I returned from two courses on publishing organised by the National Book Trust at Dharamshala and Imphal recently. In both we had a record number of participants and I decided to add a speculative presentation on reading experiences and on the future of the book. The participants were not all that innocent of technology as many of them took screen-shots of my power-point presentation on their phones. Yet when I asked them about alternate reading experiences apart from a print book, few responses were forthcoming. Some had indeed experimented with reading on the Amazon Kindle but had not been sufficiently “hooked” to complete reading the whole book. Others firmly affirmed that they would continually to read only from the print format. Could we conclude that people would continue to read from print and that the future of the printed book was secure?
It was Jeff Bezos who mounted the first serious challenge to the reading experience from print when he launched the first version of the Amazon Kindle at the Jacob Javits Centre in New York in 2007. Here was this compact device, with the new e-ink technology, page-turning software, with a pleasing type-font which could be increased in size and with wireless net connectivity where references could be looked up while bookmarking the page. Would the reading experience ever be the same again? This was the benchmark Kindle, all other versions including the Paper-White Kindle have been more improved versions with better apps. Bezos
with improved download and storage capacity for hundreds of books turned reading on its head and put paid to the adage that you could not carry a computer but only a book to the beach for reading.
Bezos believed that the print book had existed for far too long ever since Gutenberg had invented movable type and thereby mechanised printing in the 1450s. Reading had to become digital, the print book had to be replaced. Bezos may have been premature in sounding the death-knell for the print book for in all these years the print book has proved to be amazingly resilient and a survivor.
In most cases, the print book has the onslaught of the e-book and in some cases, increased in strength. Ironically, Bezos himself has contributed to the survival of the print book for a major volume of Amazon’s online transactions are in print books. Amazon continues to be the largest online retailer in books with a share that outranks most “brick and mortar” distributors. Bezos’s personal net worth is more now than that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Of course, Amazon now deals in a whole range of products apart from books.
Technological advances have helped in producing better and well designed books attractive to the reader. Books are increasingly being treated as a consumer product and publishers, including Amazon has to make available reading matter to the consumer on a variety of platforms, accessible across a range of devices and in varying quantities. Yes, in academic and professional publishing like medicine, a whole book published as a e-book consists of different chapters.
Professionals who do not need the whole book have the facility of downloading specific chapters for a fee and paying for them. Each chapter is a potential revenue earner with its own promotional write-up. The book is virtually never printed and for those who require printed copies, a print-on-demand technology helps you acquire a “print” copy at a price.
It’ the battle for engaging with the consumer and gaining his interest that occupies Bezos’s and other entrepreneur’s interest. If we are to speculate about the survival of the print book in the future, it will all come down to the reading experience. Bezos and others like him believe that readers had got used to the reading experience from the print book for too long. They had to be an alternative reading experience. Bezos believed that Kindle did just that. But the battle could only be truly won if the experience for the reader could be shown to be better.
It’s this quest for bettering the reading experience that led Bill Gates to appoint a visionary like Bill Hill in Microsoft to experiment with improving the reading experience.
Hill experimented with design and format, typeface, font and layout to revolutionise the reading experience. He left Microsoft to set up his Cleartype Foundation. Hill believed that the reading experience in the digital format existed in the “black and white” era. He promised to take the digital reading experience to the world of vibrant colour, with audio and video to give a totally different experience to the reader. Hill believed that the reader once subjected to this experience would never go back to the dull and prosaic world of reading from the print format. Hill passed away a few years ago but the foundation he had set up continues with the work he had pioneered and promises to deliver soon.
Experiments to enhance the quality of the reading experience continue. Publishers in the competitive world of school textbooks have innovated with animation apps.
These apps can be downloaded on the mobile phone. The phone can be used to scan the page of a text with visuals, which has a sensor. When the page is then played back on the phone, the page is animated with the visuals coming alive. Obviously now, the book is more interesting to the reader.
While reading is an individual and personal choice between the digital or print format, there’s no reason to believe it needs to be an either “this” or “that”. Both the e-book and the print book can co-exist and can even be in a symbiotic relationship that may mutually strengthen each other.
Publishers are publishing both print books and the e-version simultaneously catering to different segments of the market and to individual preferences of the consumer.
What is more important is that the reading habit should endure and that is the mark of a cultured society. Experiments in reading and improving the reading experience are likely to continue.
Reading from a print format helps develop imagination and conjure visions in the mind. A future generation may need help in this visualisation and not be able to picture something unless external help is provided.
We moved into redeveloped premises recently. The move necessitated, among other things, a shift of my modest library. My anxiety understandably was that things should go smoothly and I should be able to find my books in the new place.
Perhaps to reassure me that all is well and that the culture of reading would continue, it was decided that a sculpture depicting the “reader” would be installed on the balcony. Happily, the figure holds the replica of a print book in its hands. It would be difficult to visualize an e-book in its stead!
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books....