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In my current graduate Electronic Writing and Publishing class we have recently discussed the possible of the “end of books”. This is always an area that students get very into discussing, but almost all of them think books will “never” go away. My thoughts on this issue have been changing over time. Up until quite recently my thoughts were that the book would not end anytime soon.

I still do not think the book will disappear entirely in the near future, but the longer I have worked, studied, taught, and played in this area, the more I think new media will impact books and the place of books. Already print encyclopedias have practically vanished with CD versions and of course, Wikipedia.

It will not necessarily be the new media or users that make some of the decisions on the place of books, but publishers and others who benefit financially. Publishing a print book is expensive–even mass market paperbacks. Already publishers are cutting corners as much as they can on publishing. One of the publishing companies I read regularly for pleasure uses a cheaper ink that comes off on my hands when I am reading, especially if they are sweaty. In addition, books are expensive to fix. Errors and the such last for the lifetime of the volume, and can only be fixed with a reprinting. Now textbook publishers make money by making small adjustments to textbooks and thus requiring students to buy new textbooks each year.

But, publishers have found even better ways to make/save money. An online textbook is very cheap to produce compared to a print textbook and it can be quickly and easily updated with new information and errors can be fixed. All nice. But the real advantage for those trying to make money is access and subscriptions. One online textbook I used had a subscription. Students could only access it for a few months (6 maybe) but then their subscription was up. If they still wanted access to the textbook they had to “buy” it again. Also, the subscription was short enough that the student could sell or loan their book to another student. Thus, each student would need to buy their own textbook.

 This seems like a better financial model for textbook publishers. But this model also helped many of the students, because the e-book was cheaper and few thought they would “need” the book after the class. Sure they couldn’t resell the books, but they saved a lot more than they could have gotten it for because it was cheaper. Of coruse, textbook publishers are not the only ones releasing electronic version of books. E-versions of all types of books are becoming increasingly common. Some publishers will release parts or all of a book online before it is officially published. One series my husband reads has the book for free online–people only have to pay if they want something they can “hold in their hands”, a print version (I have no idea why this works for them financially, but it seems to). I think we will see more electronic versions of books available for sale and for (much) cheaper than the print versions. Plus e-books can be produced much faster. No printing delays or shipping delays. Once the manuscript is done it can be published and the reader could have it only hours later (maybe minutes or seconds). Imagine the impact this would have had on the last Harry Potter! We could have read it months earlier!

For financial, speed, and other reasons I am sure these e-books will be popular. Why carry one book on a plane with your laptop if you can bring your whole library? Plus, with the increases in reading quality on laptop screens and with the increasing number of screens that could display e-books (from phones, to PDA to perhaps the screen on the backs of some plane seats?) accessing e-books may already be easier (and likely quicker) for some people.

I also think context will strongly come into play. I think that the user’s contexts will strongly impact how they prefer their “books”. Sure, if one is taking a bath (and this is the strongest and most frequent argument I have heard for print books–reading them in the tub) print books are good (although they do get wet and this can ruin a book). But people today access their media in so many places and ways. One new media I think will impact print books is podcasts. If a book or short story is in podcast form the reader/user can now access the text in places where she wouldn’t read normally. I have become a recent fan of some podcasts and I access them in places I cannot read–for example running and driving. I have not reached the point where I would buy a podcast book over a print book, but partially that is because I have too many good podcasts to listen to and I am way behind on them (and they are all free). I think that the forms we can get our “texts” in will change the way we read/access/use texts. This may be a slow revolution, but I expect it will not be when I look at the younger generation. My teenage sister-in-law and nephews are all masters of switching media to fit their current contexts and desires. My sister-in-law hates reading (and she says so do all her friends, I try not to believe her). But she will access texts that are not in print form: podcasts, vodcasts, and others that show up.

I think we will become increasingly surrounded by our “texts” but I don’t think they will be all print books. I don’t think print will completely disappear anytime soon. In fact, the Internet has somehow only highly increased the use of paper and printing and books sales are still quite good. I also do not think hypertext fiction will be the end of books, for one of the very reasons Coover gives us, and as many hypertext readers have experienced, hypertext is a complex and difficult form of reading. It places a lot of mental load on the reader to choose paths and remember in ways we don’t see in most print books. It is a great art form, but I doubt it will ever gain the popularity of an easy and light bodice ripper. I love books. I love the physical sensations of reading books–he smell of a new book, the crisp feeling of paper. I will not be abandoning books soon. But I can now easily see a day, and one that may even occur in my lifetime, where books becomes something only the rich can afford and the average Joe and Jane access their texts in a variety of electronic forms.

One Response to “End of books?”

It is interesting that I stumbled across this, today. I just heard this story on NPR about the “Ology” books.

The author & publisher’s premise behind the series is that children need some sort of tactile interaction with information to truly become interested in it.

It took me a minute, as I heard the story, to realize that these are books being successfully marketed for children who have always known of the internet as it exists now.

Personally, I don’t believe books will ever be entirely replaced by electronic media. Paper books may become rare, but not eliminated.

My opinion on electronic textbooks is still a bit mixed. I think they are probably fine for more skilled students (i.e., those with already good reading comprehension skills). However, there are studies out there (my Google skills are currently not at optimal level) that demonstrate that comprehension is poorer when reading online versus reading off paper. So, I’d be concerned about the students who have poor reading skills not getting the full benefit of course material from an electronic book.

Something to say?