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The disembodied book

The age of the printed book is drawing to a close. But there's no need to mourn its passing, says Jürgen Neffe

In the shadows of the global financial crisis of the early 21st century, another revolution is gathering pace, whose repercussions reach far beyond the current correctable economic buckling. It impact on the world will compare with Gutenberg's. And with it, the era of the printed book will come to a close. Dissolved digitally like sound and image beforehand, limitlessly copyable, globally downloadable by the million with the click of a mouse, the book is entering the world of multimedia like its disembodied cousins from film, photography and music. This is the disintegration of the oldest serially produced data carrier in terms of form and content.

The medium of enlightenment is losing its message and probably some sense and sensibility along the way. Sooner or later bound piles of printed paper will be available only as luxury items in specialist shops, like vinyl records today. Even the most iron-willed bibliophiles won't be able to get their hands on Gutenberg's legacy in its current from. The collapse of the book industry, much as we mourn it, follows the logic of a long chain of bygone trades, crafts, manufacturing processes and business procedures.

The change is unstoppable, the only moot point is how long it will take to arrive. But we're not talking generations. I mean, who still remembers the typewriter, that so recently so indispensable friend to all typers and texters? Aren't we all witness to how furiously email is turning the screw on the letter. And Wikipedia on the faithful old lexicon? It was just 20 years ago that the world wide web was first proposed. Only the elderly can still picture a world without the Internet.

Through nostalgia-tinted spectacles, the book might seem to be losing its soul – but if we squint into the future, it seems to be freeing itself of its body. And lined up to help this great escape are, believe it or not, the same people who give their all to have their names on the front covers of printed works. For the writers as authors (and their partners, the readers) the era of the disembodied book is opening up unknown dimensions – if they can do what culture workers have always done when offered new techniques and opportunities for development. It is their "quills" that will make the book of the future and which will decide the future of the book.

If books can soon be read on all imaginable gadgets that simultaneously display images, play audio and connect to the Internet and other devices, then it is only a matter of time before their authors start to make use of all this multimedia, to produce works that have no place in Gutenberg's universe. We will see bestsellers that never appear in print, mobile phone novels in instalments, which everybody reads because everybody talks about (they are already popular in the Tokyo metro), unprintable, multimedia, constantly updated, richly animated reference books, individual travel guides or encyclopaedias, which have little in common with their printed forebears, networked works from networks of writers, rhizomatic stories which evolve before the eyes of their readers, and plenty more besides which is not dreamt of in our philosophy.

And from below surface waves a world of information and commentary. If you don't know where Timbuktu is or why Nietzsche and Wagner fell out, will find the answer lurking beneath the surface of the book you are reading. All the reading groups who collect around "Da Vinci Code", "Sophie's World" or "The Globalization Trap" can now leave traces behind them, which every other reader can follow. We will be able to live books as never before – and if we so chose, we can always reach for the paper versions and read them linearly from cover to cover. These books will not disappear entirely.

But if we so choose we can click to hear the music that our hero listens to in his final hour. We can admire 17th century Venice, take a tour through the Vatican or the Pentagon, read an epistolary novel via email, or read up on the biographical background to key scenes in Robert Walser. Others can write circular books with eternal stories that never begin or end. And the blink of an eyelid is all that separates us from a glut of secondary literature – happy days for scouts on the trail of K, who want to understand more than they can grasp single-handedly.

Whether "we" want this is as redundant a question as whether we wanted private TV channels or mobile phones or the Internet. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it never returns. Coming generations will not believe it could ever be contained. Like life itself, culture will crawl into every nook and cranny in an expression of its consciousness. The borders between the book and the rest of the media world will eventually dissipate as entirely as those between advertising and entertainment. Certain genres like the novel, the biography and the dictionary will probably hold out against the others and other forms the longest – until eventually we speak about "books" as often as we do writers' "quills".

The newfangled reading devices seem rather clueless about this future. Their strengths – print quality monitors and long battery-life – only veil their greatest weakness: they offer the old world in new garb. In their current form they do little else than allow us to read books as we know them – only on an electronic screen instead of actual paper, and in giant type for the near-blind. It won't come as a surprise to many that you can now download whole books, even whole libraries, read them in an orderly fashion and search for key words. But in times when every mobile phone has enough memory to store and allow you to read a thousand weighty tomes, the hard drives on these new book-substitute machines seem prehistorically minute. Relics on release.

These contraptions are also headed for the museum, because books and other printed works can basically be viewed on anything with a screen – especially the sort of inexpensive multimedia gadgets that are cropping up everywhere now in jacket pocket to briefcase format. Today's ebooks might just be Trojan horses, designed to disseminate new ideas among the population in half-way familiar packaging. It is easier to lift people's reservations by getting them to download Faust or a Kafka biography first.

That bookshops are selling (under duress) reading machines like shovels for digging their graves, lends a victim's face to the revolution. Every last book which is downloaded or goes into circulation as a legal or illegal copy, instead of leaving the shop in print form, is a hole in the balance sheets of all those who, until recently, dealt exclusively in Gutenberg's legacy.

But book fans and publishers alike are deceiving themselves if they believe that the prime concern of the writer is something tangible. It can be nice to stick your nose between the pages of your own book, scribble notes in the margins with a pencil, see it in the hands of other people. We will still be able to afford this tactile experience in special editions. But that is not what we are working towards; we are interested in what happens in readers' minds, even if it we are only peddling recipes or tax-cutting tips. That, and an income. It is secondary, then, whether the IP gets to the reader in print or pixel form. The first milestone of the revolution will be reached when the first electronic "book" graces the bestseller lists.

Few living writers will not mourn the end of the book shop – also as a cultural establishment, educational institution and public space. But then few would refuse to digitalise their books to save it. And very few publishers would allow that to happen if it meant forgoing an extra source of income. But this would be the only, if reactionary, way to slow down the process a bit and ensure that a few not unimportant questions get answered. Like how will the authors of books of the future be paid for their work? Are publishers in the position to offer adequate protection to the rights of their authors? Can they find a solution which satisfies both sides? Or are we once again at the mercy of powerful monopolists with no other options?

The prices for the current selection of electronic books make you wonder. They sell for just one or two euros less than the shop price for hardback books. Although, if you sold 20-euro books for 10 euros in digital form, that would still be good money, even if writers (and their agents) were to get significantly more than the today's two to two-and-a-half euros. But although all printing and distribution costs including packaging, transport plus all the wages and revenues in this chain, and even the book dealer reseller reductions of 40 to 45 percent fall away, the authors do not see a cent from the massive gains.

In return they have to watch as their now volatile products become independent. The publishing world quaked as it watched the music industry crumble, and is now surrendering to data theft before it's even begun. Whether or not this will ever happen on anything like the same scale as it did with music and film, having very different products and customers (as well as downloaders), remains to be seen. Mass produce for infantile readers of all ages will probably be impacted more by illegal copying and downloading than the more specialised books for earnest readers.

More importantly, we must consider whether we cannot do more to protect the German book market (which already has the advantages of lower VAT and fixed pricing) in the digital world, than just handing it over to Amazon, Google and Co. Most writers (like their partners in the agencies and publishers) recently woke up one morning to find that were about to be digitalised and appear online (no one was officially informed). On one hand this poses no problems: at least it might reel in a few more readers. On the other hand, it poses no small problem, because authors and their creations are suddenly at the mercy of the market whose zone of influence they would be better off avoiding.

Why can't the German publishing industry, which is more or less exclusively German, not offer its digital produce exclusively on a joint platform, instead of rather wearily setting up alongside the giants with little chance of success? Few industries are more dependent on the country of production that the business of producing text in the national language. But at least it delivers one hundred percent of the merchandise and represents authors and translators to an equal degree. It is possible to take on the giants if we stick together. This is not about protectionism and free trade, cars, soft drinks, TV series or pop songs, it is about the backbone of a language community and its culture. Such things cannot be uprooted and planted elsewhere without damaging its nervous system.

Only now does it seem to be dawning on the publishing industry that it has to reinvent itself (dictionaries, lexicons, atlases and maps have been feeling the squeeze for some time already). Now is the time for bullet biting and belt tightening. Even if sales remain the same, revenue will fall, jobs will be axed and many publishing houses will probably be elbowed out of the competition. The greatest chances of survival will be had by those who don't only treat the disembodied book as an exchangeable commodity, but as a unique work by a unique author. Never was the authorial spirit of innovation more in demand, that in times when the book, as a set of data in the same technical format as image and audio, has to compete with all the other media for the attention and chunks of the temporal budget.

To sum up the future relationship between author and book, you could say that a book needs an author but an author doesn't need a book. At least not that weighs anything, that has to be printed, packaged, posted and sold. Paper is neither necessary for writing nor reading. Billions of sent and received text messages can't be wrong. In the post-Gutenberg age, authors no longer require the classical bookshops, distributors or publishers to bring their labours to potential fruition – publication in other words. For them, content has triumphed over container, whose production, distribution and trade sustains vast numbers of jobs and guzzles huge amounts of energy and raw materials.

No book need ever go unpublished in the future – this is the good news for the overlooked and misunderstood. Everyone will have the chance to present their work to the world, be it on open source platforms or social networks. Of course this doesn't mean competition flies out the window. But it is safe to assume that under the mountains of digital shelf warmers, true gems are slumbering away. At the other end of the spectrum, then, the mass of today's average, low and no earners will get their chance at a piece of the pie.

In the wake of this global meltdown, which is wiping out eternal truths by the day, the revolution can is gaining momentum. The unthinkable is sliding in the realm of the possible. Theoretically speaking, anyone with a modicum of capital can start up their own publishing house for digital books, and with enough quality and output, make a success of it. The very bold might even come up with the idea of controlling the distribution of their electronic produce – and if they are also wise they will join a strong collective to better protect the rights of the individuals. Never before have unions of authors been more popular than they are today. And if the authors do set about publishing their works themselves, they they'd be best off concentrating on ones that cannot be contained between two covers: Out of Print publishers of unprintable books at the dawn of a new era.

Services like editing and layout have long been available on the free market, and the publishing houses make use of them increasingly. The classical book people, on the other hand, might soon have to make room for strangers in their world. Competition could emerge from today's literary agencies, or equally from entirely new Internet portals which, thanks to tougher selection procedures, will guarantee quality with their name. So why not go just take production and distribution into your own hands right away?

If all physical contact to the product gives way to the fully automatic download and payment system, the 20 euro book, even when sold for five, could generate more income for authors than it does today. And it can only be a question of time before advertising appears in "books". Self-help books, travel guides and recipe collections are the perfect platform for product promotion. Advertising in images, sound and text will generate such high revenues that bestsellers will be downloadable gratis. Lower prices could, in turn, boost "book" sales. Editions, income and not least the number of potential readers, will rise. Even assuming that readers invest only half the amount they spend on printed products today on all forms of reading material, authors stand to profit.

And if they don't? Then we are talking about another problem entirely, which effects not only the book but all other saleable printed products, namely a problem of culture in general. How much value do we still assign to reading and writing as a cultural asset and societal glue, beyond the reach of commerce, for children's development, for general education, and our lives together?

Kurt Beck was once asked on a talk show whether, as a democrat and Social Democrat, he would rather people voted for Oskar Lafontaine's Die Linke party or not at all. Applied to the book this question could soon be: what would we rather – that people read from monitors, or not at all? Beck was no better able to answer it than book makers are today, with their eyes fixated on the demise of their guild. Actually the question is not how people will read and write in the future, but whether they will write at all and how much and what? But again this is no reason for seeing black. Already now in the form of mails and text messages, in online forums, blogs and social networks, more text is produced and read than 20 years ago. Of course this is no guarantee of quality. But the relationship between mass and class has not shifted overnight and not only in the world of the book.

Increasingly it will come down to what a "book" offers over and above classic printed content. That even the printed editions of travel guides, scientific textbooks and other reference books with enhanceable functions that can be read on all possible devices, will have better chances of survival than roll film cameras ten years ago, is hard to imagine. Brockhaus encyclopaedias started the ball rolling and in the end, few poets will complain that their poems can only be read on mobile phones, they main thing is they that are read.

If it's true that authors can neither be protected from the legal digitalisation nor the illegal distribution of their intellectual property and the ensuing loss of income, and if at the same time we are convinced that our written culture must be nurtured and continually developed as our prime civilizing achievement, because writing and reading belong, even in the future, to the foundations of democratic society, then we have to come up with a completely new business model for former print products. In the beleaguered circles of newspapers and magazine publishing, ideas of state-financed print journalism are already doing the rounds. When people talk about "system-relevant sectors" that must be preserved at all costs, then first on the list is the press as the oldest guarantee of the fourth estate. If the state finances radio, TV, film, theatre and art (as well as motorways, sports grounds, coal) then surely they can it could help out with newspapers and books

So do we have to get ready to fork out a (small) chunk of our taxes or some extra tax-like charge for media content including what was until recently the printed press, in order to guarantee a solid basic quality for our reading material? I can already feel your free-market knee jerk reactions in my finger tips. The idea of the end of the free press would probably not even seem untimely for some people in power. And the same goes for books as vessels of free speech and unadulterated information. But if this crisis teaches us anything at all, then let it be that some things cannot be left or left entirely to the mercy of the market.

Newspaper publishers in the USA are keen to distribute their own reading devices free of charge to their subscribers as a cost efficient alternative to printing and distributing their papers. This means they could then save their editorial teams and "pages", even if revenues were halved. In the long run, of course, there will be no reading devices specific to publishers or distributors which can limit content like this. It would be like having TV sets that can only receive certain programmes. The ones that will endure, will be the ones we can use for all reading and research. Providers, ranging from global companies like Amazon to local publishers like Hamburg's Hoffmann und Campe, have grasped this fact and are about to start launching content for iPhones and their kind.

If we look at the digital successors of today's newspapers, we are seeing that each media service subscriber can piece together and download his own personal copy from various sources, according to his interests and whims of the moment, wherever there is Wi-Fi or mobile phone reception. Once the electronic reading device has established itself as a gadget that virtually everyone carries on them, the only way to stop the victory march of the ebook will be if no one buys it and no one reads it.

Perhaps one day in the future, we or our children will go one step further to save reading and writing, and make all texts and content free for download. Free reading as part of the fundamental right to education – and as a success formula for all modern knowledge-based societies. Open Access would not be the end of the West. On the contrary.

Gutenberg's achievement was that more people owned and read more books. The same can be said of the revolution which will put his work in the museum. When the history of the 21st century is written by generations to come, the global financial meltdown will appear as nothing more than a footnote at the beginning of the post-Gutenbergian age.


This article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on April 23, 2009.

Jürgen Neffe lives in Hamburg and near Berlin. He is the author of a number of biographies. His Einstein biography has been translated into several languages and was voted Book of the Year by the Washington Post in 2007. His latest book, "Darwin. Das Abenteuer des Lebens", was published last year.

Translation: lp - let's talk european