Vestigial Tail Ebooks

After writing my recent piece about the ebook-reading experience, I engaged in (more like was on the receiving end of) and interesting twitter conversation between @pensato and @oo, who had some great thoughts on a question my previous essay begged: what does the the medium of electronic reading have to say about the form and content of what we read? Or are ebooks actually the vestigial tail of paper publishing as we move into the age of digital texts?

Different media tend to encourage the production of different artefacts, and the arrival of a new medium tends to be be a time of chaos, experimentation, and play with the possibilities and limits of the medium. It is also a time in which those invested in the well-established rules and practices of the old medium respond with 1) denial, 2) anti-new rhetoric, 3) attempts to shoehorn their old media products into the new medium, and 4) evolution or death. It seems to usually be death, as the ossified culture of the “old guard” does not adapt well to a changed world.

What has been particularly interesting about living in a digital age is how many times we’ve been able to see this play out in the space of a few years.1 Music, movies, magazines, news, books: each of these industries have had–and are having–their production and distribution modes changed and challenged. One example is that, in the age of downloadable music, many musicians are choosing to release individual songs as they are completed rather than labouring to complete entire albums of songs grouped around the former limit of LPs and CDs.2

It’s surprising that books are the last industry affected.3 Various platforms have promised ebooks for some time now, but the Kindle’s arrival in 2007 seemed to signal the first real steps into the ebook age.

The steps for ebooks have been unique. Music was transformed first by Napster piracy, with iTunes later succeeding by being easier and better than piracy. Movies have moved from Bittorrent to Netflix. Newspapers and magazines are either fading into popular irrelevance or moving into niche publications. But ebooks have faced neither the free, illegal distribution of the former type,4 nor the persistent attrition of the latter. Perhaps this in and of itself explains why book publishers have been so late and reluctant to join the digital publishing party: they faced no apparent threat.

It’s also worth noting that, until the Kindle came along in 2007, there did not seem to be any hardware that people particularly wanted to read something of book-length on. An LCD may be more crisp than a CRT for reading, but nobody was clamouring to read a novel on one. The Kindle’s E-Ink5 display, and the iPad’s higher-resolution LCD screen–and more natural form-factor–made reading longer digital works suddenly seem feasible.

These exciting developments can, however, obscure the fact that ebooks have shown up at a point where the production and consumption of texts has already adapated to the digital medium. The Web has been changing our reading and writing habits for almost 20 years, partly because the medium promotes short attention spans,6 and partly due to the very fact that computer screens do not encourage long engagement with a text.7 Digital texts in the age of the Web have become shorter, more concise, and, above all else, linked. We’ve become accustomed to our digital texts being available instantly anywhere and, increasingly, on myriad devices.8

Ebooks therefore fundamentally misunderstand the digital reading medium. In their current incarnation–an afterthought in the traditional print publishing process–they have no future. Book publishers want ebooks as mere gravy atop their existing business model rather than seeing digital publishing for the disruption that a new medium always is. The reality is that printed books will be going the way of the vinyl record: still around, but rarer and largely for enthusiasts. Digital publishing is already here, and the age of print publishing dominance is already passing away.

Supposing that I am right, what will ebooks be, if anything, once digitally distributed texts gain ascendancy in the post-paper publishing age? Whatever they will be, they will not be a simple one-to-one digital replacement of the types of writing that are presently printed. I contend that ebooks in their present form will be seen as an awkward evolutionary phase into the era of digitally distributed texts. As payment systems become increasingly frictionless, we will see a variety of forms of writing sold, purchased, and read on myriad devices and platforms.

It’s taken me nearly 1200 words to get here, but I might finally have enough background to start discussing the form of the “book” itself in the digital age. The short answer is, it will vary. For instance, I think we will see a renaissance of the short story. If I even asked you to name a famed short story author, you would likely draw a blank.9 We might also see a resurgence of the serial novel, much favoured in Victorian England. The conceit of requiring a certain amount of page-padding prior to publishing will simply cease when publishing is only a keystroke away.

In the realm of nonfiction10, I believe that the essay will gain prominence. As one who enjoys writing and reading essays, this is great news. Many nonfiction books I have read would have been far better essays were it not for the legitimacy-conferring length requirements of the print industry. Digital distribution allows writing to be just as long as it needs to be, which is often much shorter than the current print economy dictates.

New terminology will arise, but the lines between books, ebooks, blogs, essays, and other forms not yet imagined will blur, separate, and evolve into whatever form(s) actually work for electronic texts. Not only will shorter forms gain prominence due to diminished attention spans and greater ease of publishing, we’ll also see new forms of writing that truly inhabit the possibilities afforded by multimedia, interaction, and hyperlinks. These forms already exist, but in the coming months and years will move out of the margins and into the mainstream as the forms that digital distribution is uniquely able to produce. It’s going to be a bumpy, fascinating ride.

  1. Not that the process is finished. The major music labels, for example, have still not evolved or died. 
  2. I am grumpy and old enough to still far prefer listening to whole albums. Random playlists make me twitch. 
  3. Surprising because it is plain text, the basic substance of books, which has always been easiest to transmit electronically. 
  4. It’s not that ebooks aren’t pirated, it’s just that they aren’t pirated often. 
  5. Sigh. Another e-prefix. 
  6. This is the received wisdom, but I speculate that posture and mediation are more important factors than monitor technology. Most long-form reading is done in a relaxed position, in something like an easy chair or a hammock. The computer task chair hardly competes. Also, the mediation of keyboard and mouse have always made computers feel vaguely hostile–the quick embrace of touch screens has made this obvious. This is where e-readers are a definite advance: they are human-scaled and hand-held. 
  7. “For free” should arguably be on that list, but I think friction, not cost, is the major determiner here. I need to be able to pay for content I want at the speed of the web–now–or I won’t pay at all. Think OAuth for my credit card. 
  8. Flannery O’Conner and Alistair MacLeod are my own favourites. 
  9. I loathe the term nonfiction. We might as well term “fiction” non-reality. Terminology shapes perception. 

2 responses to “Vestigial Tail Ebooks”

  1. I love your point about the rise of the essay. I feel like there’s a pushback happening to the twitterification of writing, where people are starting to reinvest in the value of the long form essay whether that essay is distributed in the form of an ebook, or blog post. The perception of written content on the web has been that it is of lower value that written word on paper. If it’s the ‘ebook’ that convinces people at large that digital publishing is of equivilant value, then so much the better for all of us.

    I think your final point is the clincher. We’re coming to a point in time where the mode of distribution and the mode of creation are not tied together.

    This post is particularly timely after the final collapse of Borders Book Shop (where I spent many of my high school weekends pawing books for $4.75 an hour).

  2. Thanks for the comment Reid. Agreed about people wanting to read a lot more than Twitter allows for – there’s a case of writing perfectly adapted to a certain technology, with all of the strengths and weaknesses that comes along with that.

    The closing of Borders totally illustrates that we’re in a transition time. It’ll be interesting to see where we land up.

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