Research: Que Leer Interview
INTERVIEW WITH QUE LEER MAGAZINE
What will the world of the library look like in 2020? Six experts predict the future.
The influential Spanish cultural magazine Que Leer ("What to Read") recently interviewed me for my thoughts on where the future of the book is heading in an article titled What will the world of the library look like in 2020? Six experts predict the future. You can read the full interview below in English, excerpts of which appeared in Spanish in the January 2009 issue of the magazine (pages 38-45) and on Que Leer's website.
1-In your opinion, what will books look like in 10 years?
I remember reading back in the late 1990's about book digitization projects and how they would render the book obsolete, but obviously here we are almost a decade later and these projects, while they have made tremendous strides, aren't quite there yet. I think that Google Book Search is the closest of all, simply given the speed and efficiency at which it is able to operate. I think one of the biggest obstacles has been not the technology, but rather the lack of a business model to support them financially. Internet search engines have been around a long time, but it took Google to show us new ways in which a search engine could monetize its traffic and become not just a portal destination for web search traffic, but a destination for all kinds of traffic. I think that as Google Book Search becomes more integrated into Google web search results (already Google will display a subset of Google Book Search results for certain queries, but overall, book results have not been very integrated into Google's other products), the utility of these projects will only continue to grow. Right now you still have to go into these walled gardens to search these digitized books, as opposed to having them integrated with all of the rest of the information you seek on the web. I think as this happens, business models will emerge around this content, helping to produce revenue streams that will drive further innovation and greatly expand the reach of digital books.
A printed book is designed for human consumption, and the audience and potential applications of its content are limited to the abilities of the reader. Historically, language has been a tremendous barrier in the audience for books: most works are published only in a single language, and only the largest works are translated into large numbers of languages. Digital books, on the other hand, are designed for both humans and computers and that opens the door to some unique possibilities for accessing and interacting with book content. Machine translation (in which a computer translates a document from one language to another) continues to make tremendous strides. Google Translate has helped popularize this technology in translating web page results, and while the need for human translators won't go away anytime soon, the technology is good enough now to give you a very reasonable "general gist" translation of an entire book on-demand in just a few minutes. The nuances of fine literature will be lost with the current generation of technology, but the results are often highly useable, and I think that as this technology continues to evolve, we will gradually begin to see the language barrier soften for certain types of scholarship.
However, it is not just the accessing of content that will change in the world of digital books. Since the dawn of publishing, books have been static containers of words from which we produce our own interpretations. In the digital world, our understanding of how we interact with books will be forever changed through the ability of computers to offer us additional interpretations that may be beyond our human abilities. In one simple, but extremely powerful, example, Google Book Search has incorporated "geocoding" technology into its service that displays a map view of a book, with pinpoints showing every reference to a geographic place in the book. This makes it possible to instantly see the geographic focus of a given work.
So, I think the short answer to this question is that the digital book will allow so many new dimensions of interacting with and understanding content that we have never had before.
2-This year Amazon has sold one million Kindles. Looks like this is the future. Do you think Amazon will change our industry?
At this point, digital book readers have kept very close to their electronic roots and even the Kindle still feels more like a "computer" than a "book". On the simplest level, there are the physical restrictions of electronic readers that we don't have with paper. I read the newspaper everyday over lunch and there are the inevitable spills, splashes, and dirty fingerprints, and the disposable nature of newspaper makes that OK, but obviously not so with laptops or the current generation of digital book readers. On the other hand, digital readers allow us to transcend geographic boundaries and read newspapers from around the globe, to see how an event is covered in different countries (indeed, one of the projects I help lead at the Cline Center involves examining the world's news to understand global events). As recently as this month, NewspaperDirect Inc. announced that its 800+ newspapers and magazines from more than 80 countries will be available on the iRex digital reader, meaning users can download in a matter of seconds the news content they want from any of these sources and have it ready on their reader for the morning commute.
I see digital book readers heading in two directions: Interface and Interactivity. In terms of interface, people still like being able to flip through the pages of a book. You can rapidly skim a thick book to see if it is of interest to you, something that is much harder with a mouse and a keyboard on a laptop or digital book reader. Perhaps the ideal digital book reader would have the physical form of a book, with several hundred physical pages, each of them a paper-thin flexible electronic display, and you would wirelessly download the book of your choice into it, and each page would display the corresponding page from the book. Email has steadily replaced physical mail, and we have increasingly embraced computerized communication, but reading books by computer seems to have lagged. I think part of this is due to their length: it is one thing to read a five-sentence email on a laptop or PDA screen; it is a different story entirely to try reading a 500-page book. Think about the last time you received an email attachment with a document that was 20 or more pages long. Did you sit there and read the entire document on your laptop, or did you print it out to read at your desk, right in front of your computer?
Interactivity is the second area where I think digital book readers will really change how we interact with the printed word. Books have historically been a static read-only medium that could only be browsed, not searched. Digital books allow hyperlinks to jump the reader around to related sections in the book, and even keyword searching. The importance of books as whole objects is lessened and instead they become primarily containers for ideas. Using Google Book Search we can search through many copyrighted books, and even though we can't view them online in their entirety, we at least know that a book that we may never have heard of otherwise contains some content of relevance to our search. In the "old days", scholars travelled far and wide and tended to focus their scholarship around a small set of works, while today they search across the literary universe and weave it into a narrative. The music industry has followed a similar trajectory: it is no longer the album that is the focus, fans now purchase individual songs. Newspapers, too, are no longer focused on selling an "issue": they sell stories now, with web visitors "paying" through the ads they view when reading an article. Newspaper readers are likely to follow links from other sites to read a single article and then move on, not purchase the entire issue from a newsstand. So, I think you will see something similar happen in the realm of digital books. Books are more cohesive and tied together than newspapers or music albums, so I'm not sure that they will undergo as dramatic of a change, with individual chapters becoming the commodity instead of the "book", but only history will be able to tell us that. Perhaps one telling trend, however, is the fact that newspaper websites aren't replicas of their print editions, they offer the same content, but in a discrete form, where each article has its own page, and with links, search engines, and other features connecting them together.
3-In Spain, the digital book business has not been developed yet, but in other countries is already highly developed. What conditions are needed in a country to develop these kinds of books?
France offers one view on this, with then-President Jacques Chirac calling in 2005 for a European digitization project that would focus on Europe's unique cultural heritage. Given the dominate position of the Spanish language, I think it is only a matter of time before we see the digitization of Spanish books become a priority. In particular, the technology for digitization and the book readers themselves are independent of language and will support whatever digital works become available. Hence, as Spanish-language works are digitized, they will be able to fit seamlessly into this digital ecosystem.
How do we prioritize and increase the volume of Spanish-language works? The largest book digitization projects today are commercial, and it is the revenue models they have built that sustain their growth. Many of these efforts have been led by US-based organizations, so they have focused on English works, but I think that as the market for Spanish works is realized, and revenue models become available around those markets, then those companies will devote considerable resources to this language. Simultaneously, in the meantime, the market is wide open for Spanish firms to undertake these efforts based on specialized revenue models. In China, Beijing-based Superstar worked with 200 Chinese libraries to scan their complete holdings. When it was done, Superstar had generated a digital collection totaling 1.3M works in all, estimated to be half of all books published in the country since 1949. The company then sells the books to Chinese libraries at just $0.50 a copy, enabling even small local libraries to quickly and cheaply increase their collections by several orders of magnitude. In this way a commercial venture has become, in some ways, almost a cultural institution helping to spread the literary wealth of the nation.
Another way to jump-start the digitization mindset in a country is to leverage a particularly important cultural collection. In the United States, Google recently unveiled its Time Magazine LIFE photo archive, in which it is collaborating with Time Magazine to digitize its collection of photographs and illustrations chronicling American life from the 1750's to present day. The incredible time span of this collection makes it of unique cultural value in serving as a visual archive of American history. Similarly, I think you may see special projects like this spring up in other countries that will captivate the popular imagination and help pave the way for other large-scale digitization projects.
4-We cannot forget the problem of paper. The publishing industry consumes significant amounts of paper and the environment can not support this paper consumption. Do you think that the digital book is the solution?
I think this will depend very heavily on how digital reading devices continue to develop. The digital revolution was supposed to bring us "the paperless office", yet paper seems to be just as in demand, or even more so, than ever before. Printer sales are up in many countries, for example, Oki Data Corp had a 50% jump in its printer business in Malaysia in the first half of 2008, so people seem to be printing more, not less. In fact, the digital book may actually increase paper consumption, as people are likely to print the digital books they download. The real transition I think will occur when digital book readers mature to the point where they present an interface that people are as comfortable with as paper.
5-Book digitization and virtual libraries are other trends that will change the cultural industry. Google is digitizing a lot of books and users will download all the novels and books that they want. How this will change the cultural industry?
I think the biggest change that mass book digitization will bring to the cultural industry is the resurrection of many "dead" works into popular consumption. For example, the Revistas y Guerra site that the University of Illinois was involved with used digitization to scan and publish on the web a collection of magazines showcasing how the print culture of Spain was influenced by the Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939. The average person would never have access to many of these works, but through digitization and this web site, they can browse through them from anywhere in the world. Cultural artifacts, in particular, tend to be locked away in archives and museums, and digitization offers the new possibility of making these works more broadly available to the public, even to students and scholars in other countries.
6-What is the biggest problem in book digitization?
At the moment there is a definite trade-off between quality and quantity, but technology is gradually reducing that trade-off. The real barrier right now is the lack of expertise with the technology of digitization: libraries are still thinking of digitization in old-fashioned terms and have not yet embraced the high-volume mindset of the new breed of book digitization projects. I personally digitized over 8,000 pages of material for a project chronicling the history of the University of Illinois over a weekend with just a laptop, 2 desklamps, and a consumer digital camera. Software takes all of these images and does the heavy lifting that makes digitization at this scale possible. Most current photo management software is designed for handing a few hundred vacation photos, not the tens of millions of images generated by a large book scanning project, but I think you are going to see a lot of work in this area in the future.
Look at the huge open source software movement, where you have these massive communities of volunteers working for free under the common good of developing software. We haven't really seen anything like this in the book digitization world, largely because of the barriers to entry. Unlike programming, where all you need is a computer, digitization requires a camera, lighting, image management software, and the experience to put it all together. Yet, I think it is entirely feasible to set up a service where volunteers would comb through their local libraries, finding suitable books, checking in a central registry to see if they were already digitized, photographing the books page-by-page, and uploading the images to a site that would process them into a final PDF file available on the web. There is always the issue of varying quality, but sites like Wikipedia have shown us that this type of public-generated content approach is possible. Indeed, this is the vision laid out by Jean-Noel Jeanneney's now-famous Google And the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View from Europe, and I recently completed a book manuscript titled A Practical Guide to Low-Cost Digitization that I hope will help accelerate this kind of volunteer digitization. Digital imaging devices are a prevalent part of popular culture now, just look at YouTube, and so I think if we have an open source community that develops around this model of volunteer digitization and makes the interface to submit content as easy as something like YouTube, then we will start seeing ground-up contributions.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the mass digitization of books, however, is a legal one: copyright. Copyright laws differ across countries and are often extremely nuanced, with broad prohibitions that will likely prevent or at least slow down the digitization of many types of works. This is an issue that will have to be addressed through the courts or new legislation, but for the time being, if we focus our efforts on works no longer protected by copyright (such as books published before 1923 in the United States), we can make significant headway in building our digital libraries while the fate of more recent books is decided. More importantly, it is these older works that often have significant cultural importance, but tend to be available only in archives, so digitizing them will have a greater impact than an in-print book that can be picked up at the local bookstore.
7-And what is the main advantage?
I've remarked on many of the advantages of book digitization in my responses to earlier questions, but I think the possibilities of digital books are endless. Imagine being able to walk into your local library and "keyword search" every book in the building. Instead of just finding books with your keyword in the title, you would find every work that contains chapters or sections (or even passing references if that's important) with your keyword. We have come to rely on very primitive electronic catalog search tools for our libraries that only let us search titles and a few subject tags. Imagine if web search engines only allowed us to search page titles! Instead, we insist on ever-more advanced search capabilities on web search engines, not just searching for our keywords, but helping rank the resulting information to get us to the most relevant works first. Why should we settle for less when it comes to books?
There is also the notion of sharing our interpretations of the books we read. Books have historically been a read-only medium, where an author constructs a narrative that is then mass-delivered to an audience. The same held true for the original Web, but the world seems to be heading in a new direction, with everything from blogs to major newspaper sites allowing visitors to submit comments and/or add metadata tags and other annotations that are then visible to anyone. I think we are only just beginning to fully come to terms with what this will permit, but its important to note that these are only really possible in the digital realm. If I make notes in the margins of my personal copy of Don Quijote, those notes are only viewable by me, I can't share them with the world and get others' comments, or start a dialog based on them. I think that as digital book readers blend content delivery with rich feedback mechanisms like touchscreens, we will see a new generation of digital books, where I can publish my margin notes to the world and when you load a book onto your reader, you could choose from a list of different people's margin notes to see their comments as you go. Many DVD movies now come with a "director's commentary" option in which you hear the director offering a continual background narrative on the movie as it plays, and this kind of technology would permit an even richer environment for digital books.
8-Do you think that some companies like Amazon or Google will end up being the publishers, booksellers and distributors in the future? Why?
To a certain degree, we have already witnessed this passing of the torch in the music industry. It is no longer the major music labels that dominate the distribution of music, it is a computer company: the Apple iTunes Store. The cost of "publishing" digital books is considerably lower than print content, and, unlike the print world, digital files can be replicated on-demand as they are purchased. This is an important distinction, as large traditional publishers must use a book's commercial viability as an important criterion for whether to proceed with the publication process. Companies maintain a small stable of books in print at any time. In the digital book world, however, there are no "inventory" costs and the more books a company offers for purchase, the more opportunities it has to make a sale to a potential customer. Companies like Google and Amazon can offer the digital equivalent of "self-publishing", where they do not offer the editing, design, marketing, and other services of traditional publishers, but instead accept digital files in ready-to-publish form from and simply add them to their websites for purchase. The cost is minimal given their existing investment in infrastructure, and they can take a cut of the profit. Amazon already offers such a publishing program for its Kindle reader.
Another important point for thought here is the notion of advertising-supported viewing of books. Google Book Search does not charge for access to its collections; instead it displays targeted advertisements as part of the viewer interface when reading a book from its service. This opens the door to the notion of offering books for free online viewing and generating a revenue stream through displaying advertisements alongside the content. Instead of a one-time purchase fee, publishers would receive an ongoing revenue stream, even on older works that would traditionally be sold through "used book" channels with no revenue going back to the publisher.
9-The music world has shown us that piracy is a big problem. Should we fear the emergence of the same problem in the world of digital books?
Piracy has been a problem since the dawn of the personal computer. I think people have a fundamental disconnect between the "physical" and "virtual" worlds: a person that would never dream of walking out of a music store without paying for a CD might not think twice about downloading a pirated MP3 file from a website. In particular, I think the small file size, ease of sharing, and mass-market appeal of music files have made them particular targets of piracy. As bandwidth and storage has become cheaper, we have begun to see an increase in movie piracy as well. So I think it is almost a certainty that we will see the same phenomena with books.
Yet, I think we will see a gradual shift in the marketplace as it adjusts to offer consumers product offerings that discourage them from piracy. Companies have begun to realize that suing people who download music illegally isn't having enough of an impact on piracy and that they must explore more innovative ways to discourage it. In the music world, we saw the industry unbundle songs so that instead of buying an entire album, consumers could buy just the songs they were interested in, increasing the value they perceive from their purchase. The movie industry is another example, where selected DVDs in the United States are beginning to come with "digital video editions" prepackaged on the DVD for iPods and other portable media players. Publishers have recognized that the technology is there for home users to convert DVDs on their own into digital files and if they've gone through all that work, they may be more tempted to share with friends and family. If, on the other hand, the DVD comes ready to load a copy of the movie legally onto their iPod, they are more likely to use that copy than spend the time to make their own version. The movie file bundled with the DVD can come with various copy protections to discourage sharing, and by giving consumers a copy that is already ready for their portal movie player and that has some content controls built in, the studios are potentially heading off some of these piracy issues.
As I note in my last response, there is also the novel idea of generating revenue from books through advertisements instead of charging for access. Some television stations show movies periodically and instead of charging a fee for showing that movie, the station generates revenue from the advertisements shown during the movie. Think of it this way: if you had to pay $100 for a digital book and received a PDF file on a CD to load onto your computer, there would likely be a certain degree of temptation to share that PDF with a friend that wanted a copy. If, on the other hand, the book was hosted free on Google Book Search, you would probably just send your friend a link to the page instead of going through the trouble of downloading the PDF file and burning it to a CD or putting it on a file sharing service. Google would reap significant advertising revenue from every access, and there would be little incentive for others to repost the content. Google also offers tremendous value-add to the "experience" of accessing its content, from interactive maps of geographic references to an intuitive user interface that doesn't require downloading a huge file to quickly skim a book to see if it is of interest. Right now most music services like iTunes are simply raw delivery mechanisms: you choose a song and a file is downloaded to your computer. With Google Book Search, on the other hand, everything occurs inside their online portal, you aren't downloading anything to your computer. I think these kinds of "value added" services will help discourage piracy in that it is the delivery platform that is adding significant value to the content that would be lost in the pirated version.