The Future of the Book

Where will we read and on what is almost as big a question these days in publishing as what we will. Everyone is placing bets, and the last few months have been very interesting. Actually, I think the last few days have been extremely interesting on the future of the book front—maybe it’s just post-black-Friday electronics overflow—so I’m going to do a round up of the data points as I see them:

1.The indispensable public radio program On the Media occasionally trains its gaze on the book industry for a whole show, and they did so again last weekend. It’s all fascinating, but I really liked hearing this rebroadcast of a segment on a woman who read Little Dorritt in four formats, audio, Kindle, iPhone, and trade paper, and called iPhone the “revelation.” Couple this with anecdotal comments about the superior sharpness and clarity of smartphones that have come out since, and I begin to wonder about

2. Speaking of indispensible, Fuse #8 has some interesting comments on iPod/iPhone picture books. I remain skeptical, even if the execution is excellent. I handed my iPod Touch to my 21-month-old son in the airport last weekend in a moment of desperation (Chicago, Thanksgiving, enough said), and he loved clicking the button and watching the screen change, but there’s no way could he would suffer me to hold it and moderate the interaction as he will with a book. I’m not sure if an older kid wouldn’t simply insist on a movie or a game (for which the device is better suited). Sure, parents might insist on a book as the “healthier” alternative, but I suspect most iPhone-to-kindergartener handoffs will be born of back-of-minivan frustration.

3. I think the market for kids books on cell phones is much older. Now that every carrier has what David Pogue calls an app phone on one of the three major platforms (Apple, Android, and Blackberry—four if you count Windows Mobile) and now that they’re competing on price, I suspect we’ll see more teens with phone capable of downloading ebooks from retailers and libraries. Teens are used to text on LCD screens, and I don’t think they’re likely to respond to the “it looks like paper” appeal of Kindle’s epaper nearly as much as they’re going to respond to the “it’s already in my pocket” appeal of a smartphone. Even more interesting than this (and less idly speculative) is this NPR report on minority use of smartphones. The gist:

“About a third of Americans have gone online using a cell phone or other hand-held device. And an increasing number of people are using the devices for activities such as texting, sending e-mails, playing music and instant messaging. According to a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center, most of those hyperusers are young Latinos and blacks.”

Why not ebooks? We just have top reach them with the right books.