APRIL 20, 2009 MOBILITY
How the E-Book Will Change the Way We Read and Write
Author Steven Johnson outlines a future with more books, more distractions -- and the end of reading alone
By STEVEN JOHNSON
Every genuinely revolutionary technology implants some kind of "aha" moment in your memory -- the moment where you flip a switch and something magical happens, something that tells you in an instant that the rules have changed forever.
I still have vivid memories of many such moments: clicking on my first Web hyperlink in 1994 and instantly transporting to a page hosted on a server in Australia; using Google Earth to zoom in from space directly to the satellite image of my house; watching my 14-month-old master the page-flipping gesture on the iPhone's touch interface.
The latest such moment came courtesy of the Kindle, Amazon.com Inc.'s e-book reader. A few weeks after I bought the device, I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Austin, Texas, dutifully working my way through an e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel. After a few taps on the Kindle, I was browsing the Amazon store, and within a minute or two I'd bought and downloaded Zadie Smith's novel "On Beauty." By the time the check arrived, I'd finished the first chapter.
I knew then that the book's migration to the digital realm would not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but would likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways. It will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them. It will expand the universe of books at our fingertips, and transform the solitary act of reading into something far more social. It will give writers and publishers the chance to sell more obscure books, but it may well end up undermining some of the core attributes that we have associated with book reading for more than 500 years.
There is great promise and opportunity in the digital-books revolution. The question is: Will we recognize the book itself when that revolution has run its course?
The Dark Matter
In our always-connected, everything-linked world, we sometimes forget that books are the dark matter of the information universe. While we now possess terabytes of data at our fingertips, we have nonetheless drifted further and further away from mankind's most valuable archive of knowledge: the tens of millions of books that have been published since Gutenberg's day.
That's because the modern infosphere is both organized and navigated through hyperlinked pages of digital text, with the most-linked pages rising to the top of Google Inc.'s all-powerful search-results page. This has led us toward some traditional forms of information, such as newspapers and magazines, as well as toward new forms, such as blogs and Wikipedia. But because books have largely been excluded from Google's index -- distant planets of unlinked analog text -- that vast trove of knowledge can't compete with its hyperlinked rivals.
But there is good reason to believe that this strange imbalance will prove to be a momentary blip, and that the blip's moment may be just about over. Credit goes to two key developments: the breakthrough success of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, and the maturation of the Google Book Search service, which now offers close to 10 million titles, including many obscure and out-of-print works that Google has scanned. As a result, 2009 may well prove to be the most significant year in the evolution of the book since Gutenberg hammered out his original Bible.
If so, if the future is about to be rewritten, the big question becomes: How?
The World of Ideas
For starters, think about what happened because of the printing press: The ability to duplicate, and make permanent, ideas that were contained in books created a surge in innovation that the world had never seen before. Now, the ability to digitally search millions of books instantly will make finding all that information easier yet again. Expect ideas to proliferate -- and innovation to bloom -- just as it did in the centuries after Gutenberg.
Think about it. Before too long, you'll be able to create a kind of shadow version of your entire library, including every book you've ever read -- as a child, as a teenager, as a college student, as an adult. Every word in that library will be searchable. It is hard to overstate the impact that this kind of shift will have on scholarship. Entirely new forms of discovery will be possible. Imagine a software tool that scans through the bibliographies of the 20 books you've read on a specific topic, and comes up with the most-cited work in those bibliographies that you haven't encountered yet.
The Impulse Buy
The magic of that moment in Austin ("I'm in the mood for a novel -- oh, here's a novel right here in my hands!") also tells me that e-book readers are going to sell a lot of books, precisely because there's an impulse-buy quality to the devices that's quite unlike anything the publishing business has ever experienced before.
On another occasion, I managed to buy and download a book on a New York City subway train, during a brief two-stop stretch on an elevated platform. Amazon's early data suggest that Kindle users buy significantly more books than they did before owning the device, and it's not hard to understand why: The bookstore is now following you around wherever you go. A friend mentions a book in passing, and instead of jotting down a reminder to pick it up next time you're at Barnes & Noble, you take out the Kindle and -- voilà! -- you own it.
My impulsive purchase of "On Beauty" has another element to it, though -- one that may not be as welcomed by authors. Specifically: I was in the middle of the other book, and in a matter of seconds, I left it for one of its competitors. The jump was triggered, in this case, by a sudden urge to read fiction, but it could have been triggered by something in the book I was originally reading: a direct quote or reference to another work, or some more indirect suggestion in the text.
In other words, an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.
Because they have been largely walled off from the world of hypertext, print books have remained a kind of game preserve for the endangered species of linear, deep-focus reading. Online, you can click happily from blog post to email thread to online New Yorker article -- sampling, commenting and forwarding as you go. But when you sit down with an old-fashioned book in your hand, the medium works naturally against such distractions; it compels you to follow the thread, to stay engaged with a single narrative or argument.
The Kindle in its current incarnation maintains some of that emphasis on linear focus; it has no dedicated client for email or texting, and its Web browser is buried in a subfolder for "experimental" projects. But Amazon has already released a version of the Kindle software for reading its e-books on an iPhone, which is much more conducive to all manner of distraction. No doubt future iterations of the Kindle and other e-book readers will make it just as easy to jump online to check your 401(k) performance as it is now to buy a copy of "On Beauty."
As a result, I fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas -- will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.
You're Never Alone
Putting books online will also change how we find books -- and talk about them.
Now that books are finally entering the world of networked, digital text, they will undergo the same transformation that Web pages have experienced over the past 15 years. Blogs, remember, were once called "Web logs," cultivated by early digital pioneers who kept a record of information they found online, quoting and annotating as they browsed.
With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.") You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.
Think of it as a permanent, global book club. As you read, you will know that at any given moment, a conversation is available about the paragraph or even sentence you are reading. Nobody will read alone anymore. Reading books will go from being a fundamentally private activity -- a direct exchange between author and reader -- to a community event, with every isolated paragraph the launching pad for a conversation with strangers around the world.
This great flowering of annotating and indexing will alter the way we discover books, too. Web publishers have long recognized that "front doors" matter much less in the Google age, as visitors come directly to individual articles through search. Increasingly, readers will stumble across books through a particularly well-linked quote on page 157, instead of an interesting cover on display at the bookstore, or a review in the local paper.
Imagine every page of every book individually competing with every page of every other book that has ever been written, each of them commented on and indexed and ranked. The unity of the book will disperse into a multitude of pages and paragraphs vying for Google's attention.
In this world, citation will become as powerful a sales engine as promotion is today. An author will write an arresting description of Thomas Edison's controversial invention of the light bulb, and thanks to hundreds of inbound links from bookloggers quoting the passage, those pages will rise to the top of Google's results for anyone searching "invention of light bulb." Each day, Google will deposit a hundred potential book buyers on that page, eager for information about Edison's breakthrough. Those hundred readers might pale compared with the tens of thousands of prospective buyers an author gets from an NPR appearance, but that Google ranking doesn't fade away overnight. It becomes a kind of permanent annuity for the author.
Writing for Google
A world in which search attracts new book readers also will undoubtedly change the way books are written, just as the serial publishing schedule of Dickens's day led to the obligatory cliffhanger ending at the end of each installment. Writers and publishers will begin to think about how individual pages or chapters might rank in Google's results, crafting sections explicitly in the hopes that they will draw in that steady stream of search visitors.
Individual paragraphs will be accompanied by descriptive tags to orient potential searchers; chapter titles will be tested to determine how well they rank. Just as Web sites try to adjust their content to move as high as possible on the Google search results, so will authors and publishers try to adjust their books to move up the list.
What will this mean for the books themselves? Perhaps nothing more than a few strategically placed words or paragraphs. Perhaps entire books written with search engines in mind. We'll have to see.
(One geeky side note here: Before we can get too far in this new world, we need to have a technological standard for organizing digital books. We have the Web today because back in the early 1990s we agreed on a standard, machine-readable way of describing the location of a page: the URL.
But what's the equivalent for books? For centuries, we've had an explicit system for organizing print books in the form of page numbers and bibliographic info. All of that breaks down in this new digital world. The Kindle doesn't even have page numbers -- it has an entirely new system called "locations" because the pagination changes constantly based on the type size you choose to read. If you want to write a comment about page 32 of "On Beauty," what do you link to? The Kindle location? The Google Book Search page? This sounds like a question only a librarian would get excited about, but the truth is, until we figure out a standardized way to link to individual pages -- so that all the data associated with a specific passage from "On Beauty" point to the same location -- books are going to remain orphans in this new world.)
Paying Per Chapter?
The economics of digital books will likely change the conventions of reading and writing as well. Digital distribution makes it a simple matter to offer prospective buyers a "free sample" to entice them to purchase the whole thing. Many books offered for the Kindle, for instance, allow readers to download the first chapter free of charge. The "free sample" component of a book will become as conventional as jacket-flap copy and blurbs; authors will devise a host of stylistic and commercial techniques in crafting these giveaway sections, just as Dickens mastered the cliffhanger device almost two centuries before.
It's not hard to imagine, for instance, how introductions will be transformed in this new world. Right now, introductions are written with the assumption that people have already bought the book. That won't be the case in the future, when the introduction is given away. It will, no doubt, be written more to entice readers to buy the whole book.
Clearly, we are in store for the return of the cliffhanger.
For nonfiction and short-story collections, a la carte pricing will emerge, as it has in the marketplace for digital music. Readers will have the option to purchase a chapter for 99 cents, the same way they now buy an individual song on iTunes. The marketplace will start to reward modular books that can be intelligibly split into standalone chapters.
This fragmentation sounds unnerving -- yet another blow to the deep-focus linearity of the print-book tradition. Breaking the book into detachable parts may sell more books, but there are certain kinds of experiences and arguments that can only be conveyed by the steady, directed immersion that a 400-page book gives you. A playlist of the best chapters from "Middlemarch," "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Beloved" will never work the way a playlist of songs culled from different albums does today.
Yet that modular pricing system will have one interesting, and laudable, side effect: The online marketplace will have established an easy, one-click mechanism for purchasing small quantities of text.
Tellingly, the Kindle already includes blog and newspaper subscriptions that can be purchased in a matter of seconds.
Skeptics may ask why anyone would pay for something that was elsewhere available at no charge, but that's precisely what they said when Steve Jobs launched the iTunes Music Store, competing with the free offerings on Napster. We've seen how that turned out. If the Kindle payment architecture takes off, it may ultimately lead the way toward the standardized micropayment system whose nonexistence has caused so much turmoil in the news business -- a system many people wish had been built into the Web's original architecture, along with those standardized page locations.
We all know the story of how the information-wants-to-be-free ethos of the Web threatened the newspapers with extinction. Wouldn't it be ironic if books turned out to be their savior?—Mr. Johnson is the author of six books, most recently "The Invention of Air," and the co-founder of the hyperlocal news site outside.in. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He can be reached at email@example.com.