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The (long tail) End of the Book December 4, 2009

Posted by Andre Vellino in CISTI, Digital library, General, Information.

walrusI 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.


1. Daniel Lemire - December 4, 2009

Paper books have benefits over e-books. So does a typewriter or a plume over a word processor. A sailboat is often better than a motorized boat. And so on.

And yes, of course, ebooks might be the nail in the coffin for librarians. At the very least, they will need to seriously reinvent themselves, if that’s possible.

But the future is here, and it includes ebooks. Whether it includes librarians, that is much less certain.

2. Andre Vellino - December 4, 2009

Ah – good examples! Much needed antidotes to the (endless?) claims that “the book is dead”. Maybe if what they meant was “the book as we knew it in the 20th century”….

I don’t think the e-book spells the demise of librarians. Several of my students were reassured by Glen Newton’s lecture on scientific research data yesterday evening. It may be that not many librarians will be cataloguing books in the future, but physicists and biologists will need all the help they can get – from, let’s call them “information scientists” – to manage their increasing volumes of data. So yes, the future will transform librarianship, but it’s social function – “to preserve and protect” as one of my students put it the other day – will continue.

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