W(h)ither The Book?
3 min read

W(h)ither The Book?

I’ve spent a lot of time on Publishing 2.0 talking about the impact of digital media on periodical publishing, i.e. newspapers and magazines, and about online publishing broadly defined, e.g. search results as a form of publishing, that I’ve only rarely looked at the publishing form that gave birth to modern publishing — the book. A column by Evan Schnittman, VP at Oxford University Press, got me thinking about how online technologies may completely unravel our notion of what a book is:

Even “perpetual access,� which in Google’s model means to own it as long as Google supports it to its users is completely different than our normal sales model where we get money and the customer walks away with the asset forever (I assume Google intends to support this forever but forever is a long time in Internet land). Now throw into the mix temporal access – in effect a subscription to a set amount of content for a period of time – and more issues arise. Should a one month rental be valued less than perpetual access? Logically the answer is yes – but how much less if the content is designed for short term use like, for example, a travel guide?

Evan is quick to point out that his meditation on the future of the book is not the facile “print is dead,” but rather an exploration of much deeper questions, and I share his sentiment. For certain book categories, most notably fiction and other narrative forms — or what Evan describes with the purposefully vague term “immersive” — the print format is still vibrant, .e.g. no one wants to read a novel online.

But for other book categories, such as those with short-term reference utility, like Evan’s travel guide example, the 500-year-old book format may be already be obsolete. As with newspapers, this is partly an issue of one-size-fits all packaging. Why buy a book if only a small fraction of the information is actually useful to you, when in digital form you can get precisely the information you need, no more no less? But its also an issue of ownership, which is what intrigued me most about Evan’s column.

The DRM debate has shined a white hot spotlight on the question of what rights consumers have to “own” the content they purchase. With physically manifest content — books, vinyl albums, vhs tapes — the whole question of ownership hardly makes sense. Of course I own it — it’s right there on my shelf. While ownership of a physical content items doesn’t convey the right to reproduce and sell it, it’s not as if the item is going to disappear off your shelf while you’re sleeping.

But that’s precisely what might happen to books of the future. Let’s say I’m a physician who is co-authoring an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association, and I want to make sure I’m adhering to standards. In the past, I might have bought a copy of The American Medical Association Manual of Style for $55 dollars. But let’s say that I don’t typically write articles for JAMA, and I don’t anticipate writing another one any time soon. If I had the option of buying a “temporary pass” to a fully searchable online version of the book for say $5, that might be a much better option. I don’t even need to get up from my computer.

When I’m done with the article, and the temporary pass expires — poof — the book vanishes from my virtual “shelf.”

Here’s another, even more disruptive notion.

Publishers like OUP are focused understandably on Google Book Search, but there is another Google phenomenon that may have a deeper, more long-lasting impact on books — ad-based monetization of book content online.

Let’s say I want to travel in France, but instead of running out to by a France travel guide, I Google “travel France” and click on the first result:


This is of course a “made for AdSense” site, with serviceable content whose principal purpose is to be a vehicle for Google ads. More and more information typically found in books is available for free online, not because people get a kick out of putting up free content online, but because Google has created a plug-and-play business model for doing so.

So the real issue for book publishers may not be how they charge for content found through Google Book Search, but whether anyone will need to go to Google Book Search to find the information they need.

While it’s true that the web is transforming the publishing industry by making information easily searchable, accessible from anywhere, and “micro-chunkable,” what the web is doing to publishers above all is disintermediating them. That, more than anything, may determine the future of the book.