The Once and Future Book

Dec 22, 2011 | Book Publishing

The Printing Revolution changed more than the way that books were produced. We can get an idea of how things will change in our immediate future by looking at how things changed back then.

When we started printing books so that every copy was exactly the same we also added features to make the book easier to use. Numbered pages came first. They made indices and tables of contents possible.

Printing books created new business possibilities. A whole supply chain developed to create books, distribute them, and sell them. There were businesses to make ink and type and design the typefaces. After printing took hold, you could make a living as a bookshop owner or an author.

So, where are we today? Two New York Times stories caught my eye last Sunday and sparked the thinking behind this post. The first was headlined, “Making Science Leap From the Page,” with this lead.

“WHEN a college textbook, “Principles of Biology,” comes out from the Nature Publishing Group in January, one place it won’t be is on the shelves of school bookstores. That’s because the book was designed to be digital-only. Students will pay not for a printed edition at a bookstore, but for permanent access on the Internet ($49).”

The same issue of the Times contained a short piece by Sean Devine who is the CEO of Coursesmart, a publisher of online textbooks. Here’s how he sees the future.

“E-textbooks save students money, and students can access them on mobile devices. We believe that e-books, e-textbooks, and e-zines are the next frontier; the market for them is blossoming. But students and faculty members will probably always have the choice of printed or e-books. While I own a Kindle and an iPad, I use them mostly for magazines and newspapers. I’m a bibliophile. Literature is art, and hard-copy books are an expression of that.”

Mr. Devine is probably right about some things and wrong about others, but neither he nor we know which is which. Historical precedent is no sure guide to specifics, either. As Mark Twain observed, history does not repeat, but it does rhyme. So, the best we can do is use history as a general guide to the way books and book publishing will change.

More and more “books” will go online and become subscriptions.

More books will include media beyond text and pictures.

The definition of a “page” will slowly change.

Authors will think more and more about what else needs to be in their book in addition to the text.

What else do you foresee?