E = Media Combinations2: The survival of the fittest
Every old medium was once new. And when something gets old we’ve got to search for a way to give it its old glance back. The printed book was once a new medium. It was revolutionary, groundbreaking. But today the book is just a commodity. It is still used very often, but for how long? Terry Flew wrote in his book ‘New Media: An Introduction’ the following:
‘Media technologies that we now consider to be ‘old’ were once ‘new’, so too do media technologies that were once ‘new’ become ‘old’.’ (Flew, 2008)
With the coming of a new medium we know already that it is bound to get old someday and maybe vanish eventually. We’ve seen it at least a thousand times before in history. The compact disc replaced the tape and the car replaced the horse carriage. But for every dying medium a younger, better medium arises. It is the circle of the mediated life. But what will the future hold for the printed book?
The printed book is aging, but how long will this process continue? Publishers, new media experts and the sort are thinking of new ways to reinvent this medium. Will this be possible? And is it actually necessary? The clay tablet was one of the first ways to transport a written text. When the clay tablet died papyrus and parchment took over. When the printed press was invented the transportation of the written words became much more easier. Nowadays predecessors of the book are almost completely extinct. But with the coming of the digital era and the rise of the eBook, will the printed book too extinct? Writer Leo de Haes asks himself the same question in his essay ‘The book in the digital era’. He is convinced that the book won’t disappear in the foreseeable future. It may only appear in a different way. So, it is not a question about whether the book will be extinct, but in what way it will survive.
According to Robert Darnton the book has an ‘extraordinary staying power’. Its size and capabilities prove it an amazing invention. In that case writers and readers don’t have to worry about the future of the book. Darnton even takes it a few steps further.
‘It does not need to be upgraded or downloaded, accessed or booted, plugged into circuits or extracted from webs. Its design makes it a delight to the eye. Its shape makes it a pleasure to hold in the hand. And its handiness has made it the basic tool of learning for thousands of years, even before the library of Alexandria was founded early in the fourth century BC.’ (Darnton)
If we look at the history of the book it is amazing to see that it still exists. It survived lot. It may even be on the top of the mediated food chain. Marshall McLuhan predicted the end of the printed book in 1962. But as of 2010 the digital age didn’t drive the printed culture into extinction. On the contrary, books are nowadays even more popular than before. Look for example at the sales records of the Harry Potter books.
Media are like organisms: they evolve. This kind of evolution takes form by the principle of remediation (Bolter & Grusin red.) In this case newer media copy and improve facets of older media. Wikipedia, for instance, remediates the encyclopedia and Twitter remediates the blogosphere but also instant messaging. But what will eventually remediate the printed book? How will the book evolve in de (near) future? De Haes thinks we don’t have to worry about the form a book takes. The content matters and that won’t change.
‘If the book in its present form will cease to exist, it is equally regrettable as the disappearance of the clay tablet. Roughly speaking, how a text is transported, is secondary.’ (De Haes)
American literary critic Sven Birkerts doesn’t think the transport of the text is secondary. He believes that the meaning of a word depends on the medium. A text is not mere a text. It is all about context if we believe Birkerts.
‘When you write the word across a football stadium in skywriting, you’re not just writing the word, you’re writing the perception of the word through the air. When you’re incising a word on a tombstone, you’re not merely writing the word, you’re writing a word as incised on a tombstone. Same for the book, and same for the screen. The medium matters because it defines the arena of sentience. The screen not only carries the words, it also says that communication is nothing more than the transfer of evanescent bits across a glowing panel.’ (Birkerts)
If we look at the future of written word, of the printed book, then we might actually look at the perception of it. In that light it is not only about the literal form of a book, but also of its metaphorical form. Then it is not so much about whether the eBook will be a rival of the printed literature, but about what kind of changes the electronic world offers to the offline writing and reading culture?
Many writers want to broaden their horizon by moving towards electronic publishing. This means that they will also publish their work online and offer their material in the form of eBooks. To reach a bigger market and spread the risks are not the only reasons to embrace ePublishing. For academics it is a faster way to publish their work. In a variety of fields, like media studies, the news flow is very fast. It takes sometimes ages to get your paper published in a journal. By that time information may be outdated. In that case it is better to publish your work online. You have to keep your tank full in order to join the race. Once the tank is empty it isn’t easy to get back in the game.
With the comments of Birkerts and Darnton in mind we don’t have to worry about the future of the printed book. We should not look at ePublishing as a grave danger to the printed culture. See it as an alternative way of reading. The horse carriage didn’t actually vanish. It only found a new place within society. It is still a transportation device like the car. The same could happen to the book. It is one of the many alternatives to transport a text. Thus, ePublishing is just an extra option to choose from. Eventually everything will get its place within the hierarchy of the printed culture.
Dutch writer Judith Visser already caters the market of ePublishing. She is aware of the possibilities this new distribution system offers. ‘All my books are available as eBooks nine months after the printed release.’ She chooses this approach to refrain from rivalry between the printed and the digital version. The first is still the main source of her income. She found the right formula. ‘This system works very well for me.’ This illustrates once again that the printed book is still popular.
Creators of eBooks are highly anticipating on printed books. E-readers are obviously a remediation of the book, some even more than others. There are e-readers with two sides to read from and a leatherback to give it an extra bookish feel. Although this electronic medium is presented as the next best thing, it stays conscientiously close to its predecessor.
E-publishing is a growing market, especially in the Netherlands. The online bookstore Bol.com sold over 100.000 e-readers in the last six months. In America 8,5 percent of the book sales consists of e-books. ‘Bol.com sells only one year after the launch for over 5 percent of digital books’, said Daniel Ropers, managing director at Bol.com on ereaders.nl. Still, most people prefer to read an actual book. Even Bill Gates confessed that he hates reading long texts from a screen.
‘Reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off of paper. Even I, who have these expensive screens and fancy myself as a pioneer of this Web Lifestyle, when it comes to something over about four or five pages, I print it out and I like to have it to carry around with me and annotate. And it’s quite a hurdle for technology to achieve to match that level of usability.’ (Gates)
Writers will always search for new ways to publish their material. Every medium is a possible publisher. As I stated in ‘Is micro blogging the future for writers?’ it is necessary for writers to explore these other media. The Wachowsky brothers did it with the Matrix. They used media convergence to its full potential. However, a writer can’t express himself in the art of drawing or filming, but he can use ePublishing as an extra tool within the media convergence of the written culture. Maybe micro-blogging is not the way to publish a novel, but it is certainly a new way to explore the art of writing. New forms may emerge and maybe become a part of a master formula for writing and publishing.
These days it is the key to keep the attention of your public. Within the media industry everything is volatile, like gas. Writers, producers, everyone has to work hard to keep their heads above water. After the release of the seventh Harry Potter book in 2007 its writer J.K. Rowling vanished of the radar. She tried to match the success of the series with a bundle of fairytales from the Harry Potter world, but she failed completely. We never heard of her ever since. There are thousands of other examples that match this kind of decline in success. After release of the last Harry Potter movie I doubt we ever hear from her again. Besides writers, also producers try to keep the attention of the public. Dutch television program Scrooged from the Evangelische Omroep tried to involve their viewers with a widget specially designed for the social network site Hyves. Their highly popular program Jong keeps their viewers up to date by updating them via Twitter.
There are many ways to refrain a new medium from getting old. Nowadays E-publishing is the way to go. Because it is still developing it is hard to say what effects it has on the future form of the book. According to Birkerts the experience of this medium will change. But does the experience of the latest novel of Judith Visser change when you read it from an e-reader instead of reading it off paper? It still consists of the exact same words. Maybe we wonder too much about what might happen. According to Leo de Haes the medium is secondary. It is the content that counts. Writers will always write, no matter what medium. They only look for the right formula of writing and publishing; the best media mix. In that case we don’t have to wonder if the book will survive or even in what way it will. More interesting is what new ways of publishing will the future hold and what place will it get in the society of tomorrow?
 Flew, Terry. New Media: An Introduction. 2005
 Birkerts, Sven. Kk.Org. The fate of the book.