The book is great technology, but it’s not good for everything

Inkling's Matt MacInnis and Small Demons' Richard Nash at GigaOM RoadMapPrinted books may have been groundbreaking technology 500 years ago, and they still have plenty of value as an information-distribution platform — but they are no longer good for every purpose, Matt MacInnis of digital textbook publisher Inkling told attendees at the GigaOM RoadMap conference in San Francisco on Thursday. When it comes to learning and exchanging information about a topic, MacInnis said, multimedia platforms like the tablet are a better solution. And as books increasingly go digital, traditional bookstores will have to emphasize the social aspects of books and reading if they want to survive.

A good example of a book that is much better in electronic form than in print is the cookbook, MacInnis said — noting that Inkling’s new cookbook app is currently the top-grossing app in the lifestyle section of the Apple app store. When people are reading those kinds of books, he said, they want to see photos and even videos of the food they are trying to create, and that turns a book into a multimedia project much like a film. The Culinary Institute shot over 100 high-definition videos of the dishes in the book, along with thousands of photos, and publishers of those kinds of books have to effectively become multimedia studios, MacInnis said.

In some ways, said Richard Nash of the book-based community Small Demons, the publishing business is becoming a spectrum with individual authors and self-publishers at one end and high-cost, multimedia studios at the other. The availability of easy publishing tools has turned writing on one level into “a hobby-like, artisanal thing, like knitting” he said, where people just write as a normal part of their daily lives — something that is very much unlike the “supply-chain” model that traditional publishing has gotten used to.

So where does that leave independent booksellers and libraries? Nash says that they are perfectly positioned to capitalize on the social aspect around books as both educational tool and entertainment. While large retailers like Borders have gone bankrupt, smaller independents have had some success by offering real-world events around books such as dating nights, cooking demonstrations and author signings. Libraries are even better positioned to offer those kinds of social experiences, he said, because they aren’t so focused on generating a profit by selling books.

Reading has always been social as long as there have been books to read aloud or discuss with others, said Nash, and while those social aspects are moving to digital platforms in many ways, they are still a crucial part of why we read books in print or electronic form.

Photo by Pinar Ozger.