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RESET: The Future of Books in 2015

The future of books is about creating stories that ignite people's brains. Books that inspire and books that connect. You have to figure out what story you want to tell, and then use the best tools and media possible...or as few as possible.

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Written by on April 27, 2012

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Thomas Baekdal

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In this last part of my 'Reset' series, we are going to look at the future of books. What should you do if you have to start from scratch in 2015? What will books be like? What is the market like?

First of all, books are not going to change that much in the next 3 years. The book format hasn't really changed since the 5th century when we moved from scrolls to the 'modern codex'. When it comes to change, books just don't change.

We saw the same when books became digital. Nothing really changed. The book format was still just rectangle with text and perhaps a few images, and you swipe the screen to flip from one page to the next.

The ePub format (and its variations) practically limits books to just the same 1500-year-old format. Apple iBooks even looks like a book. And books are still sold based on a cover. It's passive, one-way interaction. You cannot update it, you cannot connect with it, you download it in a package, and it's linear in the way it tells the story. In every way, the ebook today is not new - it's just digital.

Until now.

All that is now changing in a dramatic way. While the change in how we define a book is happening today, and more so in 2015, don't expect this 1500-year-old format to change that quickly. It would probably take one or two generations for the old book formats to be replaced with what is to come.

By 2015, the old book format will still dominate the market, although most books will be sold as an ebook.

The new future format of books will just be a niche. But as with every niche, if you do it well you can make a lot more money.

What will this new format be like? How will books change?

The Joy of Print

Before we explore the future, I just want to get print out of the way. Every single time we talk about the future of books, people always mention some kind of favoritism towards print. The arguments are many.

  • They like the feel, which is quite odd because most books are printed on the cheapest paper produced in China.
  • They like the smell, again, odd considering that what the smell is a chemical residue from a Chinese factory.

What people actually like is the memory of reading a book. People do not actually like the smell as such, it is just that when they smell a book, their brain associates it with a positive memory of a good reading experience in the past. It's the same about the tactile feel.

That is a very hard thing to change. But in time this will change, because once people start to have positive reading experiences on, for instance, a Kindle, our brain patterns will adapt. We will still have the memory of print, but we will learn that what's great about the book is not paper, but the story within.

Another argument is screen glare, from the iPad or the Kindle Fire. And yes, that is a concern. One mistake many people make is that they read in the dark using the iPad as the only light source. That is a terrible reading environment. The brightness level of the iPad should be the same as the environment around you.

Then we have the opposite problem that we cannot use the iPad or the Kindle Fire outdoors. The brightness level of iPad is simply no match against the power of the sun.

Both are real problems that will slow the adoption rate of digital books, but advances in screen technology is happening fairly quickly. It will not be long before eInk displays will be mixed with OLEDs.

Finally we have the argument about the resolution. For a very long time, digital readers displayed text and graphic in rather low-res 72 ppi, while books are usually printed at 300 ppi. But with the new iPad and its retina display (and Amazon announced Kindle changes to support the same), this argument is no longer valid. The resolution of a digital book is now the same as a printed one.

No matter how you look at it, digital is annihilating print. Digital formats are easier to bring with you, much easier to buy, and you have the potential to use it for much more. The printed book is over ...

The only argument still in favor of print is the size of books. I own many print books about art or architecture, and they are 3-6 times larger than the iPad. The tablet is simply no match for them. I would love to have these books in a digital format as well, but the 10" screen on the iPad is tiny for this type of content.

One advantage of the bigger print books is that you can have several images, with descriptions, on the same page. While on the iPad you can only see one image at a time, and you have to click somewhere to display the info box.

But then you have to consider what you don't get with these big books - like video, interactive visualizations, audio, and more. Wouldn't it be more valuable to have an artist presenting to you how something was made, instead of just showing a static snapshot of it?

I love my art books, and I would hate to read them on a tiny tablet. But I miss the expanded universe that the digital world brings.

The future format

What is it that we have in the digital world that makes it so special? What is the new 'normal'?

The digital world is:

  • connected
  • social
  • direct
  • linked
  • format independent
  • ...and mixed

Meaning that the first huge change is the very definition of what a book is, as well as what you are when you call yourself an author.

The future book is literally anything that tells a story, but that story can be text, images, videos, interactivity, social engagement (crowd sourcing), and many other things.

Ask yourself; what is the definition of an author today? According to the dictionary, it's "the literary production or productions of a writer".

A writer. Someone who types words.

That means that people who write books have done so by defining the format first, and the story second.

That is what's changing. In the digital world we define the story first, and then we figure out what format and what tools we can use to tell this story in the best way possible.

The book today sees the written words as the main product, and the images and illustrations as optional extras. You can literally remove all the pictures from within a book and it would still make sense.

Once you start to move away from that mindset, an entirely new world opens up in all its splendor. Imagine, for a moment, that you want to tell the story of Alan Alda's life (the actor from M*A*S*H), why would you limit that to just text. Why not create a story in the form of a timeline, with a captivating story told with images, text, videos, interviews, etc.

And why make it linear? His life might have gone from one day to the next, but what he experienced did not. One part of his life had an influence on other parts. Dreams of his youth materialized in ways he didn't expect. Challenges of his future were made worse by something that happened in his past.

I'm not saying it should be a Wikipedia in a book. That's not it. You still need a story, and you still need to influence people to take a certain path. But it doesn't have to be linear.

What I want you to do is this. Play a game like Mass Effect 3, or Skyrim, where you have a main story line, augmented with a lot of smaller stories that interconnect with it. Or watch the animated movie Hoodwinked, where one story is actually four stories of each individual character mixed into a main story. You can watch this movie in any order, and it is still as captivating.

See 'Writing the Mass Effect 3 story' (starts at 1:54)

I don't mean you should turn a book into some kind of Dungeons and Dragons game; that is not it. But digital books don't have to move from A to B to C to D.

Or think of the "Time Travelers Wife". The book itself is written in a way that mixes two separate story lines (his and hers), moving back and forth through time. That could easily be rearranged so as to read it only from her perspective in real-time, or from his perspective in time jumps. Then there is the story of her daughter, who is also a time traveler. In the book she is only mentioned briefly, but the author could write a new novel just about her. She could intermingle it with the first book since the three story lines intersect.

The point is, think is how the web works. One article will cover a specific niche topic but then touch areas that are covered by other topics, which is then linked to or expanded upon. You need to think of that in book form.

Most authors allow people to read the first chapter of a book, or maybe use it to expand on another book. For instance, my book about social commerce touches two other important social elements. One is customer support (since social is a post conversion activity), the other is social ROI. I write briefly about both, but wouldn't it be great if could expand that into Olivier Blanchard's excellent book about Social ROI, and one of Scott McKain's excellent books about customer experience? To make snippets of their books part of mine, just as snippets of my book would become part of others. I also write about responsive design which could be expanded into Ethan Marcotte's excellent book about the same topic.

By 'snippet' I don't mean that I want to copy/paste the content from their book into mine. No, this is the connected world. I mean embedding it as part of the main story line. As you are reading my book, you flip the page and end up in Olivier's book, only to return to my book once you flip the page again.

But you also have a choice. If you feel you need to know more about social ROI you can continue to read Olivier's books (which you have to pay for) and not return to my book until you are done.

The way to think of this is that you are no longer just an author. You also need to expand the story by aggregating other stories that extend upon your story. The same way as when you are reading this site, I'm often expanding my articles by pointing you to other sources that cover a specific side topic in more detail.

To take this concept up to a much larger scale, let me talk about Star Trek. You probably know Star Trek as a TV series or as a movie, but there is a much bigger sub-culture around the Star Trek books and novels (and they are far better than the mass-marketed average of TV/movies). There are more than 500 Star Trek novels out there (probably closer to a thousand).

While some of the books are written versions of the TV series, most of them are expended stories in or around the main story. They're books that follow people or places either in parallel with the main story, in between, before or after. Several of the novels intersect with story lines from other novels, and bring in characters from even more books.

What you have is this waste universe of intersecting stories criss-crossing and expanding upon each other.

Star Trek has this amazing book universe, the problem is just that each book, each TV show, each movie, each interactive story, each comic is created as separate passive stories. You read one novel and then you are done. You have no idea that the captain, the incident, or the people in chapter 18 are actually part of a much bigger story in a related series. Or when two people go separate ways, you have no idea that you have a choice. You can continue the series you are reading now and follow the first person. Or you can read another series and follow the second person - as is the case, for instance with Will Riker first severing on the starship Enterprise, and then moving on to Titan.

This is the connection that is missing from books today. The people, topics, places, concepts are disconnected from each other, and confined within the box which is a book.

Connecting books opens up a huge number of smaller stories designed to fill in the gaps. Often the main story line will follow one person and you are left wondering what happened to another character in the years in between.

That's a possible point of connection and alternative story line. So consider a book universe like this one. The green path is the main storyline (4 books), the black lines being related stories, and the orange line being the path a particular reader might take.

I actually wanted to do this when I was writing my second book, "The Shift, From Print to Digital and Beyond". Early in the writing process I sketched out this story line, and as you can see it is not at all linear.

The idea was to create 5 main stories and then connect them together at relevant points. I ended up not doing this because I couldn't with the limitation of the Kindle and ePub.

I also wanted to take this further, and connect each main story line to an expanded universe of books, articles, videos etc.

Note: Updated version of the one I made last year.

I did include many videos and linked aggressively, but I didn't want it to be just a link, I wanted it to be a part of the learning process. I wanted the book to be connected, but I couldn't because ebooks today are forced into an offline world inside a closed package.

But the future of books is just like the web. It's part of a bigger universe, in which you as an author not only have to write a story, but also connect it with other stories around you.

Bookstores

Some of my readers work in book stores, and I'm often asked, what is the future for them. This book universe is your answer. If you are just a book store selling random books to random people, Amazon is going to annihilate you. There is no way that you can compete with them. Not to mention the much bigger trend of direct publishing, in which authors and publishers sells books directly - without any retail link in the middle.

But the book universe is your savior. You need to be the aggregator of books within a specific niche. This is what J.K. Rowling is doing with Pottermore.

But a book store actually has an advantage over individual authors and publishers because you can expand into a much larger world, spanning across different authors.

If you are just selling books, you don't have much of a future, but if you become the connection that glues books together within a niche, people will prefer to come to you because of that connection.

In the old print world, you had to appeal to everyone in a small market (only the people in your city). In the connected world, you can appeal to a niche, but on a global scale.

The key is to create a connection like the one with Star Trek. It could be about garden books, books about and from people who explore the future of media, books about historic moments, the phycology of humans and their behavior. You have to give people a map of options, and then your role is to lead and inspire them to take a path across it. Do it in ways that enlighten them far more than if they just read one or more of the books as an individual package.

And remember, this is the connected world spanning every form of media. The books is not just text. If your niche is Sherlock Holmes, it would have to include the Sherlock Holmes Movies, the new modern TV series (which is brilliant), and spin-offs by other creators.

Atomization of books

You might ask, doesn't this connected story path cause people to lose the full story? They are jumping around instead of sticking to the storyline designed by the author.

Yes, it does. But that is another big trend that is coming to the future of books. In order to compete in this new world, books will have to be atomized, just like every other form of media is being atomized.

The 200,000 word book will slowly become a thing of the past. Instead we will see smaller and more highly focused books.

We have to remember why many books are as long as they are today. It's all due to the nature of print. In the past, the economics of print simply didn't allow for things to be small. Magazines had to be a collection of articles from an entire month. It was too expensive to sell each article on its own. DVDs of popular TV shows would not come with just one episode, but had to contain an entire season of episodes.

The cost of manufacturing and distribution in the print world forces content to be grouped into larger packages, and it's exactly the same with books.

But with digital formats, you could just as easily publish each chapter as a separate ebook. If you are writing a book about analytics, a 200,000 word book would be good, but it would probably be better to focus on four key areas, and then publish a book about each. A book about analytics for publishers, for shops, for non-profits, and one for linking offline activities to your digital world.

And this is where it gets interesting, because another big trend is the drop in price. This is caused by several factors. First is that the volume of books is going up and thus people have more choice, secondly the cost of publishing is going down, and the result is that people believe books should be worth less.

They are wrong, of course, but that's how people think. A car should not be priced lower than the cost of making it, just because there are more of them.

Trying to sell a book for 99 cents, or even $2-$3 dollars is a disaster waiting to happen. But if you atomize the 200,000 word book, and sold each section for $3, then it would suddenly make a lot of sense.

It's even better if you connect them together. You would write a book introducing people to the larger whole of analytics, but then people can tap into the universe, and buy each section as an extension. Think in-app purchasing for books.

And since this is the connected world, once you can continue to expand the story with other books, and smaller eSingles can be sold fairly cheap, it would be very profitable as a whole.

This would also cause your books to stay relevant. The connection could be updated live to expand into realms you didn't think of a few years ago.

Social

How important is social for the future of books? The obvious answer to that is that it is very important, but perhaps not in the way many people think.

Most talk about how to bring social media into books, in which you can see what other people tweet about every part or section. But that would just be a nightmare. Can you imagine trying to learn about a new thing or read an exciting detective story, while being constantly interrupted by social noise?

Look at YouTube. It's build to be social, but each video is just a video. Sure you can annotate it and add call-to-actions or links to other videos that expand upon the story, but it's not the video that is social. It's the platform.

Social is not a thing, and it's not a destination. You don't bring social into your book, you open your book up into the social world.

Can you share it? Can you connect it? Can you expand upon it? Can you comment on it? Can you follow it? That's social.

Another very important element is the social signals. It is how much people talk about something and how they talk about it. The social signal is what strengthens your connections - both between you and the reader, but also between your own books and books by other authors. When people want to know what is valuable or relevant to them, the social signals are what they use to help guide them.

Goodreads, for instance, is a good example of that. It's all about using people's social signals to create a personal universe of books in relation to what other people think.

There are, of course, also many situations where books can be expanded into the social realm. For instance, if you wanted to write a book about the history of the Olympic Games, why end it with Beijing, China in 2008. Why not expand it into the future history of what will happen in a few months in London? One path into the future could be to look at what people talk about socially.

Connect your book to the social world. It's the platform that is social, not the object.

The format

What about the format? In this report I have used the word 'book', but I don't actually mean that. None of the things I have described above are about a collection of text pages that you flip through one by one.

As I started out saying, the future of books is to look at the story first, and then use all our digital tools to bring it to life. Video, images, animations, sound, interactivity, outside signals and streams, sensors, the cloud...you name it.

But in order to do this, we have to get rid of one critical element. The page!

The rectangle that defines the format of every book is limiting our thinking and what we can do in more ways than most seem to realize. It forces you into a print mindset, in which everything is laid out to fit in a box.

The problem with the page is that it forces different elements to be separated from each other. Images are used as eye-candy, instead of as a vital element of the story itself. Video is a separate object on a page as an extra, not part of the story itself.

But we cannot do that in the digital world. First of all, digital devices vary greatly in size and form. Secondly, if you want to bring a book into the connected world, you cannot limit it to just one destination or device.

We learned this on the web back in 1996. Back then everyone made websites to fit a standard sized box - many using static images to lay out entire pages (just how Condé Nast is today creating magazines for the iPad).

The solution was to do two things. First, it was get rid of the box thinking, and accept that things flowed outside the active viewing area (i.e. scrolling). The other was to embrace responsive design, in which everything would automatically fit into whatever environment it is put in.

The future book has to learn the same lesson. The ebook industry is still struggling with concepts that we moved away from on the web 15 years ago. The Amazon Kindle and the Apple iBook is formatted like web pages before we knew of things like stylesheets.

One problem, of course, is that scrolling is great for shorter articles but becomes somewhat of a drag when you move beyond a certain length. We need to invent a smarter way of scrolling.

There are many very interesting developments in the pipeline. One for instance is where the page scrolls based on what your eyes are looking at. It might sounds like science fiction, but the technology is here today.

Another is perhaps a simple form, in which a page-swipe, turns into a scroll-snap. Meaning when you swipe a page, you don't just scroll down a few pixels, but the page snaps to the next part of the viewing area.

Also, a book should not be linear, unless it has to be. Obviously, a good Sherlock Holmes story has to take a certain path, but a book about gardening would work much better if people could explore different story paths. This again would not work if you confine yourself to a page.

You have to free yourself from the format that defined the printed book. It doesn't work in the digital world, we learned that 15 years ago. There is a reason why the New York Times isn't formatted as a book online - or even on the iPad.

The book is everything that tells a story. And you need to make sure that the format is flexible enough to embrace this. A book like "Around the World in 80 Gardens" should not start with a table of contents. It should be centered around a map, allowing people to take whatever route that inspires them. It should include pictures, interviews, videos, plans, tips, and ideas. As well as connect you to the larger universe of garden lovers.

It should bring in social signals, letting people know what other readers think of each garden. And expand upon that to other books, authors, articles, and places.

This was made for TV, but it could have been so much more as a book of mixed media. And in our new world of app, well ...just imagine the possibilities.

This is the future of the book. The paper format's 1,500 year-rule is about to come to an end. That is not a sad thing. It was the printed book that allowed us to move forward. Without it, we could not take this next step.

The power of words

Before I end this, I just want to get back to the power of the written word. While the future of books will be a mixed soup of media, don't forget the magical nature of text. Some books, indeed many books, would work best with text alone.

I wrote about this in "Why Books are Still a Powerful Media", but I like to repeat it here:

Words in the form of text have one magic property that no other format can provide. No, it is not pages or paper or anything like that. It is something much closer to you as a person. Written words allow you to form the story in your head. To influence it with your personal preferences and desires. It forces you to use your imagination.

Take TV. It is the dumbest form of engagement you can create. You do not have to think when you watch TV. You are being presented with everything. You hear the sounds. You see the faces, the expressions, the colors, the backgrounds, and the environments. When there is an explosion, you can see exactly how big it is and how the windows splinter into tiny fragments of glass.

TV is hugely entertaining, but you do not have to use your brain. You can just be a passive viewer. This is why you can watch TV with a nasty hangover, but you can't read a good book.

Next up the chain is comic books. Comic books are more demanding than TV (so please parents, give you kids some comic books!). Like TV, you can see the pictures so you don't have to think about how something looks. But you cannot see how something moves. You have to imagine it. You cannot hear the sounds, so you have to invent them in your head.

You cannot just consume a comic book. You have to think it. Not a lot, but still more than when you are watching TV.

The more we leave out, the more you have to use your imagination. Case in point. The comic below is much more interesting because you cannot see it. You have to use your own powers of imagination.

Note: via Liberty Meadows

Another step up is audiobooks. With audiobooks you are forced to use your imagination all the time (especially with unabridged books). While you can hear what people say, everything else is left up to your imagination. You have to imagine what an apple looks like, what the temperature feels like, how a frown looks, or how a crooked smile makes your whole body warm and fuzzy.

Some audiobooks are better than others, especially when it is read by a good voice actor, like Jim Dale (in Around the World in 80 Days), or William Hope and Laurel Leftkow in The Time Traveler's Wife (which seems to no longer be listed on Audible).

But the real reason why audiobooks are many times more engaging is because you have to provide all the missing pieces.

This is why the written story, one made only with words, sentences and paragraphs is at the very top of the scale. Written stories force you to engage your imagination on a scale far above any other media. You can't consume a written story. You have to imagine it. You have to use your brain at maximum efficiency, because you have to think of everything.

You cannot hear their voices, see the objects, feel or touch. You can only read, and your brain has to take care of the rest. Compared to TV, a book is highly engaging.

Ever wonder why a movie, based on a book, isn't as good? It is not that it is shorter, or more "Hollywood". The real problem is that it takes away your imagination. The actors don't look or behave the way you imagined them. And because what you imagined was based on your personal preferences, the movie ruins it for you.

The magic of books comes from how the readers actively engage in them. How you force people to use their imagination.

Great authors know this. They take you on a journey where they are forcing you to think all the time. They give you just as much detail for you to start imagining what it would be like, but not so much that you don't have to think about it.

E.g. from The Time Traveler's Wife:

The room is quiet and crowded, full of solid, heavy tables piled with books and surrounded by readers. Chicago autumn morning light shines through the tall windows...

See? You get just enough to put you into a specific environment. Just the right amount of information to ignite your brain. You have to imagine the rest.

What does a heavy table look like? What does it feel like? How heavy is heavy? How many books are "piled with books"? What kind of books are they? How many readers are "surrounded"? How do they look? Are they male or female? How old are they? Are they wearing tweed? What does an autumn morning light look like? How warm is it? What color is it? Does that mean it is cloudy? What kind of shadows do you get from an autumn light through tall windows? Is it a few tall windows high up in an old English building? Or is it a lot of tall windows from ground to ceiling?

The magic happens when your brain asks all these questions. Just like your brain was ignited moments ago when you read it. Your synapses went on overdrive, and a book makes you feel excited. It feel like you are there ...and in a sense you are, because it is all happening inside your brain.

The future of books is about creating stories that ignite people's brains. Books that inspire and books that connect. You have to figure out what story you want to tell, and then use the best tools and media possible...or as few as possible.

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Thomas Baekdal

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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