A note for book lovers: Please try not to squirm in your seats because I am going to go all business-like in this post 🙂
Another note for everyone: The post doesn’t have answers; mostly questions.
Publishers and authors, world over, are moaning. People just don’t read enough. Or buy enough. Even though (print) publishing in India is on rise (unlike US or Europe), people are still moaning. People here have not read enough in past. They still don’t read enough. But there is a reason this blog post is not titled “Rediscovering Publishing” or “Rediscovering Books”. Because with these words we get into the problem of definitions. One may argue that it is print that is declining and not books. What is a book? It can be written word not only in print, but even on an electronic device. But once you are on an electronic device, what stops you from adding audio, video, animation etc. etc. They make stuff more interesting (?), easy to understand (?) and so on. So, apparently publishing and books have to be about all of that too, and not just the written word.
I don’t know about you, dear book lovers, but at this point I start squirming. I have nothing against the evolution of books. I have whole-heartedly embraced e-books and find them very convenient. Pictures have enhanced reading experience for long now. Audio, video, animations etc. don’t mean book to me, but I have nothing against them. And yet it doesn’t sound right to me that written word would lose its independent identity in this multi-media world.
But sounding or not sounding right is not going to make much of a difference. The question I am forced to ask is does written word have any utility left? On its own, and over video, audio, and other forms of content, not as an addendum to them?
And boy! Is the question tough? Let me run through the possibilities.
- Entertainment: One might make a case for a more high-brow entertainment, but let’s accept it. Video and Audio win hands down for masses. They are easier to consume and can be consumed passively. Without taxing your brains as much as reading would need you too. Modern life already taxes our brains enough.
- Education & Learning: A lot of education and learning still relies on written word. Will it continue to be so? Not if the proponents of enhanced education, smart classes etc. have their way. But the jury is out on this one. As of now it is mostly written word, with a limited dose of enhanced content. Going forward there will probably be two camps. Teaching how to operate a machine will definitely be easier with video, but my guess is that teaching Mathematical formulae by making them jump around on the screen is not particularly going to enhance learning. So, certain kinds of education and learning will stick to written words.
- Information: Education and learning is systematic consumption of content. I have created information as a separate heading,because the consumption of information is on as-needed basis, and not systematic like education. We spend four years studying engineering (education and learning). On the job we need information about a particular material.
With that distinction between education and information out of the way, let’s focus on the advantages different mediums have for information. The medium of information can be judged on ease and cost of storage and retrieval. Before writing was invented, storage and retrieval depended on human mind and memory. With the written word, both became a little easier. Human memory was still important, but techniques were developed for easy retrieval. (organization in libraries, indexes in books etc.) In today’s world storage is increasingly electronic. And retrieval is increasingly through search. In terms of storage efficiency and search effectiveness written words wins over other kinds of content.
What about the efficiency and desire of consumption? I guess that follows the same pattern as education and learning. Working of a machine can be better understood from a video than long paragraphs describing the positions of parts and their movement. But the tensile strength of a material can be known more quickly by reading from text than waiting for an animation to print it letter by letter.
So, my quick assessment tells me that until something changes drastically, like we start beaming information directly into people’s heads,
- Written words will continue to be important for education, learning and information.
- They will decline in favour of richer media for entertainment.
If that is true, that is a bad news for moaners, because most moaners are fiction and poetry authors and trade publishers. They are in the business of entertainment. And fiction writing or trade publishing is competing with TV, Movies, YouTube, iTunes etc. of the world for audience’s time and money.
So, what does the future of written words for entertainment look like? I don’t know, but it is going to face more challenges for sure. One possibility that comes to my mind (and book lovers are not going to like it) is that fiction and poetry writings will become addendum to the movies, songs and shows. Novels will be released as merchandises for successful movies (already happening in some cases). Poetry books will come along with music CDs.
It is not necessary that independent fiction writing and publishing will disappear altogether. But it is likely to become even more of a non-business activity than it is today. People will do it for fun, for expression, for the love of the medium. But for those looking to make an earning or business from the content, the route of choice will be not to publish books, and then hope for a movie right sales. Rather it would be to sell the story to movie-makers. If that is successful, the book will be released. Same thing will work for poetry (make the song successful, then sell the written words).
It might sound bad to those of us, who have grown up with almost a reverent feeling towards books and written words. But change is the only constant.
Anyway, I am only presenting a possibility. What do you think is the future of written word? Where does its utility lie? Especially for entertainment?