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Are books dead?

I am an entrepreneur |


| Web 3.0?? Save me now

May 20, 2006

Are books dead?

Stephen Baker

So here I am on book leave, and the ever provocative Jeff Jarvis declares that books are history.

As David Weinberger taught me, they limit how knowledge can be found because they have to sit on a shelf under one address; there’s only way way to get to it. They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die.

He has his points. But they're based on a Web 2.0 orthodoxy that assumes two things, 1) that all of those qualities will be absolutely necessary and 2) that despite the advances of technology, books won't be able to add new Web 2.0 features.

Now, to quibble with some of his arguments. They assume that all of the meaningful conversation has to occur in the present, presumably with people plugged into the Internet. If you want to have a "conversation" with Cervantes or Plato, I'd take a book over any of the interactive tools they're building at MIT or Disney. Books give you access to great minds of the past, and they do a better job than any other medium I know of transporting you to those times and places.

Books do create conversations in our day and age. But most of them aren't on the Internet. Ever heard of a book group?

I wholeheartedly agree that most non-fiction books should be shorter, and many should have been written (or remained) as magazine stories. (What keeps me up at night is the fear that people will draw the same conclusion when my book comes out...) No argument about the gatekeeper's whims. But here's the important point. While gatekeepers publish lots of celebrity trash, me-too tomes, etc., they also publish good work. And if the trash is needed to finance the industry, so be it. From a reader's perspective, only a fraction of a percent has to be great to justify a trip to the bookstore or the library. In that way, books are a little like blogs. And how do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find the good books? That's where the Internet helps.

07:59 AM


I agree that to read Plato, you hit the library. But Plato did a lot of recounting Socrates. What if Socrates had had his own blog? And what about all those voices we miss because they never made it to print to be preserved? And how might have those thinkers better refined their thought if they had access to community the internet can create?

What if Aristotle could have been directly involved in XML, Topic Maps and Ontologies?

Seems like there's room for both. The majority of the 'Net is pulp fiction. But there's room for the classics too.

Posted by: dg at May 20, 2006 11:45 AM

>Books do create conversations in our day and age. But most of them aren't on the Internet. Ever heard of a book group?


Coming up on its 10th anniversary on the web!

Posted by: Amyloo at May 20, 2006 12:26 PM

books have limited utility as vehicles for sharing

information current information, insights and forecasts- but our "current" world, for better or worse is built on the insights and judgements of our predecessors, and the internet as a tool for examining anything even 20 years old - or older (!)

dimishes rapidly in contexual data -

(It DOES make a differennce if I am reading the New York Times or the Weekly World News, and that source attribution is frequently difficult to determine on the web.

the "packaging" of books gives some insight into who the author is, what else they may have done, and provides this sometimes crucial context for examining the information in its pages-

Thank you for the interesting question!

Brian McLaughlin, Syracuse, NY

Posted by: Brian McLaughlin at May 20, 2006 01:24 PM

I think the first thing all these death-of-book conversations need to do is define the word 'book' better. Although it would seem fairly obvious, people have attributed features to books that seem to go past the pages-between-bound-cover definition. For instance, you say that books are much better at conversations with thinkers like Plato than current alternatives. Yet the simplest reproduction of 'The Republic' on a free web site offers the same level of interactivity and conversive ability that the book itself does. You also say that Jeff Jarvis makes the false assumption that books cannot incorporate Web 2.0 features. I would argue that a book, by definition, is without technology, and that some future book-shaped viewing screen with storage capacity and web-interactivity (my personal vision of the book's future) would cease being a book.

We have to remember that a book is distinct from the content inside its pages. A book serves no other purpose than to provide a portable, semi-durable way to access that content. It has served its purpose for several thousand years, lowering the barriers to knowledge acquisition and empowering many in the world. But its static nature will prove its demise in the end. As the rate of change of the technological progression of our society continues to grow, anything without the ability to adapt to change will ultimately go the way of the platypus.

Posted by: Michael Katcher at May 21, 2006 12:54 PM


You missed the most important thing about books that will maintain their importance forever.

They are the only way to cover a topic in depth, with some sort of permanence. All of the so-called replacements are temporary, here-today, gone-tomorrow, sound byte only vehicles.

Posted by: Doug Skoglund at May 22, 2006 07:15 AM

Good work is independent of technology. You can't beat a good book. It's kind of like fireworks. Maybe they could do simulated fireworks by shooting pictures of fireworks into the sky with cameras (digital) and use big speakers to make the booms. You could fool some people with it, most people wouldn't fall for it. I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Zambelli, who dedicated his whole life to fireworks. There are people who have dedicated their whole life to books. The presses will keep rolling. Paper is cheap, fireworks aren't!

Posted by: Jim Dermitt at May 22, 2006 09:35 AM

I just caught this story. "Hughes and Hughes, the book retailer, announced that it is investing E1.2 million in the renovation of their six stores in Dublin airport." If you look at the business investments being made, you will find that books mean profits. It's a good business and it's here to stay. Our airport (PIT) has space. Maybe we'll get more book stores. We've been getting more airlines.

Posted by: Jim Dermitt at May 22, 2006 09:54 AM

Doug brings up a great point, and one that newspapers can make: Depth and a thorough exploration of a subject, plot, or characters, etc.

I always laugh at people who are so extreme: "They (meaning books) are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space....They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore. Print is where words go to die."

Until the vast majority of people have Internet access or carry with them some mobible net device, there will always be a need for and value in traditional tried-and-true methods like print.

Extreme thinking like Jarvis discusses on books is very myopic. Wonder what people like him would do without a computer for a month, or even a week?

Besides, can you really curl up with a good laptop and read?


Posted by: Mike Driehorst at May 22, 2006 12:47 PM

The Future of Books

Posted by: Dimitar Vesselinov at May 23, 2006 04:36 PM

“While they’ll be sold as computers, the tablet PC and its successors will finally give consumers a true surrogate for the printed page and thus put high-quality “book players” into millions of hands, making low-cost electronic distribution of books a reality. Readers will have a far wider range of titles to buy and will, moreover, be able to communicate more freely with authors and other readers. Publishers can supplement the “word of mouth” marketing that has always been a key element in book-selling with online reader forums, sophisticated rating systems and collaborative filtering technologies. Books may actually live or die on their merits, rather than lucky publicity.

In short: the Internet presents all the elements needed for a true reinvention and renaissance of book publishing. But both readers and writers will need to be patient, because publishing—the oldest mass medium—will almost certainly be the last to take advantage of the newest.

Posted by: Antony Woods at May 27, 2006 09:08 AM

This is a topic that's been keeping me up at night. I'm madly trying to finish my own book on blogging and sometimes can't help wondering if I'm laboring in the wrong medium. Chapters I wrote only a couple of months ago already need updating and it often makes me crazy that I can't link to richer, deeper content from the printed page.

But at the same time, I feel that this is an ideal time to be publishing a book with targeted appeal. Long tail distribution means that our books don't have to be mega-sellers to survive. Amazon proves that niche products along the tail can find vital audiences. released a study during the recent Book Expo in Washington, D.C. that analyzed book sales over the past fifty years. During the 1960s only three novels made it to the number one slot in an average year. Last year 23 books made the best seller list.

I'm looking forward to some vague future when all books can be hyperlinked and are as easy on the eye and biceps as a book is today, but meanwhile, I think it's a little early to be sounding the death knell for books.

Posted by: Suzanne Stefanac at May 27, 2006 07:30 PM

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