ScienceOnline: The Future Book

At ScienceOnline today, I moderated a spirited session on the future of books. I kicked things off by talking about where we stand at the moment. Ebooks may still constitute a small fraction of book sales, but that fraction is swelling fast. While many ebooks are simply digitized text-dumps of the books you can find in physical bookstores, new kinds of ebooks are emerging. With new services like Smashwords and Createspace at Amazon, the real possibility has emerged of blogifying books–that is, writers publishing books for themselves without a spot of ink touching a single piece of paper. I described my own experiences with Brain Cuttingsmy own experiences with Brain Cuttings, which made clear to me that even in this new world, it still helps to work with people who know how to make books.

But other ebooks point to other possibilities. Neuroscientist David Eagleman recently delivered a lecture about how the Internet could save civilization from collapse. He then transformed it into an ebook–or, to be more precise, an iPad app. Why the Net Matters is organized into a series of chapters, each of which is accompanied by striking illustrations. On one page, Eagleman talks about how viruses could wipe out civilization, and a virus floats nearby. If you want, you can twirl the virus, or change its size with a flick of the fingers. Sometimes this combination of art and text works nicely, especially when Eagleman is talking about an interesting web site to investigate after reading Why the Net Matters. But some of the pictures are more like bells and whistles. Twirling a virus doesn’t help you understand Eagleman’s argument. What’s more, the text overlays the art on a translucent layer, so that the pictures can even make it hard to read. When this happens, I wish for a conventional book or a video of Eagleman’s lecture. (And voila.)

Twirling is exactly what feels right about The Solar System. Instead of an essay, this ebook is more of an encyclopedia, with entries for the Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, and comets. Marcus Chown, a veteran science writer, did a very good job with the text, so that it actually holds your attention. Some pages are accompanied by video taken by space probes. You can also navigate from planet to planet through an orrery, an elegant representation of the Solar System that you can navigate with your fingertips. Spinning Mars to see its polar caps works splendidly.

Tom Levenson, author of Newton and the Counterfeiter and director of MIT’s science writing program, took over from me. He put this new turning point in an historical perspective, arguing that each technological advance in books changes the kinds of books that get made. The invention of movable type led to an explosion of books–from 10,000 to 10 million in a matter of decades. In the future, Levenson predicted that lots of different kinds of books would co-exist, from arty bespoke books to “in-between” books–ebooks of intermediate length that would not have had a place in traditional publishing markets. But the role of the author will change, too. Instead of the solitary figure in front of a typewriter, we need to think of a screenwriter at a movie studio, working with directors and special effects masters and other specially trained people.

David Dobbs discussed his own experiences coming to grips with these new books. He is working on a book based on his Atlantic article on genes and the environment. He’s interested in collaborating with designers on an ebook version that could take advantage of iPads–such as designing graphs that readers can manipulate so that they can see how different combinations of genes and environmental experiences can lead to different results. Dobbs isn’t going to substitute his traditional book with these apps, however. In fact, he’s thinking of offering a stripped-down app for a low price that could lure people to buy the book.

The final panelist to speak with John Dupuis, an academic librarian at York University in Canada. Dupuis is putting a lot of his budget now into electronic books, but not without some reservations. He’s in the business of getting books into as many hands as he can; the ebook business seeks to monetize every reading experience. Dupuis can open up a book from the seventeenth century and start reading it immediately. Will people be able to read an app in four hundred years? Maybe we need microfilm…

A lot of the questions from the people who came to the session were of the nuts and bolts sort. How much does Amazon pay you for your own Kindle books? What role do editors have in this kind of publishing? How do you find a good app designer? I took all of these questions as good signs that people are thinking seriously about this new genre–if only to decide it’s better just to get back to writing.