The (long tail) End of the Book December 4, 2009Posted by Andre Vellino in CISTI, Digital library, General, Information.
I would venture to guess that Noah Richler (son of Mordecai) is not the first journalist to predict the demise of the book. In his article in the October edition of The Walrus, Richler says:
….the book industry’s digital future, one that was comfortably far off even as the music industry was being decimated, is now ineluctably and forcefully here.
Richler asserts that instead of propagating a greater variety of books to the general public via the effect of the long tail, the web has benefited blockbusters:
Rather than connecting the public to the glorious cornucopia of the Long Tail, the effect of the web has been to serve fewer blockbusters better.
Worse, he says:
Today, just a small number of books compete for consumers’ fleeting attention. The tail is longer, but it is also thinner.
Exacerbating the problem for the publishing industry is the increasing amount of free content, especially via Google Books:
By copying the books first and negotiating later, Google has, in effect, established itself as the biggest pirate in the world.
…digital is where the puck is going to be, and publishers have no choice but to skate toward it.
True enough, but “digital” also means “ephemeral” – which is fine for Robert Ludlum novels, but less so, perhaps for the Origin of Species and other milestones in the history of human knowledge.
Contra some bloggers who predict the end of the book by pointing to the growing sales of e-Readers like the Kindle, I think there’s a very important difference between the playback of video or music on iPods and the reading of books on e-Readers.
First video and audio have to be viewed or heard with some kind of playback device (cd player / tape player / video player). Not so with print. You can read a paper book with no playback device and doing so has no up-front device costs (Kindle / iPod), no power requirements and it is invulnerable to electro-magnetic pulses. Furthermore paper books already have all the right digital rights management (DRM) mechanisms built-in: you can borrow them, you own them and you can re-sell them.
Second, the typical “unit” in the audio industry is the 5-minute song. The typical “unit” in literature (i.e. book) is ~ 300 pages. The amount of time and attention required to “consume” a book is several orders of magnitude greater than a song. This makes a huge difference to how human beings like to ingest this content. I can spend hours reading a book (at 600 dots per inch) – less on a low-resolution device like a Kindle. Audio and video are much better, by comparison.
Last but not least is the impermanence inherent in digital formats and media. Entrusting our knowledge to digital formats (e.g. PDF) and media (e.g. hard disks) commits us to an ephemeral cultural and intellectual memory. While digitization has its virtues (e.g. searching, social tagging, clustering) it also harbours (invisible) dangers (e.g. digital rot, ease of forgery, dependence on rapidly changing software and hardware developed at great expense in the private sector.)
The inherent conservatism in librarianship that values, organizes and manages paper is a welcome counterweight to the near-term myopia of digital early-adoption. Both have their place in the 21st century but I worry about our putting all our eggs in the digital basket.