, including social networks explicitly built around books, such as They obviously don’t work in physical space that way; if you want to show off your books to people who visit your home, you’re going to have to get physical copies.

Aesthetic objects. Many of us love the feel and smell of books. While ebooks might be able to simulate that in some way — maybe their page displays could yellow over time — it’d still just be a simulation. While ebooks will undoubtedly develop their own aesthetics, so that we’ll call people over to see how beautiful this or that new ebook is, they can’t replace the particular aesthetics of pbooks. So, those who love pbooks will continue to cherish them.

Sentimental objects. For my bar mitzvah, some friend of my parents gave me a leatherbound copy of A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” and other poems. It was a beautiful aesthetic object, but I also understood that it had a personal meaning to the giver. I doubt that that particular copy did — I don’t think it came from his own collection — but the physicality of the book was itself a marker for the personal meaning it had for the giver. As Cory says, the books your father read — the very copies that were in his hands — probably have special meaning to you. It’s hard to see how ebooks could have the same sentimental value, except perhaps if you are reading the highlights and notes left by your father, and even then, it’s not the same.

Historic objects. Likewise, knowing that you’re looking at the very copy that was read by Thomas Jefferson gives a book an historic value that ebook content just can’t have. It’s hard to see how an author could autograph an ebook in any meaningful way.

Historical objects. As John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid have pointed out, as has Anthony Grafton, books as physical objects collect metadata that can be useful to historians, e.g., the smell of vinegar that indicates the book came from a town visited by cholera. Ebooks, however, accumulate and generate far more metadata. So, we will lose some types of metadata but gain much more…maybe more than our current norms of privacy are comfortable with.

Specialized objects. It will take somewhere between an improbably long time and forever for all collections of pbooks to be digitized. Thus, books in special collections are likely to be required well after we can take the presence of ebooks for granted.

Possessions. We are headed towards a model that grants us licenses to read books, but not outright ownership. (This is Cory’s main topic in the interview.) If we lose ownership of ebooks, then they won’t have the sentimental value, they will lose some of their economic value to readers (because we won’t be able to resell them or buy them cheaper used), and we won’t be as invested in them culturally. Whether ebooks will be ownable, and whether that will be the default of the exception, is unresolved.

Single-mindedness. Books are the exemplar in our culture of thinking. We write our best thoughts in books. We engage with the best thoughts of others by reading books. Books encourage and enable long-form thinking. Ebooks, because they are (ex hypothesis) on the Net, are distracting. They string together associated chunks and tempt us with links beyond themselves. It is easy to imagine ebooks providing the singleminded pbook experience: “Press here to remove all links.” But, of course, you could always unpress the button. Besides, since your ebook is on the Net (ex hypothesis), all that’s stopping you from jumping out of the book and into your email or Facebook is self-discipline. So, while ebooks can provide the singledminded experience of pbooks, some of us may prefer the paper version to keep the distraction of the Net at bay.

Religious objects. Some books have special meaning within some religions. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that an ebook is going to replace the Torah scrolls in synagogues. In fact, orthodox Jews can’t use electronic devices on the Sabbath, so they are certainly going to continue to buy pbooks. But, this is the very definition of a specialty market.

So, what does all this mean for the future of books? It depends.

First, are there other values of pbooks that I left off the list?

Second, I haven’t listed any unique advantages of ebooks. For example, ebooks will allow social reading: Engaging with others who are reading the book or with the traces left by those who have already it. That’s pretty important. Also, ebooks are likely to radically reduce the cost of reading, especially of some categories of overpriced pbooks (e.g., textbooks). Also, ebooks will make it much easier to understand the content of books through embedded dictionaries, search capabilities, and links to explanatory discussions. Also, as more of the corpus gets digitized, ebooks will make it far easier for scholars to pursue the footnotes (except they’ll be embedded links, not footnotes). Also, ebooks will incorporate multimedia. Also, reading ebooks will build a searchable personal corpus that is far more useful to us than bookcases filled with out conquered pbooks. Also, we’ll always have our entire library with us, ready to be read or reread, which is good news for readers.

I leave it to you to decide how this mix of values is likely to play out. What will be the social role and meaning of pbooks as we go forward into the ebook era? In twenty years — giving ourselves plenty of time to develop usable ebook readers, to digitize most of what we need, and to built an always-available network — will pbooks be used mainly by collectors, and scholars working with unique texts? Will they be sentimental objects? The poor person’s medium? Will physical books be the equivalent of AM radio, of the road company of “Cats,” of quaint objects in book museums — and/or the continuing pinnacle and embodiment of learning?v

10 Responses to “Will books survive? A scorecard…”

  1. on 22 Nov 2009 at 11:26 amJulie Gomoll

    There’s another aspect to the physicality of pbooks — being *amongst* them. Mimicking paper and making the whole ebook experience more familiar will go a long way. But what can reproduce time spent browsing shelves of books, or sitting on the steps just perusing the shelves and remembering. Sentimental, yes, but it’s a different kind than that of the meaning of a specific book.

  2. on 22 Nov 2009 at 1:18 pmWoody

    Browsability. This may get solved, but not yet. I like randomly moving through my bookshelves from time to time, finding things I suddenly feel like rereading, or things I meant to read and now I’m in the mood for. This is a tradeoff topic, because I do like browsing Amazon, seeing lists, recommendations, reviews. But I also like physical browsing.

    Lendability. One of the reasons I like keeping books I’ve read is to be able to lend them to others. I guess if everybody carried a compatible reader around with them, this is solved. But it’s a critical mass problem. It will be a while. I don’t even know, are eBooks easily transferable?

  3. on 23 Nov 2009 at 11:24 amAnn

    I third browsability. There really is nothing like spending an afternoon in a bookstore browsing the aisles or perusing your own bookshelves.

    Also, I’m an artist and I frequently have multiple books open on my work table to inspire and use as source material.

    There is something cherishable about reading a really incredible novel and holding in your hands, placing it on your bookshelf and knowing it’s there to go back to over and over. Which, I suppose you can do with a gadget; but, it doesn’t feel the same.

    And I buy a ton of books, only keep the best ones, and sell the others to a used bookstore. I would buy less if I couldn’t sell off the stuff I didn’t want.

    I’m a librarian too. I deal with technology all day and when I go home I like to relax with a good book. I really can’t picture myself using a gadget for this; but, perhaps future generations will find comfort curling up with an e-reader.

    On the other hand: the college and scholarly market seems ripe for ebook to keep control of costs and maybe save the university publishers.

  4. on 25 Nov 2009 at 11:24 amJulie Gomoll

    This points to another, related subset of problems with eReaders: there’s no difference in accessibility or importance.

    A pDictionary rests on a book stand, easily accessible. My current reads are on the bedside table and kitchen counter. My sentimental-but-seldom-read stuff is on hard-to-reach shelves. With an eReader, dictionary = current read = seldom used. My relationship with my books is affected by proximity, and it’s affected by the frequency of interaction. Can’t manage that with an eReader.

  5. on 02 Dec 2009 at 1:50 pmAB

    Our own physical experience is different when we read ebooks than when reading pbooks. There’s weight/size variation among pbooks. There’s wetting your fingers to separate pages that are stuck together.

    This might all seem trivial but physical books carry physical information and physical experiences that are lost when we use the same device for all books.

    These experiences might not drastically alter the reading experience, but personally I like the fact that it feels physically different to read Ulysses than it does to read People Magazine. Reading online or reading with an ereader homogenizes the experience.

  6. on 27 Jan 2010 at 11:56 amVera

    As for me, it is a HUGE difference between “real” book and eBook! Could you describe your feelings when you are standing behind and looking at bookshelves with a store of old books? eBooks will never make me the same tremble

  7. on 10 Feb 2010 at 11:04 amLynda Shoup

    The biggest issue I see here is the digital divide. For those on the “have” side of the divide, the cost of title acquisition will probably be less than purchasing physical books. However, for those on the “have not” side of the equation, ebooks will be yet another way in which society is moving on without them. Currently, economically limited individuals can use the library to access books, buy them in used book stores, and frequent tag sales. While it is possible, and will be increasingly so, to obtain digital books for no cost, it is neccesary to have a device to view them.

    Also, the monthly fees of internet connection for a variety of gadgets is prohibitive for those on limited incomes. So I see a continued call for the physical book as really the only realistic form of access for a significant number of people.

    If I look far enough into the future I can imagine the price of ereaders to fall, used ereaders to become more available at flea market or tag sale prices and the internet to become a more moderately priced or free commodity. Until then, I imagine there will be a significant number of people who remain firmly attached to the paper and cover sort of book as the only realistically kind accessible to them.

  8. on 22 Feb 2010 at 3:28 amRandeep Wadehra

    Much as one enjoys reading pBooks I feel the future lies with eBooks. With each passing day increasingly comfortable reading gadgets are being invented/innovated. Soon one would have only a romantic nostalgia about the rustling pages of pBooks and take to the comforts of carrying books in one’s pockets!

  9. on 10 Jun 2010 at 2:45 amAbdul R. Hamidullah

    this comment is quite late, but anyway…along the lines of Historic object and the accessibilty problem raised by Lynda Shoup, pbooks have an irreplaceable position is knowledge preservation. the further away from handwritten manuscript we get, the more vulnurable the content and the more knowledge is lost. There is something to be said about the rings of a tree and the carbon in different layers of the earth that cannot be denied. with digitization comes vulnerabilty and disputability of content. Not to mention manipulation for whatever reasons. I fear that great knowledge will be discovered and lost in the realm of digital vulnerabilty.

    ebooks have a great role to play, but to not have a pbook (witten, physical copy is to not have a witness to knowledge, creation, preservation). when pbooks are gone, human knowledge will dissapear in 1-2 generations. its inevitable

  10. on 20 Oct 2011 at 11:00 amImam

    PBooks is irreplaceble. Coz, pbook can we touch and smell not like ebook.