ScienceOnline: The Future Book

By Carl Zimmer | January 16, 2011 11:47 pm

At ScienceOnline today, I moderated a spirited session on the future of books. I kicked things off by talking about where we stand at the moment. Ebooks may still constitute a small fraction of book sales, but that fraction is swelling fast. While many ebooks are simply digitized text-dumps of the books you can find in physical bookstores, new kinds of ebooks are emerging. With new services like Smashwords and Createspace at Amazon, the real possibility has emerged of blogifying books–that is, writers publishing books for themselves without a spot of ink touching a single piece of paper. I described my own experiences with Brain Cuttings, which made clear to me that even in this new world, it still helps to work with people who know how to make books.

But other ebooks point to other possibilities. Neuroscientist David Eagleman recently delivered a lecture about how the Internet could save civilization from collapse. He then transformed it into an ebook–or, to be more precise, an iPad app. Why the Net Matters is organized into a series of chapters, each of which is accompanied by striking illustrations. On one page, Eagleman talks about how viruses could wipe out civilization, and a virus floats nearby. If you want, you can twirl the virus, or change its size with a flick of the fingers. Sometimes this combination of art and text works nicely, especially when Eagleman is talking about an interesting web site to investigate after reading Why the Net Matters. But some of the pictures are more like bells and whistles. Twirling a virus doesn’t help you understand Eagleman’s argument. What’s more, the text overlays the art on a translucent layer, so that the pictures can even make it hard to read. When this happens, I wish for a conventional book or a video of Eagleman’s lecture. (And voila.)

Twirling is exactly what feels right about The Solar System. Instead of an essay, this ebook is more of an encyclopedia, with entries for the Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, and comets. Marcus Chown, a veteran science writer, did a very good job with the text, so that it actually holds your attention. Some pages are accompanied by video taken by space probes. You can also navigate from planet to planet through an orrery, an elegant representation of the Solar System that you can navigate with your fingertips. Spinning Mars to see its polar caps works splendidly.

Tom Levenson, author of Newton and the Counterfeiter and director of MIT’s science writing program, took over from me. He put this new turning point in an historical perspective, arguing that each technological advance in books changes the kinds of books that get made. The invention of movable type led to an explosion of books–from 10,000 to 10 million in a matter of decades. In the future, Levenson predicted that lots of different kinds of books would co-exist, from arty bespoke books to “in-between” books–ebooks of intermediate length that would not have had a place in traditional publishing markets. But the role of the author will change, too. Instead of the solitary figure in front of a typewriter, we need to think of a screenwriter at a movie studio, working with directors and special effects masters and other specially trained people.

David Dobbs discussed his own experiences coming to grips with these new books. He is working on a book based on his Atlantic article on genes and the environment. He’s interested in collaborating with designers on an ebook version that could take advantage of iPads–such as designing graphs that readers can manipulate so that they can see how different combinations of genes and environmental experiences can lead to different results. Dobbs isn’t going to substitute his traditional book with these apps, however. In fact, he’s thinking of offering a stripped-down app for a low price that could lure people to buy the book.

The final panelist to speak with John Dupuis, an academic librarian at York University in Canada. Dupuis is putting a lot of his budget now into electronic books, but not without some reservations. He’s in the business of getting books into as many hands as he can; the ebook business seeks to monetize every reading experience. Dupuis can open up a book from the seventeenth century and start reading it immediately. Will people be able to read an app in four hundred years? Maybe we need microfilm…

A lot of the questions from the people who came to the session were of the nuts and bolts sort. How much does Amazon pay you for your own Kindle books? What role do editors have in this kind of publishing? How do you find a good app designer? I took all of these questions as good signs that people are thinking seriously about this new genre–if only to decide it’s better just to get back to writing.


Comments (16)

Links to this Post

  1. feels like a Friday | | January 27, 2011
  1. Great blog, the future of books is part of the future of scolary communicatiosa and electronic publicatios in general. I am currently organizing a workshop about these topics. The semantic web in the publishing industry. Take a look at, it is an ESWC 2011 workshop and we have an open call for papers.

  2. Robert Karl Stonjek

    Many people still like to hold a bit of mashed tree in their hands. Personally, I find it much harder to read off my perfectly clear LCD screen than paper, but the computer can read books to me so I can do other things whilst ‘reading’.

    But did the talk-fest consider the issue of piracy? It is pretty easy to pass around a book once you have a copy, but in the real world this would usually only mean a couple of people. But if the book is in electronic form then this becomes thousands. Even one of your books, ‘At the Water’s Edge‘, is available ‘under the digital counter’ (I have a paper copy) ~ how much do you get paid per download via Emule???

    On the upside, old classics are free. I’m just working my way through Rousseau, just read Emile and am about to read the Social Contract ~ all free from legitimate free book sites such as Project Gutenberg ~ he never used the phrase ‘Noble Savage’, which is interesting…

  3. A fun site that offers tons of speculation on where books are headed in the future, as well as some innovative actual e-books:

  4. I’m currently reading Darwin’s Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham. As usual, my book has accumulated lots of highlighted text and dozens of margin notes as I attempt to understand his point. That’s how I read books.

    I frequently flip back to earlier sections of the book that I’ve marked by folding over a corner of the page. I also flip frequently to the back of the book to check a citation or look up something in the index. Now it’s true that I could do all these things on an electronic reader but that’s not nearly as convenient. Furthermore, in the future this book will reside on my bookshelf where I can pull it down quickly to compare what Cunningham says with what I’ll be reading then. I often have several books open on my desk.

    I’m old enough to remember a time when tape cassettes were supposed to replace books. The idea is that when everyone had a Sony Walkman, paper books would be unnecessary.

    That didn’t happen—not even for novels.

  5. co2hound

    I’d make a comment but I’m still looking for the power cord.

  6. Jim Burton

    I downloaded the Eagleman app right away with pretty high expectations, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t have difficulty with the pictures conflicting with the images when I turned the iPad to it’s side.

  7. The future of the ebook may well be linked to the format in which the book is read. Amazon and other ebook sellers seem to have committed themselves to marketing stand-alone book readers like the Kindle (though they are now offering equivalent apps for PC and Apple desktops). It seems as if every publisher selling ebooks is obliged to offer it in in a variety of different formats to accomodate the various readers out there. Maybe the real future of ebooks rests in a universally accepted format (which seems unlikely at present).

  8. John Lynch

    If you haven’t seen it, check out Theodore Gray’s “The Elements” on the iPad (app store). It is the best example I’ve seen of a visual eBook. The Periodic Table is presented as a series of images of the actual elements where possible, and each entry includes various 3D models that you can spin, and a text description of what’s interesting about each element. It’s beautifully done, and I think it works well to increase understanding of what these elements are like. Considering the amount of effort that went into it, it’s well worth $14.

  9. Catharine

    What makes it hard for most of us to imagine the book (as object) fading into history and being replaced by digital text are the enormous sensual pleasures associated with reading a book. The way a book feels and smells, handling a book, turning pages…all of these things (at least for me) contribute to the great pleasure of reading. What is a pleasure for us may feel clumsy and awkward for generations that follow. My 14 yr old daughter, for example, reads far more on her Kindle than actual hard copies of books.

    Interestingly, like hyper-local newspapers, new small presses are popping up all the time. And the art of crafting homemade books is becoming more popular.

    My opinion is that books will eventually become obsolete. But most of us won’t live to see that day. The question becomes: Who, if anybody, will be able to make a living as a writer?

  10. Carl asks,

    Larry–as an author of a textbook, do you think etextbooks will become popular? That was another topic of discussion.

    They’ll become popular as soon as the publishers figure out a way to recover their costs and make some profit. We’re currently in the middle of producing the 5th edition of my book and right now there are eight people working full time on the project and half a dozen more working part time (including reviewers). They don’t work for free.

    Do you think students are going to pay $100 for an electronic version of a textbook that they can’t re-sell?

  11. Monkey

    Re: etextbook.

    for classroom use I know I would never go there. It would be good for kids to be able to log on to their online text, use it at home (never forget their book!!!) but as a teacher I can never assume that all kids have internet, ipad,whatever. I need to revert to the baseline of technologies that I can give them. They may catch on in universities where computer access and personal time on computers is not a limitation, but for highschools it will never catch, for teachers or for kids. This also links into a “computer for every kid in the classroom” debate, in which there would have to be a screen at every desk in order to use the etext as we would use the real text. Good idea, limited practicality in todays classroom. Also, I fear the day all teaching is e-teaching. Not as a teacher, but as a learner.

  12. Monkey

    Re: Larry Moran (11)

    Never even thought of that….good thoughts. I guess a total positive is the instant updating of material (oh how I hate it when I realize a kid has the 3rd edition instead of the 6th edition and while im teaching about XYZ they are reading about what we knew about XYZ 6 years or more ago….when your textbook cache has 60 books and you have 63 students, whatta ya going to do?).

    Still, while smartboards and the like are expensively creeping into classrooms, and iEverything makes its way to the hands of the population the kids are going to want better stuff. My school was having a grand old time trying to turn the problem of cellphones (Jacob, please turnoff your cell phone) into a solution (Jacob, I see your phone is on..can you check wikipedia for us and see if they have posted anything new about XYZ…). I know….wiki as a primary source….bad..I know!!! Just an example. TEchnology in the classroom is going to be changing, and we need to stay ahead to optimize that which is education – learning – and fortify it with what the kids know/use, but sometimes the over-technologification (yeah, I just invented that word so Carl can toss it on his list :) ) of education ends up as a net loss. I see – highschool – textbooks as online formats only as a net loss, in the end. University, online learning, etc…potential. But there are economic costs, too, as Larry pointed out.

  13. Pat A

    To over rely on the net could be the down fall of mankind. What happens to the information should there be a serious eruption and dust cloud the atmosphere so info from satalites cannot be transmitted. What happens in any emergency, earthquake when power is out. Your i-pad might work but the facility where your provider is located could quit working.
    Give me a book I can sit and read when the power is out or a puzzle book to use.

    [CZ: Fair point. But how many books from the Library of Alexandria can you sit down with today?]

  14. WRT textbooks, ebooks are attractive precisely because they *can’t* be resold. They might not have to cost $100. Say you could have 12 months of access to a textbook outside your major for 50% of the print price and you could get it immediately. That model already exists, and it’s pretty attractive all around.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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