We are pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally defined books and ebooks beyond a completed body of text (and pictures) through serialization, newer and more colloquial formats, and AR.
Reading has come a long way since its first groundbreaking disruption, the Gutenberg printing press in the 1400s. It was a powerful innovation that would change history and mankind forever, akin to the development of agriculture, animal domestication, and monetary systems. The Gutenberg printing press enabled the mass circulation of information and ideas, the democratization of knowledge, and it powered practically every movement from the Protestant Reformation (Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses) to the American Revolution (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense).
More recently, as we moved from reading the newspaper to reading news websites, books also started moving onto the web and then onto e-readers. In 2007, Amazon released the Kindle, the first mainstream e-reader, and in 2010, for the first time, Amazon sold more e-books for Kindle than hardcover books. However, two more pivotal events in the reading space also happened in 2010: Amazon released the Kindle app for iOS and Android, and Apple released the iBooks iOS app when it launched the iPad.
It turned out that tablets and e-readers were less of a destination and more of a segue into reading on our phones. In 2014, about 54% of e-book buyers used smartphones to read their books, up from 24% in 2012. Simultaneously, reading on e-readers dropped over the same period from 50% to 32%. Judith Curr of Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books said, “The future of digital reading is on the phone.”
In this new era, what’s next for books? Print books and ebooks seem to be here to stay, but it also seems that looking at trends in the reading space, we are pushing the boundaries of what has traditionally defined books and ebooks beyond a completed body of text (and pictures) through serialization, newer and more colloquial formats, and AR.
Serialization isn’t a new concept. It reached its peak in the 19th century when authors would release chapters of novels in popular magazines or newspapers. At that time, books were a premium product, so it was more affordable for the average person to buy low-cost weekly or monthly installments of a novel. The Three Musketeers, Anna Karenina, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were all released serially. Eventually sometime in the 20th century, novel serialization died out when whole books became more affordable.
But today, serialization is making a comeback. In a way, novels are designed to be serialized. They’re written in chapters, so there are natural starts and finishes throughout a given novel, and the usual cliffhanger at the end of a chapter hooks the reader into reading the next chapter. Startups such as Radish and Serial Box Publishing capitalize on this structure and work off of freemium models where readers pay to read subsequent chapters (Serial Box Publishing) or to read new chapters ahead of release dates (Radish).
Serialization’s revival also might be an adaptation to modern life. Phone screens are still typically smaller than the pages of a traditional book, so reading for hours at a time on a phone is not as comfortable but is doable for short spurts (subway rides, bus rides, etc). And our attention spans are lower than ever before, which might further contribute to this movement towards serialization of novels.
Newer and more colloquial formats
Can texting be literature? Hooked is betting that it is. The app is popular among teenagers and presents short stories (mainly thriller and horror) in the format of text conversations. Hooked has skyrocketed through the App Store charts and is perhaps the most well-known challenger of the reading and literature status quo today. Instead of reading blocks of text, the user reads sentences or fragments in a back-and-forth text conversation format between characters. Like other reading startups, Hooked’s business model is also currently a freemium business model.
As newer formats like Hooked’s texting stories come into play, they challenge the traditional definition of literature. Typically, each Hooked story has 4–5 segments of around 1000 words each, so the average Hooked story comes out at 4000–5000 words, akin to the length of a short story. As a reference, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is 1170 words, and O. Henry’s The Gift of Magi is 2163. We could of course make the argument that a thriller story on Hooked doesn’t have anything close to the same depth, development, nor artistry as one of Poe or O. Henry’s short stories, but we have also been saying the same thing about grocery store romance novels for decades. And even if a company like Hooked doesn’t produce quality literature, it does produce stories, and the attention and interest that these text message stories have attracted from teenagers present a challenge to the status quo.
Imagine reading Harry Potter and being able to see a 3D model of a bustling, busy Hogwarts on top of the page. Imagine a child reading a physics textbook and being able to see a visualization of electromagnetic induction in action. AR could make both of these situations commonly possible very soon. Last year, Google filed a patent for what it calls the “Storytelling Deice” or “Interactive Book,” a physical book with AR elements over the pages that fit the storyline. The patented technology includes page sensors, touch sensors, and motion sensors that understand the reader’s movements as well as a small hamburger-shaped device that plugs into an interface over the spine of the book and a small sound speaker.
There have been some small experiments in adding AR on top of print books. Back in 2012 when AR was even earlier in its infancy, there was a partnership between Penguin Book and Zappar. A few titles including Moby Dick and Great Expectations were enhanced with AR elements when a reader pointed his/her phone camera in the Zappar app over the pages. That never took off (just think about the clunkiness of holding a phone over the pages with one hand and keeping a book open with the other hand), but it’s likely that this idea will make a comeback as AR headsets become more popular — especially in the educational book market, whether it be a child reading picture books or a medical student reading a textbook.
Physical books and ebooks will always be a staple of society. There aren’t any reasons to stop producing them because they will always be the basis of how we create and share information. But books have come a long ways since the Gutenberg Press, and these three recent trends suggest that we are disrupting the book. As we look to the future, we will see — and read — how these resulting new developments augment the centuries-old staple.
Jaja Liao works in mobile partnerships acquisitions at Google.