Warning: Raw Speculation Alert. You have been warned!
You are reading. This form of reading will not disappear.
eBooks—whether they be standalone devices, or merely apps on multipurpose toys like cell phones—will cause the reading of short bursts of words on a screen to become increasingly common. The key is “short”: columns such as this already push the limit of most people’s patience (yes, the content, too).
The reading of book-length material—which is to say books in electronic or paper forms—will decline rapidly. eBook sales will increase, accelerating over the next five years. With the closing of mall stores, and with the mega stores faltering, “consumer” eBook sales will overtake paper books within the next two decades. Paper books will dominate in commercial venues for some time.
Do not confuse sales with reading! They are not the same; they are only weakly correlated. This is also so for paper books (pBooks?), but at least the correlation with reading and sales of pBooks is high. This correspondence is not exact for many reasons: many pBooks are especially designed not to be read (coffee table and “gift” books), college textbooks lie fallow, and we often do not meet our intentions.
Many reviewers of standalone eBook devices whine that the screens are not color or that the devices do not allow for distractions, such as web surfing. Manufacturers have heard these complaints and have responded, and they will continue to respond. Standalone, dedicated-purpose eBook devices, therefore will become rare, forcing distraction-free reading to become rare.
The number of books that will be published will initially increase dramatically, but only in electronic format. There is little reason for publishers to refuse all-electronic books: as long as would-be authors conform to the software standard, books will slide without friction into the system because the marginal cost of storing a new book is near zero. Most of these offerings will not be promoted, and fewer will earn money. Eventually, the flood will ebb, and most writing will migrate on-line, in bite-sized packages (I resisted “byte”-sized).
Print-on-demand will flourish. Many people and institutions, such as libraries, will continue to buy paper copies of books. Since most book stores will close, print-on-demand will become the only real route to obtain paper copies. Surviving publishers will merge with companies like Amazon to ensure top listings.
Used bookstores, for the most part, and in all small cities, will die, mostly because of the lack of new stock. Specialty stores might exist, but will be frequented only by scholars or other elite. Nearly all sales of used books will migrate on line. Discovering new writers, therefore, will be difficult for most.
eBooks will finally kill reading for the common man. There will remain a core, a small fraction of humanity that continues to read book-length material regularly. This fraction will return to the low levels seen for most of recorded history.
Cynthia Ozick, in her “The Question of Our Speech: The Return to the Aural Culture”, reminds us that “mass literacy itself is the fixity of no more than a century”, an era which began with the introduction of leisure and the industrialization of printing. Obviously, the number and types of entertainment which require less effort than reading will become ubiquitous and cheap.
Books are a wonderfully stunted technology: they require no power source, they can be dropped, sat on, crushed, filled with sand or even water, and they still work. They can be lent, used as props or decorations, hurled, written in. They are useful for storage of small, flat objects like leaves. They can be sold and resold.
They are single-purpose: all they do is to display the set of words they came with. No matter what else changes, no matter the speed of the latest chips, or the changes in operating systems, those words remain the same. As long as the book isn’t lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed, there will never be any reason to replace it, nor to pay for its content more than once.
But best of all, they offer no distractions! You cannot press a button on the page to bring you to a website, nor can you check email or Facebook, nor can you Tweet. You can only read, or possibly take a note as you read. Further, your notes will never be lost as long as the book is not lost. They have no volume dial!
eBooks do not allow ownership of books; they merely grant licenses, which may be revoked, as has happened, and will continue to happen, particularly for works deemed “controversial.” Electronic bowdlerization and deletion will replace bonfires.
Remember: you read it here last.
Update I have just learned that Martin Gardner has died. More tomorrow on this great man—and writer of timeless books.