eBooks And The Future of Reading

Warning: Raw Speculation Alert. You have been warned!

You are reading. This form of reading will not disappear.

eBooks—whether they be standalone devices, or merely apps on multipurpose toys like cell phones—will cause the reading of short bursts of words on a screen to become increasingly common. The key is “short”: columns such as this already push the limit of most people’s patience (yes, the content, too).

The reading of book-length material—which is to say books in electronic or paper forms—will decline rapidly. eBook sales will increase, accelerating over the next five years. With the closing of mall stores, and with the mega stores faltering, “consumer” eBook sales will overtake paper books within the next two decades. Paper books will dominate in commercial venues for some time.

Do not confuse sales with reading! They are not the same; they are only weakly correlated. This is also so for paper books (pBooks?), but at least the correlation with reading and sales of pBooks is high. This correspondence is not exact for many reasons: many pBooks are especially designed not to be read (coffee table and “gift” books), college textbooks lie fallow, and we often do not meet our intentions.

Many reviewers of standalone eBook devices whine that the screens are not color or that the devices do not allow for distractions, such as web surfing. Manufacturers have heard these complaints and have responded, and they will continue to respond. Standalone, dedicated-purpose eBook devices, therefore will become rare, forcing distraction-free reading to become rare.

The number of books that will be published will initially increase dramatically, but only in electronic format. There is little reason for publishers to refuse all-electronic books: as long as would-be authors conform to the software standard, books will slide without friction into the system because the marginal cost of storing a new book is near zero. Most of these offerings will not be promoted, and fewer will earn money. Eventually, the flood will ebb, and most writing will migrate on-line, in bite-sized packages (I resisted “byte”-sized).

Print-on-demand will flourish. Many people and institutions, such as libraries, will continue to buy paper copies of books. Since most book stores will close, print-on-demand will become the only real route to obtain paper copies. Surviving publishers will merge with companies like Amazon to ensure top listings.

Used bookstores, for the most part, and in all small cities, will die, mostly because of the lack of new stock. Specialty stores might exist, but will be frequented only by scholars or other elite. Nearly all sales of used books will migrate on line. Discovering new writers, therefore, will be difficult for most.

eBooks will finally kill reading for the common man. There will remain a core, a small fraction of humanity that continues to read book-length material regularly. This fraction will return to the low levels seen for most of recorded history.

Cynthia Ozick, in her “The Question of Our Speech: The Return to the Aural Culture”, reminds us that “mass literacy itself is the fixity of no more than a century”, an era which began with the introduction of leisure and the industrialization of printing. Obviously, the number and types of entertainment which require less effort than reading will become ubiquitous and cheap.

Books are a wonderfully stunted technology: they require no power source, they can be dropped, sat on, crushed, filled with sand or even water, and they still work. They can be lent, used as props or decorations, hurled, written in. They are useful for storage of small, flat objects like leaves. They can be sold and resold.

They are single-purpose: all they do is to display the set of words they came with. No matter what else changes, no matter the speed of the latest chips, or the changes in operating systems, those words remain the same. As long as the book isn’t lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed, there will never be any reason to replace it, nor to pay for its content more than once.

But best of all, they offer no distractions! You cannot press a button on the page to bring you to a website, nor can you check email or Facebook, nor can you Tweet. You can only read, or possibly take a note as you read. Further, your notes will never be lost as long as the book is not lost. They have no volume dial!

eBooks do not allow ownership of books; they merely grant licenses, which may be revoked, as has happened, and will continue to happen, particularly for works deemed “controversial.” Electronic bowdlerization and deletion will replace bonfires.

Remember: you read it here last.

Update I have just learned that Martin Gardner has died. More tomorrow on this great man—and writer of timeless books.


  1. JH

    A Chinese proverb: “There is a Megan Fox in every book.” My perfect translation!

  2. So should we call putting out an eBook “euplishing”?

  3. Speed

    A book has four possible jobs:
    1. Entertainment – fiction
    2. Entertainment – non-fiction
    3. Teaching/learning (texts, not texting)
    4. A store of knowledge (reference)

    E-books have tremendous advantages over printed books in jobs three and four and many advantages in category two. Not so much job one if you like to read at the beach or leave books lying around or drop them on the pavement when getting out of the car (the fate of my first and so far only dedicated e-reader) or are (like me) thrifty (cheap) and use the library or used book vendors.

    Three and four are becoming the province of the internet for example the excellent CRC books are available on-line but not-free. Paper books in these categories have more to worry about than e-book readers.

    “eBooks will finally kill reading for the common man.”

    I thought radio was supposed to do that. Or was it movies. Or maybe TV. Or the internet.

  4. Pompous Git

    Briggs wrote: “Obviously, the number and types of entertainment which require less effort than reading will become ubiquitous and cheap.”

    Surely this has already happened. It’s a repeat of the demise of printed music following the introduction of recorded music.

  5. DAV

    I, too, felt the need for more reading so I took a correspondence course. I remember reading a book they sent once but can’t remember much about it. It was called Memento or something like that. No wait, that was a movie about, um, memory and a close-up of Jorja Fox’s cellulite. Probably what prompted her move to Vegas PD with their long pants uniform and all. I would say I read that somewhere but I don’t think it’s true. Anybody need fries?

  6. Doug M

    Then there are other uses for books.. I have a 1,000 page tome that that I use to prop my iPad to the best angle for veiwing.

  7. JohnGalt

    Good morning, Mr. Briggs,

    I dont’ think I’m going to give up long works. One of the best fiction works I have read recently was “Night Over Water” by Ken Follett. Quite long, but a real delight.

  8. bob

    Like you, I feel that publishing will follow the cost advantages that technology will provide. We are probably looking at two broad categories of publications, static and interactive.

    Books can belong in either or both of these categories. For example the book, “Breaking The Law of Averages” could be published as an interactive ebook. The words can be the same words, but with video explanations of examples, even with multiple examples explaining concepts. Or, it can remain in the current static mode as a paper book or an ebook.

    I cannot see text books changing from their current paper format without a radical improvement in the electronic presentation of the written word. Neither Kindle nor iPad can do the job for me. While taking web programming courses at a local tech college, I learned to supplement written material with the plethora of video material on on YouTube, Lynda.com, or just doing a Google search for a video on my subject of interest.

    Regarding your point that people will be reading less, I agree. It is already happening. For example, every month I download a new book from Audible.com, and will usually supplement that listening with various podcasts. I will rarely buy a book of fiction printed on paper or in Kindle version. I prefer to listen.

  9. Briggs


    Ah, but I agree. Each new mode of entertainment—or, more generously, medium of information transfer—has removed readers. Oznick claims that reading was most widespread around the turn of the nineteenth century.


    Well, not everybody has an iPod, iPad, iPeed, of whatever. The number of people that carry them to watch videos is still increasing.


    What you say is intriguing. Perhaps the average citizen will switch entirely to audio books. And is that a disadvantage? I’m not sure. As long as the book is unabridged, you’re still accessing its contents. Too, most novels, say, have little content. Have to think about this.

  10. Hilfy

    Well, e-books are great for those that only read a book once. So many average citizens will likely be going that route. Of course given what usually ends up on the bestseller lists, I have to agree that since it’s so much junk, why worry?

    I really don’t want to listen to a book, I really prefer to read them. I also enjoy reading stories more than once and that is part of why I prefer hard copy books.

    I am also concerned that e-books are so vulnerable to being changed without notice. While this would be a minor issue for entertainment works, it becomes a major travesty when applied to books used for teaching.

  11. I love fiction and reference books. I probably go to the book store and library 6-10 times per month and frequently buy books when I do that. I also frequent the book websites like Amazon. I don’t really care about the presentation format, though I do like a good paper book. I’ll listen to books, read books, have my wife read them to me aloud, read them to her – so long as the story is good.

    Textbooks and other reference books I actually prefer in pdf or e-book formats because they’re more search-able. Most textbooks have lousy index sections and too brief tables of contents so electronic formats are much better when you’re looking for that specific bit of data.

    All that said, however: Briggs and many of the comment writers are right. Many people already don’t read much because of T.V., radio, the Internet, sports, hiking, and a million other possible leisure activities. I don’t think reading will become a thing of elites but it will become a less common pastime, as it has already become, as people find other things to do. As computers in all their forms become more common, the loss of paper books won’t translate directly into loss of reading opportunity. Besides, print on demand is and will become much cheaper than in the past, allowing many to read on paper despite the shift in the industry/market. I suppose one might lament that situation (I do), but the “goodness” or “badness” of it is probably subjective.

  12. Carl R

    This is the perspective of a 70 year old. Paper books will disappear except coffee table books or collector items. Why? Look at our population under 30. They have grown up looking at screens on their cell phones, MP3 players, laptops, game boys etc. An e reader is no leap of great technology for them just an extension and improvement on what they use now. This is the technology they are embracing and most important, buying. The older less tech oriented crowd will….die and be replaced by an increasing tech oriented population. Two more points. Essentially all books today are in digital form either to be printed or served as an electronic file. To print a book now requires the step of taking the digital form and greatly increase the cost by printing. Confronted with a choice to get the e version or pay a lot more for printed, cost will win as always. The readers of the future (within less than 10 years) will be interactive with video, sound, photos etc. Thin, touch screen readers with Wi-fi connectivity and able to be imbedded with such things as a dictionaries (touch a word-see its meaning) and features (apps) we can’t imagine. Who wouldn’t want these features. School text can be update easily and cheaply electronically. Like DVD players and cell phones the cost of readers will plummet with mass production. Are those not enough good reasons?

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