Picturing the future of the book

membership economy

This is a guest post from Alison Jones. Alison is a business and executive coach, content consultant and publisher. After a 23-year career in trade and scholarly publishing working with major publishers such as Oxford University Press and Macmillan, during which she pioneered digital publishing, she set up Alison Jones Business Services and the Practical Inspiration Publishing imprint in 2014.

Taking a picture with a camera used to be a tightly constrained process. Only the photographer, with the benefit of the viewfinder, could see what it might look like. Once the shutter clicked the picture was taken, for better or worse, and when it was developed and printed – and there was a cost, an entire industry associated with that process – the act of creation was complete. At that point it entered the pre-internet social ecosystem – tucked into a proud granny’s purse to show to strangers on a bus, framed on a mantelpiece, sent off to distant relatives, archived in an album, duplicated, enlarged maybe, but ultimately always defined by its physical constraints.

Today, in contrast, both the creation and distribution of a photograph are part of a complex social and technological ecosystem. The act of taking the picture is iterative – multiple shots can be taken, checked, discarded, only the most flattering retained. Once taken, the image might be edited – filtered, cropped, tagged, annotated – and immediately and freely shared. A picture is now part of the taker’s online identity in real time, it shows the world what they’re seeing, who they’re with, how they spend their time, it invites engagement in the form of shares, likes, comments. If it’s not on Facebook, as they say, it didn’t really happen.

There’s an interesting parallel with books, also once so tightly constrained in their creation and distribution.

The image file is a native of the open web. A lowish-res jpeg or png can be displayed and distributed freely on pretty much any browser or social media platform. And that’s one reason why it’s estimated that over a trillion pictures will be shared in 2015.

Books don’t quite work like that. Ebooks typically remain things apart, contained and constrained, locked to devices, or at best applications. It’s partly their inherent nature – the web may have been devised as a means of sharing text initially but books are looong, they can’t be taken in at a glance as a picture can, our brains get lost and our eyes get tired trying to read hundreds of text-heavy pages in a browser. But it’s also partly commercial interest: while there are publishers and retailers making money out of the sale of books, there’s an obvious reason to keep them locked down and difficult to share. (The PDF file is currently the most sharable file format, and the version still best loved by pirates, but it’s a print legacy and no fun at all to read on a mobile, which is where most users’ web experience seems increasingly to be heading.)

What will history’s verdict be on the impact of the ebook’s ‘otherness’? Will it be seen as a lucky technical quirk that saved the publishing industry, or its death sentence?

My suspicion is the latter, unless we can explore ways of engaging with books directly on the web. HTLM5 and more recently EPUBWEB are promising technologies, allowing cross-platform reading, but so far few publishers seem willing to engage. Perhaps it will be left to the next generation of platform-retailer, whatever replaces Kindle, and publishers will once again find themselves disrupted and disempowered.

Or maybe, just maybe, they’ll put themselves in the picture.


Related Articles

Sign up to our Newsletter


* indicates required

BookMachine Ltd. will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at hello@bookmachine.org. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices.