The Internet has been disrupting the businesses of publishing and bookselling for the past two decades. Despite it all, a few stubborn concepts have retained their shape: the integrity of narrative (stories have a beginning, middle, and end); the book as container of ideas, fixed in time and place; the necessary involvement of authors and editors, as well as publishers and distributors; and, most remarkably to some, the boundary between physical objects and the digital domains.
However, these final redoubts of certainty are dissolving into the miasma of data, mass collaboration, and digital convergence, as the big tech and business drivers of the 2010s begin to influence the entire experience of reading.
Ready or not, here are 10 trends to watch in 2014 and beyond.
The Triumph of Visual Literature
We live in a visual age. Marketers will tell you that visual content carries 40–60 times the impact of text in terms of its ability to draw attention. In the world of literature and entertainment, graphic novels and comics have gone from the fringes of culture and commerce toward the center of both, and since the advent of the tablet, visual narrative media in digital form has experienced massive growth. As display technology continues to evolve, creators are experimenting with motion book formats (for example, the original and licensed titles published by Madefire), “infinite canvases” (Marvel Comics is a leader here), digital-first visual journalism (such as the tablet-based publication Symbolia), multilingual titles (like the delightful educational manga Dim Sum Warriors), animated multidimensional info-graphics that carry an enormous informational payload, and new forms optimized for the giant screens that are taking over our living rooms and public spaces. Soon it will be the exceptional book that lacks some kind of significant visual narrative or design-intensive component.
The Never-ending Story
It’s nothing new for books to be adapted to other media and vice versa, but the current “transmedia” storytelling trend takes adaptation a step beyond by extending the story or the world of the story across a wide range of platforms, from books to film and television, to social and interactive media. This serves an obvious business purpose, turning creative works into franchises that can be sold and resold to a devoted audience. It’s also forcing authors and IP owners to rethink old concepts of story structure and is subtly influencing a new generation of readers, who expect every story to offer this kind of kaleidoscopic, immersive, cross-platform, cross-media experience.
For years the idea of computer-generated literature was the object of nerdy obsession, the butt of jokes, or a plot element of cheesy sci-fi dystopias. House of Cards, the hit original series from Netflix, is no joke. Though the scripts are the products of human writers, while developing the show, the company used its enormous trove of customer data to identify the talent, the themes, plot points, and scene pacing that would keep viewers binging. Don’t be surprised if Big Data analytics, which can measure everything from who’s reading what to how long people spend on each page, yields more House of Cards–type projects in all media, including books.
Google (reading) Glass(es)
In 2013, access to Google Glass—the search giant’s eyeglasslike wearable mobile device—was limited, and those wearing the prototypes appeared slightly ridiculous. Soon the devices will be ubiquitous, versatile, and affordable. What does this mean for reading? It’s not hard to imagine an app for Glass that recognizes printed texts that the user is reading; this would allow the Glass wearer to overlay, hyperlink, and annotate the texts in digital space, effectively blending the physical and digital. Or perhaps Glass could just superimpose digital texts over blank pages in physical books, combining the hard-to-replace tactile experience of reading a nice printed edition with the conveniences (and distractions) of an e-book. Or render the texts as audio for visually impaired readers. There are many possibilities.
Machine translation these days is pretty good. It’s not quite good enough for literature, technical publications, or legal contracts, but it’s getting there. The combination of algorithms, data analytics, and crowdsourcing are teaching machines the subtleties of idiom and tone in a variety of languages. Very soon, instant text translation, combined with text recognition, will be available via augmented-reality applications for mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets, and wearables like Glass. No more waiting for translations of foreign editions to become available; no more foreign rights. Think that will disrupt the publishing and localization industries much?
Bookstores as Print-on-demand Showrooms
Smart bricks-and-mortar retailers have figured out that they not only sell books—they sell the experience of buying books, and they are selling it to a connoisseur consumer base that distinguishes between the book as physical object and the book as a container of information. Surviving (and thriving) independent bookstores have added cafes and merchandise to supplement revenues, while becoming community hubs with readings, performances, and quiet spaces for patrons to relax. The maturation of print-on-demand technologies will relieve them of the costs of carrying excess inventory, allowing them to serve instead as showrooms for special-order deluxe volumes, as well as for titles that can be ordered digitally and printed locally in custom editions.
Crowdfunding at Scale
Last November, art comics publisher Fantagraphics launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund not just one book, but its entire spring 2014 line of 39 titles. The company far exceeded its goal of $150,000, and most of the premiums amounted to readers prepaying for titles slated for production. The knock on crowdfunding has always been its unpredictability and potential for abuse, but those risks are mitigated when it is used as part of an ongoing business model, not a one-off source for idiosyncratic creative projects. Expect to see the institutionalization of crowdfunding for small presses in the coming years, either on Kickstarter or on purpose-built platforms that provide more stability and assurances for consumers.
Professional Publications Evolve
Here is good news for people who read because they have to, not because they want to. Specialized professional and trade publications have clung to an antiquated model for years to protect a hierarchical editorial system and the exorbitant subscription rates they charge to captive markets. Until recently, informal online communities simply haven’t been able to match the authority and prestige of the established channels. But that is starting to change, driven by new generational attitudes and the advantages of more open, collaborative environments. In architecture, the upstart online journal ArchDaily recently surpassed the leading print publications and became the venue of choice for the world’s top practitioners to display their work. The same dynamic is taking place in medical journals like Fertility and Sterility, which is spearheading an ambitious new media program that includes video, professional forums, and a tablet edition. Established medical, academic, and technical journals will be able to preserve their brand cred only by opening up to digital innovations they’ve long shunned; otherwise they will be left behind.
Monetizing the Author as Brand
In the social media era, it’s become commonplace for authors (or their publicists) to provide free content on blogs, Pinterest, and Tumblr, and to interact with fans on public forums (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) as a way to establish their distinctive brand personas. My colleague, futurist Daniel Rasmus, suggested the possibility of bundling exclusive paid social and content channels with books, giving buyers premium access to both the authors and the community of experts/sources that contributed to their works. Some kind of incentive system—micropayments, loyalty points, rating scores, etc.—could be used to recognize and reward high-value contributors to the community, and could create a unique incentive for buying a book rather than borrowing it.
Marketing Becomes Hacking
Authors aren’t the only ones getting smarter about social media. Leading marketing and media theorists are finally getting a handle on the social cycles of the Internet itself: how certain content becomes viral and turns into memes that are endlessly reposted; how ideas move from subcultures to the mainstream; and how reputation and social capital accrues to particular texts and individuals. All this new insight is transforming marketing from a discipline designed to broadcast messages via different media channels into something more organic and insidious: a mechanism for hacking into scenes and conversations, manipulating the cultural discourse in much deeper ways. For authors hoping to break through with provocative nonfiction or fan-worthy genre titles, book marketers and publicists can’t move to embrace these concepts fast enough.