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Friday, 31 December 2010

The Future of the Book

Some end-of-2010 thoughts by Jon Stone on the rise and stumble of the e-book

Shuffling around Foyles on Charing Cross Road in the days leading up to Christmas, it's hard to reconcile everything you've been hearing about the popularity of the Kindle with the dozens of people crowding out every aisle and corner of the shop in search of appropriate Christmas presents. What will these people do when the book goes electronic? You can't buy someone a megabyte's worth of downloaded data for a gift. You can't steal their e-reader, change their credit card details to yours, purchase the desired bonkbuster/Booker winner/how-to manual, change the credit card details back, tie a ribbon around it and leave it under the tree. You could give them some kind of gift card, I suppose, but you might as well give them money.

The Kindle's designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information into their brain through their eyes and isn't really bothered about the method of conveyance.

As it is, books remain the ideal present for anyone who will have them. They're the easiest things in the world to wrap. They come in a wide range of forms &ndash fitting a wide range of budgets &ndash from £7 paperback thrillers to £30 coffee table monsters. And most importantly of all, there're millions of them. Compare book-browsing to the purchase of a DVD, where the recipient's narrow taste in genre restricts you to a few dozen titles, any of which they may already own or have seen recently. Pity the poor parents in Game or HMV trying to remember which Sims 4 expansion pack is needed and for which console. In any decent-sized bookshop, there will be something they like. There must be. If they read at all, that is. And if they don't, they're out of the equation anyway, as far as the book versus e-book debate goes.
But then you get home and take a good, long look at your flat. If you're anything like me, your last week-long overhaul of your living space resulted in you finding just enough space to fit most of the things you own, though only after bidding goodbye to various treasured possessions. You also don't own your flat and the way the world's going, you'll never own a flat. Four years is the longest you've lived anywhere, and you remember what the most irksome thing to move last time was: the boxes and boxes of books. If only you had some kind of Star Trek-style device that you could point at the heaving, bowing shelves to turn all but the most stylish of your tomes into data, to be stored away and retrieved only when some title bears re-reading.

But then, if you're like me, you've had a Kindle for a year now and found it an endless source of annoyance. Forget the fact that the screen was broken by a light nudge from a shoe and that no one seems to be able to tell you how to get it fixed (accounts of whether Amazon replaces them for free, no questions asked, rub up against complaints about the company offering no solution other than the purchase of a brand new model). Forget also the fact that you're restricted to what Amazon stocks in its online store (without even touching on the subject of censorship, in the past year I've simply not been able to buy most books I've wanted to. "Think of a book and start reading it in 30 seconds" my foot). There's also the fact that most books are plainly run through some sort of conversion software without an editor or proofreader taking the time to check the quality of the end result. So where the editor of the original book has used soft return to fine-tune the letter-spacing, removing the space from between two words and replacing it with a line break, those two words appear stuck together in the e-book file. In the e-book version of Under the Ivy: The Life and Music of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson, which cost about £10, there was at least one such accidental compound word every second page or so.

And why does the Kindle insist on rendering everything in the same so-so font? Why are designers, copy-editors and typographers &ndash each vital to the book-crafting process &ndash dumped altogether in favour of a one-size-fits-all approach to every genre under the sun? Supposedly, one might think, to give the user more control over how they view the text. Alas, not so much. The user has no choice of font either (at least up to the Kindle 2), and very little in the way of other options. You can make the text bigger or smaller. That's about it. It's not much help when trying to read a book like Ways of Seeing by John Berger, where the Kindle seems incapable of fitting an image on the same page as its caption, no matter how big or small you make the writing. The Kindle's designers seem to have thought of books as mere vessels for vast volumes of text. The user is trying to get the information &ndash or the gist of it &ndash into their brain through their eyes and isn't really bothered about the method of conveyance, so long as it doesn't put a strain on their arms or their wallets. If only human beings had a USB port on them, we could do away with text altogether.

In regard to looks as well, the book is still way out in front, with far more potential for character and individuality in its design. Covers can still wow us. They can still make me, as a wannabe graphic designer, miserable with envy. Despite Amazon's best efforts, even the latest Kindle has all the verve and charm of a pager or electronic organiser. As with all gadgets, it will hold no interest as a physical object after a year on the high street (at least until it's long forgotten), which is presumably why Amazon is releasing a new version almost annually. How many people are going to regularly upgrade, at £100 a pop, for a bit of fizz and freshness in the feel and appearance of their reading matter?

But then, what to do about the space problem? And the taking-books-on-holiday problem? And the increasing-costs-of-printing-for-independent-presses problem? OK, here's my solution, my best-of-both-worlds future: books on cartridges. I'm imagining them about the size of Nintendo DS cartridges. Because they come in boxes, skilled designers can still run wild, but the cartridges can also be stored in storage cases, enabling you to fit a bookshelf into something the size of a glasses case for your daily sojourns. The boxes can be displayed prominently in shops, are easily wrapped as gifts, and look super on a shelf, but are smaller than conventional books and &ndash more importantly &ndash much lighter, a mercy when it comes to moving. A design team has full control over how the book looks on the screen when it's initially booted up, but the user is able to tinker with it themselves. E-readers, in this scenario, would become as ubiquitous as MP3 players, since they'd no longer need to be attached to any particular online bookstore. If books were designed with a touch-screen interface in mind (again, as with Nintendo DS games), the only physical controls you'd strictly need would be an on-off switch.

Of course, being physical objects, cartridges would be more costly than e-books (although they should be recyclable). They'd also be less transferable &ndash but then, Amazon and Apple are already firing on all cylinders to lock their file formats down as tightly as possible in order to discourage "illegal" copying and sharing. At least with a cartridge you'd be able to physically lend someone a book again.

My absolute ideal would be the Star Trek device, enabling books to be magically switched from a physical to an electronic state in moments. But by the time we have anything like that available on the high street, food replicators and teleporters will have changed the world in unimaginable ways. So I'll stick with my cartridge idea for now. The rest of the world, meanwhile, will likely go on duelling over the imperfections of the two present formats, with the result that both will stick around for a good while yet, neither taking the upper hand.