The Future of Books in a Digital World. #70 #cong16

By Jenny Sharif.

Since the explosion of the Kindle and E-Readers in the early 2010s, much has been made about The Death of the Book. Having worked with World Book Day over the last few years, the first question asked by many media was about the future of books and bookselling, like vultures picking apart the carcass of the books trade. The implication seemed to be that physical books would go the way of scrolls and VHS tapes – historical artefacts that will eventually serve as curios to show our grandchildren how we used to live in the olden days. 

From about 2014 this story seemed to be changing – a plateau in e-book sales, combined with an increase in sales of physical books had many exclaiming that ‘The Book is Saved!’ The latest Nielsen figures for Ireland show that book sales were actually up 20% in 2016 compared to the same period in 2015, with big gains seen in Childrens books (which now account for over 30% of the whole book market) and Non-Fiction. 

Many traditional book sellers and publishing houses are currently breating a sigh of relief, but is the view that people actually prefer hard-copy books too simplistic? Is the belief by traditionalists that the disruption is over wrong? Another school of thought is that the disruption isn’t actually over, in fact real change is just beginning.

US based tech research company Gartner, who have done significant research in tech trends in general, as well as on e-readers specifically, view the decline as merely the normal hype cycle – the “trough of disillusionment”. They believe that there is always a dip after the initial surge of interest, when people realise that e-readers weren’t the change they were looking for. 

Traditional e-readers are just that – an electronic version of the traditional book. The new generation of e-reader has the potential to offer a more interactive experience for the reader, with illustrated kids books including animations, and the potential of the gaming industry moving into the books market to blur the lines between reading and gaming. 

For example, earlier this year UK publishing company Visual Editions have partnered with Google to create Editions at Play, which creates an immersive and interactive reading experience – in one of the books, text is mashed up with imagery from Google Street View to give the sense that the reader is lost in the same location as the novel’s protagonist. This could be just the first foray into a reading experience that is totally different from the one we are used to today. Visual Editions uses existing technology that we are already familiar with to create immersive experiences, but what opportunities will future new technologies offer?

What does this mean for our future generations and literacy? Research, until now, has tended to indicate that reading hard copy printed text is the most immersive way in which to read, allowing for a deeper understanding and for critical analysis. In Ireland, the 2016 ESRI study Cultural Participation Among Children and Young People, commissioned by The Arts Council, contended that  “Children and young people who read for pleasure … tend to be more engaged in school, have better academic skills and improved wellbeing”.  

With 1 in 6 people in Ireland with literacy difficulties, it seems more important now than ever for publishers and tech firms to work together in a collaborative way to ensure that, whatever the technological advancements, long-form reading does not become a lost art. 


© Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie