What will e-books look like?

Yesterday I wrote about what e-books will not be. Today I’m going to write about what they might be.

Before we get to that, let’s think more about what they won’t be. They won’t be movies. The book fills a different role than passive entertainment such as film. They won’t be blogs. People like the narrative aspect of books; they want something meaty, a story that they can follow along with. They won’t be simple text dumps like you find on Project Gutenberg. If people didn’t want their books to look pretty, there wouldn’t be such a job title as Book Designer, and publishers wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on the look and feel of each text they print. They won’t be “interactive fiction.” People want to be told a story, they don’t want to make it up themselves.

Most importantly, however, they won’t simply be electronic versions of printed books. The modern book evolved to be what it is because of limitations in the medium itself. Change the medium, and you’ll change the genre, too. Publishers want their books to have a certain heft to them, in order to match customers’ perception of what a “book” is. If a book runs shorter than expected, they’ll set it in a larger font and use thicker paper to make customers feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. Longer books get smaller type and thinner paper; they all end up about the same size. E-books won’t suffer this limitation: with e-books it’s both easier and more difficult to tell how long they are. You can easily do a word count to get a precise length (something that’s a bit more laborious with a printed book), but you can’t get a general “feel” for how big an e-book is. No longer is “heft” an important consideration.

A more relevant factor will be memory — since readers will have a finite amount of space, e-books that use memory efficiently will at least initially be preferred. Huge image, movie, and sound files will detract from a book’s value because they will be seen as space-hogs. Instead, a few tasteful graphics or an impressive look and feel will be more significant.

I’ve speculated in the past that e-books will spell doom to publishers, because the initial investment to publish an e-book will be so much less than a print book. The way publishers might compete, however, is by producing glitzier, higher production value e-books. Most authors are not prepared to produce flashy, graphics-laden texts. On the other hand, another alternative could be that authors, artists, and designers would work together to produce e-texts that compete with commercial publishers. Since they can save on printing/distribution costs, this might be a viable option; certainly more viable than today’s expensive self-publishing.

I see a future without publishers as a hopeful one, where the barriers to entry are not as high, and hard work and creativity are rewarded. Another possibility is for commercial publishers and media outlets to impose the same old system on the new medium. The least likely future for e-books is that they will fill the same role in our society as printed books do now.

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