Slate's technology writer Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a very interesting article about some off-base predictions of yore about our digital future. He focuses on a whopper of a Newsweek column from 1995 (which is actually titled "The Internet? Bah!") about how the Internet would be a passing fad because, among other things, online shopping can't replicate the experience of a salesperson, an online database can't replace a daily newspaper, and the Internet was so jumbled he couldn't even find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Rather than just hardy har har-ing at the article, Manjoo takes a different, and very insightful approach. He notes that the author of the article was hardly a Luddite - he was actually deep in the weeds of the early Internet. The problem with the article wasn't that the author was dumb, the problem was that he was looking strictly at the Internet of 1995 and ignoring the potential for innovation and change.
Manjoo lays out four principles for more successful predictions about our digital future:
1. Good predictions are based on current trends
2. Don't underestimate people's capacity for change
3. New stuff sometimes come out of the blue
4. These days it's best to err on the side of (technological) optimism
When people make predictions about our e-book future, I find myself mystified that some people are so dismissive of their inevitability. I see blog posts and comments around the Internet from people who look at the nascent e-book landscape and think, "Blech. Expensive grayscale Kindles in a white piece of plastic? No way e-books are going to catch on!" Some people admit that they're going to be a part of our lives, but do so grudgingly and see them as yet another signpost that we're all going to hell in a handbasket.
Here's the thing they ignore: e-books are only going to get better.
Move over Nostradamus, here are some predictions about our digital book future:
1. The e-book reading experience is only going to improve.
Sure - not everyone loves the current grayscale Kindles and tiny iPhone reading experience, particularly for books that are illustrated or are beautifully designed. But better devices are coming and it's going to open up a new era of book design of unlimited possibility.
I remember that my high school English teacher told us that when William Faulkner was writing THE SOUND AND THE FURY he wished he could have published the text in different colors to denote the different perspectives, but obviously that would have been prohibitively expensive for publishers at the time. Not anymore. With the iPad and other devices coming soon, E-books are going color.
Tomorrow's writers are going to have almost limitless ability to include beautiful color photos and art and interactivity and creative design even in the mass-est of mass market books, the ones that are currently printed on cheap paper and sold on supermarket racks and where the idea of including anything colorful or design-y besides the cover is laughable.
Think of how much a fancy illustrated book costs now and then think about how cheaply that can be done digitally. E-books may be uglier than print books now, but they're about to get more beautiful.
2. E-readers and e-books are only going to get cheaper.
Sure, right now e-readers are out of reach for much of the population. That's going to change. Every new technology is out of reach until it gets cheaper. Digital toys that would once have sold for $100 are now given out in McDonald's Happy Meals. Lower prices for iPad-like devices of the future are inevitable.
And while publishers are currently taking a stand against deeply discounted e-books, the $12.99-$14.99 price point that they are fighting for is still half the cost of a $25 hardcover.
It's soon going to be possible to buy e-books cheaply on an affordable e-reader device, and they're going to be more colorful and interactive than most of their print counterparts.
3. Finding the books you want to read will only get easier.
One of the most common fears about the coming era is that no one will be able to find the good books in a time when anyone can just upload their novel to Amazon. It's the Fear of the Jumble, which was also expressed in that column at Newsweek, where the author complained that (in 1995) you couldn't even find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar on the Internet. He didn't realize that Google and Wikipedia would come along to give you that answer in mere seconds.
Already there are sites like Goodreads and Shelfari cropping up that allow people to swap reviews and recommendations about books. People increasingly find new books through blogs, forums, and heck, hearing from an author directly. It was never really possible before for authors to reach their audience directly - now it's a piece of cake.
Humans are really, really good at organizing things. If we can organize the billions and billions of web pages out there so that we can find what we want within a few seconds I think we can manage a few million books.
4. People are ignoring the digital trend.
I was watching a Seinfeld rerun the other day and there was a funny moment when Elaine hated a movie she was watching so much she called the video store and threatened not to rewind it. I'm going to have to explain this joke to my kids. And then I'm going to tell them about this funny thing we used to have where used to get these things called DVDs in the mail rather than having them downloaded straight to the TV (or wall or inside our eyeballs or whatever we're watching movies on in the future).
Everything that can be digitized is being digitized because it's cheaper and easier to send pixels around the world than physical objects. First it was music, then newspapers, then movies. Books are next in line.
5. Habits change
Yes, yes. The smell of books, reading in the bathtub, writing in the margins, a bookshelf full of books, etc. etc.
People will still have that choice and there are some books that simply can't be replicated digitally. But when faced with a better option, consumers shift extremely quickly. Right now the benefits of e-books are a little murky except for early adopters and those that can afford the devices. But that's just right now. Pretty soon they're going to be better (color! design! portable! interactivity! instantaneous!) and cheaper. Readers won't pay a premium for an inferior print product out of habit and nostalgia in great numbers.
The e-book era is going to be one of incredible innovation and unlimited opportunity, and people who don't see e-books dominating the future of the book world are ignoring the coming innovation and creativity and affordability. I refuse to believe the skeptics and pessimists. Books are about to get better.
Nathan Bransford is a literary agent in the San Francisco office of Curtis Brown Ltd. and the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, which will be published in 2011 by Dial Books for Young Readers. He blogs at http://blog.nathanbransford.com.
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