Innovation is a funny thing. To break through you often have to muster the courage and insight to let go of what you know and cherish. Take books, for instance. The last few years publishers, booksellers and educators have bemoaned the sorry state of publishing and reading. Publishers in particular have complained that computers, cell phones and television have stolen the time and interest of readers.
The truth is that it’s time to bury books. New York publishers and floundering bookstore chains have contributed mightily to the demise of books in America. Herds of publishers have focused on celebrity books in the same way Hollywood has blindly thrown its millions behind special effects extravaganzas. Chains have drained the passion and human connection out of buying books. The traditional book industry in America is dead.
Reading, meanwhile, is about to be reinvented. It’s not just that Amazon, Sony, and even Barnes & Noble have recently come out with promising e-books. Apple is about to toss its iSlate in the ring, widely rumored to redefine the reading—and distribution—of newspapers, magazines and books.
Writing has been my livelihood for more than twenty years. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I loved the feel of one of my newly published books in my hand or the glossy appearance on a newsstand of one of my longer articles. But all good things must come to an end.
A couple of months ago I bought a Kindle because it was time. In college I wrote my papers on an IBM Selectric typewriter, but within months of graduating I plugged in an IBM XT, and within a couple of years had the good fortune to buy an early Macintosh. I have never looked back.
Letting go is part of innovation.
My early experiences with e-books remind me of my initial experiences with computers. What separated personal computers from typewriters was that it was indeed “personal.” You felt it was yours, or a part of you—something that extended your intellect and capabilities.
Curled up in a chair, reading from my Kindle, I can see that this is the future. Books have had a long run, hundreds, if not thousands of years, depending on how you count. They won’t go away today or tomorrow or even a decade from now. But here’s why Apple, Amazon, Sony, or some upstart will make them obsolete.
Youth is the future. My two daughters, twelve and fifteen, are skilled on computers, cell phones, and iPods. My youngest is a prolific reader while my oldest has been more captivated by some of the better serial TV shows that draw her into her laptop. She reads too, but lately, the paper book has fought a losing battle against the immediacy of her MacBook screen.
Reading—for five minutes or hours—is about immersion. It’s about a deeper connection. Apple will be aiming to create that bond with my daughters the same way it has hooked millions on its iPods and iPhones.
We don’t yet know what this new world will look like, but I’m optimistic. Traditional books are wonderful, but like my old IBM Selectric typewriter, they have their limits. Books haven’t really enjoyed a serious innovation update in a couple of centuries. What we love most about them are the language and ideas. The paper and bright covers are really no more than wrapping on a present. But that physical beauty is also a barrier. We can’t quickly or easily connect to other ideas and language. As great as books are, they are still a bit like my old IBM Selectric typewriter.
Apple is about to come out with what may be the biggest advance in reading since Guttenberg’s printing press. New York publishers and book chains have a lot to fear. But I see all sorts of possibilities for authors, educators, and companies. The gatekeepers are losing control, and books are about to be liberated.
You want to know the future of publishing? All you have to do is watch the kids. If teenagers love this new digital immersion model, there will be no turning back the page.
Jonathan Littman is co-author I Hate People!: Kick Loose from the Overbearing and Underhanded Jerks at Work and Get What You Want Out of Your Job, The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm, and The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization. He is currently engaged in helping companies make the leap to new media, what he calls Narrative Fusion.