We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

The interactive book of the future hasn’t caught on, but technology has changed books nonetheless:

Physical books today look like physical books of last century. And digital books of today look, feel, and function almost identically to digital books of 10 years ago, when the Kindle launched. The biggest change is that many of Amazon’s competitors have gone belly up or shrunken to irrelevancy. The digital reading and digital book startup ecosystem that briefly emerged in the early 2010s has shriveled to a nubbin.

Amazon won. Trounced, really. As of the end of 2017, about 45 percent (up from 37 percent in 2015) of all print sales and 83 percent of all ebook sales happen through Amazon channels. There are few alternatives with meaningful mind- or market share, especially among digital books.

Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve — I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a “book” as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building — everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t.


Our Future Book is composed of email, tweets, YouTube videos, mailing lists, crowdfunding campaigns, PDF to .mobi converters, Amazon warehouses, and a surge of hyper-affordable offset printers in places like Hong Kong.


  1. Faze says:

    The future book is the audio book. The popularity of this medium has not yet peaked. Audible is good, but it’s not the killer audio book app. I’m still waiting.

  2. Kirk says:

    Audio is still inferior to the printed or digital medium, and always will be. Except for those who are dyslexic or otherwise unable to read at speed, the recorded voice is neither fast enough, or dense enough to compete. By the time you get done listening to even those “accelerated recordings”, you can read and comprehend vastly more of the written word.

    Of course, that’s if you’re fully literate. Most kids graduating today aren’t, thanks to idiocies like “whole language”.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    I don’t want to have to choose between audio and text. Give me a reader with decent speech synth and I’ll be content.

  4. Albion says:

    The ‘future book’ may well be letters printed on paper.

    The assumption that electricity will always be available is not guaranteed, and the fact that digital media can be wiped out at the whim of the suppliers and subject to various politicised interference puts digital content at risk. Some illuminating material on various websites has been lost/removed because someone didn’t keep up their subscriptions.

    You don’t have to ‘download’ a book or ‘sign in’ with a password. Nor does the book start trading your data and information away without you knowing.

    Also, the written word invites re-reading and contemplation that youtube videos and the like never can. For the more aesthetically inclined, there is an art to print and book form that a spotty nerd mooning at a camera in their bedrooms can’t match.

    Best not to get giddy about the non-paper future, I find.

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