Reading: The Digital Future

If only there lived a mighty wizard with literary inclinations, readers today could use existing technology to download and read, either on an electronic screen or in a paperbound volume, any book or other text ever written.* Scholars could instantly find their sources within a vast, multilingual virtual library, while even now some college students are reading textbooks on line, with audio-visual enhancements, interactively with their professors if they choose.

Today it is widely assumed that digitized books and other texts will be read mainly on computer screens or on hand-held reading devices such as Palm Pilots or Gemstar readers. But a significant market for books read on screens has not yet emerged, and in my opinion this may never become the major mode of distribution for books on line. The more likely prospect, I believe, is that most digital files will be printed and bound on demand at point of sale by machines—now in prototype—which within minutes will inexpensively make single copies that are indistinguishable from books made in factories.

These neighborhood machines for making paperbound books can, like ATMs, be placed wherever electricity and supplies of paper exist—whether in Kinko’s, Starbucks, or high school and university libraries and residence halls, to name only a few possible sites. With them readers nearly everywhere with access to a computer screen may eventually search a practically limitless digital catalog linked to innumerable databases where digital files are stored; retrieve and browse the titles that interest them; and transmit the files they select to a nearby printing machine which will notify them when their books are ready to be picked up or delivered. From the time the reader makes a selection, the entire transaction can be completed within minutes. Given the durability and convenience of books printed on paper as well as the sacred status granted them by most cultures, readers may prefer—especially for books of permanent value—a volume printed and bound on these machines to transient images on an electronic screen. The exception will be dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias, directories, and so on, which must be continuously updated. Their current data will probably be read on screens as needed.

The convergence of the Internet with the instantaneous transmission and retrieval of digital text is an epochal event, comparable to the impact of movable type on European civilization half a millennium ago, but with worldwide implications. In the digital future groups of writers, editors, publicists, and Web site managers anywhere in the world will combine to form their own Web-based publishing companies and sell their books directly to readers. Some may contract with specialist firms to manufacture and distribute physical books to traditional retailers which will coexist with their digital competitors as theaters, cinemas, videotapes, and DVDs all coexist today, and as today’s physical bookstores coexist with on-line competitition. Though factory-made paperbacks sold in bookstores at retail markups will be at a competitive disadvantage compared with paperbacks printed on demand and sold directly to readers, not everyone will prefer to order…

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