The future of books



Paul Wallis, Sydney Media Jam CO2The subject of the future of books keeps coming up. E-books, whatever media, the inevitable move to rethinking the whole idea of a book would happen anyway. It’s a bit like saying “nothing will ever replace stone tablets”.

This subject came to mind as a result of reading the saga of the demise of Gould’s Books, a big Sydney book shop where I’ve been going for decades. I met Bob Gould a few times in a “G’day” sort of way, never got to know him. He was a passionate believe in the classic “educate the masses” ideals, and he did just that, for all those years.

How books created the future

In fact, whether anyone likes it or not, that was how modern ideas spread.  From pamphlets to the Rights of Man wasn’t that much of a step, at least physically. Mentally, it was a gigantic leap. The tidal surges of progressive writing for the last 400 years or so are indicative. From serfdom to well, a complete social elsewhere, in fact.

Books have written as much real history as their writers. In China, the rise of books gave birth to the scholar class which was to dominate ancient and even modern China. China without its literature would have been impossible. In Europe, Gutenberg lit the fire which never went out. In the original Islamic world, modern science found its origins in book learned disciplines, which then spread around the world.

Paul Wallis books, sydney media jam

Fear of creativity is the sure sign that you should be a publisher. Read this, and you’ll never need homicidal maniacs again.

The early days of modern publishing are probably as good a guide to the future as anything. What is a book? It’s a collection of information. Fact or fiction, it’s a “containerized” piece of information. That’s the working issue, and the one that has to be solved.

A less obvious question, very much related to the future of books – Who reads books? Obviously, not the Western middle class. The Dumbass R Us motif in the US doesn’t apply worldwide, where idiots are still considered liabilities, but the image of the smug, useless, executive moron will do as a demographic for this form of illiteracy.

These are also the awestruck users of media technologies which they usually don’t understand. It wouldn’t matter if they did read, they’d learn just as little as they do from their tedious little gizmos. They’ll then replace the gizmos with more advanced machines they understand even less. Learning? Never happens. These people aren’t relevant to anything, let alone the future of human knowledge and expression.

The future of books, not too surprisingly, is in the hands of people who do read. This is a much more demanding market. It’s fussy, it’s picky, and worse, it’s pretty well-informed. Exactly the sort of market modern marketing apparently doesn’t know how to reach.

To explain, this is what people really get out of books:

  • A book plugs you in to your own thinking, as well as that of the writer, that unavoidable nuisance.
  • Books encourage visualisation, a skill very lacking in most modern saturation media.
  • Books permit abstraction, association, projection, evaluation, assessment, and all the other things that force-fed media consumption prevent.
  • Books are for people who NEED that added head space to develop their own thinking, particularly younger readers who MUST develop those synapses, or become the usual vegetables.
  • Without books you couldn’t have professionals, trades, merchants, culture, civilisation, or the skills to run a civilisation, as we are now seeing with arguably the most illiterate people in history running the world/sewer. Books are your personal, preferred, one stop references for different forms of knowledge, remember? Without them, you really do have nothing.

The new market for books

Now, back to the readers. These people ARE tech-savvy, usually, to some degree. They may or may not like a glitchy, dumb, gizmo, however expensive. They’ll decide if tech can replace their books or not.

You’ll be surprised, maybe, to learn that these readers are also pretty omnivorous in their mental diets. The medium ISN’T the message to them. It’s a tool, which is what any technology really is, and does. They’ll be pretty flexible about what’s acceptable as personal media, but they’ll up the ante on performance and quality considerably in the process.

That level of knowledge may well be what saves books as entities. Note the use of entities, as opposed to objects or technological fads. A book isn’t just a collection of pages with information on it. It’s a mindset, a standalone idea collection, not just pieces of paper stuck together in a marketing format.

I’m a writer. I’m not too impressed with a bit of pulp, however demure, as a medium for my ideas. I’d like to do a Book of Kells presentation, and layer in all sorts of extras. I can’t do that in a conventional paper book. I’ve been wanting to do it for years.

Rethinking the whole idea of a “book”

If you want to be cured of populism, read this.

There’s a reason for wanting to do it, too. If you remember the original old illustrated novels, you’ll know how much value those illustrations added to those old books. Some of the artwork was truly spectacular. You can still do that in any media format, BUT – To what extent? Can you put together a full mixed media production in a “book” context?

Well, sort of. It’d be expensive, time-consuming, and technically fiddly at best right now. However – Consider a media production platform like Adobe Cloud. Forget the hype; this tech is still in its infancy, but it is the sort of all-round suite of capabilities required to produce what I’d envisage as a modern “book”.

The good news for book lovers, and writers, is that this is the stone tablet of the future. It’s doable, with some effort, to produce a combined book/opera/movie/drama/merchandising series of “books”. At the moment it would be a pretty constipated production method, but there’s a trick which the market understands very well, to make it work.

Modern book publishing became economically viable as a result of improved production and lower net costs of production. If there’s one thing modern tech does well, it’s to lower baseline costs. That will unavoidably happen with what are now high-end professional standard media production platforms.

This is also a let-off for the readers. You decide how you want to manage your media already. The driver for media production is to get it to consumers, not stuff around with “how”.  If you want to store your books on your Surface breakfast table, or on your fridge, or whatever, no problem. All the media has to do is deliver the “book”, in whatever form. Simple so far, right? The next step is to seriously personalise and make convenient to use that media. Electronic paper, for example, has been around for decades. It can do that.

For example:

You have a “book” which simply uploads materials from your store. It can run anything, and does. It’s cheap, it’s easy to handle and keep separate from your other media, some of which will be business, etc. (Also consider stacking an entire library on your working equipment. Better to keep it separate. It’s secure, because it’s a standalone, read-only, (excuse pun) non-executable, hacker-proof thing.

You can watch African Queen, with soundtrack, in color, and access the info the publisher has provided about Bogart, Hepburn, etc. Then, you maniac, you, you simply upload Candide from your library, and read it, scrolling around with some useful info about Voltaire, Du Chatelet, etc., historical contexts, etc.

The “book” is now an all-purpose platform for the information. It’s still a book. It can even look like a book.  A 200 page book could have 200 of your favorite books built in. Not a bad deal for $9.99, would you say?

One very important point – As long as the new “book” is comfortable to hold and use, it’s considered a book. If not, it’s just more tech, not taken as seriously, or as much loved, as a book. 

Hardware, copyright, rights, and new “books”

Paul Wallis, Live Lazy and Love It, Amazon

The theory of this book is that if you can afford to be lazy, you must be doing something right.

There’s another issue, and it’s very sticky indeed – Copyright. Any work has to have a relevant copyright form of publication. This is like the mysterious “rights” issues now. A book can have rights in e-formats, movie rights, hardcopy, etc. This new medium can deliver that.

For the hardware guys, there’s platform design, and some pretty interesting tech values. A page of one of these “books” would have to carry up to say, 3GB of information. It’s doable, but Moore’s Law and production have to be well under control.

OK, now to a very simple point – All of this is doable now. You could 3D print a “book” of this type, if you have the tech. You can educate, inform, entertain, and god knows, maybe even learn something, on your own terms. That’s exactly what the 19th century publishing revolution did, and it’s what can be done, hopefully better, in future.

One thing for sure – If a platform like that happens, I’ll be in Happy Valley. I can see me with something the size of an iPad in a protective cover, cackling away and re-reading Three Men in a Boat  and White Fang for the thousandth time, with all the pictures, bios, etc.

On the downside, all my own books will get soundtracks, graphics, propaganda, shameless self-promotion etc., but good readers will know how to avoid them.


Read a few of my books and claim that they’re interesting. Nobody will believe you, they’ll think you’re a nut, and you can frolic to your heart’s content.