The press is declaring that digital will overtake print within the decade. The visions that this news inspires are numerous and, occasionally, bizarre: a subway full of commuters with heads bowed over e-readers instead of morning newspapers, libraries with dozens of empty bookshelves hovering ghostlike behind radiating computers, multimedia diginovels with holograms jumping off every page. And that may only be the beginning.
So let’s engage in a thought experiment. Here is a world I have envisioned, wherein society has wholly purged itself of paperbound books, and digital readers have become the norm. Some of the events I will describe sound a little outrageous, but then again, some events have already come to pass. It’s a brave new (digital) world:
Libraries will shed themselves of books and replace the shelves with computer stations, with which library patrons can rent their favorite digital books for a limited amount of time. Although each library-provided digital book will come equipped with the latest in anti-piracy technology, intelligent college students will nonetheless find a way to defeat it.
Book piracy will soar. Key authors will give interviews on how book piracy is ruining the publishing industry. Symposiums will be held. A select group of authors will register all their works with Creative Commons and release their material for free as a preemptive move against piracy.
Many brick-and-mortar bookstores will become obsolete, as hoards of booksellers choose instead to operate purely over the Internet. The physical bookstores that remain will be condensed into one-stop electronic shops, wherein customers can simply browse a digital collection on a computer screen and download their purchases directly to their digital readers.
Booksellers will gape at all the empty space once occupied by bookshelves. They will fill the floor with plentiful seating space for customers to use while they enjoy their new purchases. Every bookstore will have a coffee shop. Coffee sales will go through the roof. Bookstores will find that coffee sales dramatically exceed those of books, and so to sustain their business booksellers will demand publishers provide them higher profit margins.
Publishers will seek additional sources of revenue to compensate for this. They will insert advertisements in between book chapters, a move that will prove wildly controversial at first, especially with book bloggers, but eventually these pundits will concede that it is a necessary move for the good of the publishing industry. After a few years hardly anyone will mind the advertisements, with the exception of a few grumbling old-timers who still vividly recall “the good old days of ad-free digital books.”
A bevy of new independent publishers, as well as self-publishers, will flood the market, seizing upon reduced start-up costs. They will sell their digital books everywhere from Etsy to iTunes. Big publishers will find that increasing numbers of consumers are purchasing their fiction from these new independent publishers. In response, they will pump their money into marketing. Book trailers will begin airing on TV and in movie theaters. The publishing companies will tout their authors like rock stars. The entertainment media will notice the increased attention paid to writers, and so authors will begin appearing in tabloids, beauty magazines, and on E!. The most photogenic authors will find their sales skyrocketing.
Readers will revel in the blossoming selection of literature available to them. Trendsetters will snub the material published by the big publishing houses, opting instead for fiction provided by trendy independent publishers. However, these trendsetters will realize too late that, given that the digital reader does not display a book cover, their lit-snobbery is ill-conceived. No one but them will actually know what they are reading. Inspired by popular demand, a new generation of digital readers will eventually be produced. These new models display a book cover on the back of the reader.
Short stories will increase in popularity, especially among those who use public transit, due to lengths that can be conveniently read during the average work commute. The typical reader will hold entire libraries on their digital readers, swapping story collections with their friends like people swap mixtapes.
The story format will continue to evolve. Novels without pictures, video, or music will remain in demand, but many new authors will turn to multimedia formats. Choose-your-own-adventure interactive novels will see a resurgence. Holographic novels become less of an abstract concept and more of a legitimate possibility as new technologies are developed. Book sales threaten to overtake movie ticket sales. The publishing industry, having completely forgotten their supposed near-failure only years before, will declare that this is “the golden age of literature.”
JK Evanczuk is the founder of Lit Drift (http://www.litdrift.com), an online
resource dedicated to the art & craft of fiction in the 21st century.
Photo credit top: Nicolas Chang