The book is doomed, and the dataset is coming!

Books are dead.  Yes, I know they still exist and are produced in great numbers, but they are dead, and will start to vanish in the next 10 years.  Within our lifetimes we will see days when the book as we now know it is hardly remembered.

I’m thinking, of course, of academic books.  These contain information.  We are accustomed to seeing that information as a “book”.  But a book — a codex, in technical terms — is merely a form of presentation.  In the computer programming world it is old news that presentation and content (or “business logic” as it is called) are and must be kept as separate things, and that several different presentation layers can be bolted onto the front of content.

When an academic produces a book, the format and layout are part of what he considers.  The indexing, the table of contents, the divisions.  And yet… none of these are essential to what he has to say.  They are merely features of the paper-and-binding output method that he has in mind.  The composition these days will be entirely electronic; and only after that will a stage of turning it into a book be undertaken.

Imagine a world in which the internet has progressed yet further.  People pass around what we might call “datasets” — indeterminate chunks of information.  These are electronic.  But associated with them will be one or more output methods.

Now I can’t read vast quantities of information on-screen, and that will still be true.  But what stops us taking a dataset and sending it to a laser printer?  Not much, except that a bound book is more convenient to handle.  OK; imagine that firms exist that will just take the dataset and turn it into a codex, more or less automatically.  Such firms already exist; but imagine the principle extending.

A dataset pops into my inbox.  I look at it — it’s a video-clip.  It has an output method to screen on my PC; and another output method to DVD.  I press the button on my email, enter my credit card details, and off the dataset goes, to a firm that will turn it into a DVD and post it to me, to hit my doormat tomorrow morning.  (Of course in an ideal society we would have multiple postal deliveries a day; and why shouldn’t we?  They did in Victorian times)

Another dataset arrives.  It’s Dr Matthews dataset on inscriptions in North Africa.  Yes I could open it on screen, but I can see that it is bulky and has multiple sections — what we used to call chapters.  I do a word search, and can see it has many interesting items.  I need to read this.  Fine; I hit the button and select from the list of automatic output methods.  One of these is “codex”;  I pay, and tomorrow the bound book arrives.

What need, then, for the highly expensive utility that we call a “publisher”?  What need for printing presses, when the process is a button on a screen?  Dataset publishers will exist, and grow, and flourish, earning their revenues from selling content, not format.  This will become practical in the not too distant future, I think.  Likewise datasets will acquire trust — or otherwise — in some means.   This is an essential stage in the transformation, but it will come.  Because the dataset is vastly more convenient in every way, including price, to everyone from consumer to supplier to author, than the modern academic printed book.

At the moment publishers really only sell online versions of offline content, and are still thinking in physical terms.  But this will change.  Why limit oneself to a format now obsolete?

We are accustomed to treating a book with reverence, an artefact, a thing produced only by a special magic.  But in truth it is nothing more than a piece of paper with ambition. 

And this is why the book — the academic book, anyway — is dead.

6 thoughts on “The book is doomed, and the dataset is coming!

  1. Hello Roger,

    I sort of agree with you on the broad picture on academic books disappearing – but the details are still unknown.

    “will start to vanish in the next 10 years” – could start just a little before that but progress will be hampered by lack of agreed standards in hardware, software, pricing, and delivery.

    “what stops us taking a dataset and sending it to a laser printer? Not much, except that a bound book is more convenient to handle. … such firms already exist; but imagine the principle extending” Is it not more likely that over the next 10 years people will have their own little personalised output centres, larger versions of the printer that sits next to their desk, that prints out double sided prints with either a pbk. cover, a comb binding cover, or something else. At about 3 cents per page (sorry, don’t know the UK equivalent) and 50 cents per cover it might cost about $10 per book for format.

    “to hit my doormat tomorrow morning” – Cost!!! Postage and handling when you buy a book off the web is a pain in the neck and only required due to the physical format. But with “datasets” you can print out and bind books a lot cheaper (about $10) than current postage and handling charges.

    Now as to quality – most of us use a newly acquired book a lot in the first month we have it, extracting the information we need to flesh out some disputed point, we return to specific points in the book a couple of times briefly over the next few years, and then we hardly use it again but are glad we have it just in case we suddenly need to refer to it. It doesn’t matter therefore if it is in pbk. or similar form since the book itself has no value, only the content.

    However just because the academic book is soon-to-be-dead is not althogether a good thing. Some problems:
    1. If I buy from expensive publishers such as Brill, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, or de Gruyter I know I am buying serious academic books (I may disagree with the content but I know the content is serious) whereas when I buy from Lulu or any other similar sites I have no idea of the quality of what is on offer.
    2. What happens when the dataset provider pulls a title off the list, but retains distribution rights? At the moment it is possible to obtain 2nd hand copies, but these basically won’t exist as the 2nd hand market is very likely to collapse, or it is possible to seek out a library and photocopy the book (in Australia, if the book cannot be purchased you are legally allowed to photocopy 100% for personal use)

    Matthew Hamilton

  2. The major problem is advertisement, of course. Even with all the authors who maintain net presence, and all the publisher websites (and perhaps even because of them), I seem to be more likely to miss a new book coming out by an author I like, or never know of the existence of a movie that would interest me. If one is au courant with the field, you’re okay. But that takes a lot of effort and maintenance of interest. All the RSS feeds in the world won’t help if you get bored with checking them.

    Of course, this may be where webzines and aggregation blogs of magisterial proportions really come in handy.

  3. These are all good points, and are the sort of things that will have to get sorted out. But they’re all quite minor.

    The disappearance of the second-hand book is probably a valid inference, in my opinion.

  4. Along with the demise of the academic book comes the demise of Academia as the sole center of scholarship. Phew, what a relief!

    Let us here praise the personal computer, the Internet, and Google Books. Already in a number of disciplines, a university library’s collection is NOT as good as what’s available for free online. That’s quite a transition in 20 years!

  5. Smaller universities certainly feel the pinch. But I think they will adapt. There will be a certain levelling of access.

    As for Academia… I’m not sure.

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