The Past of the Future of the Book: after everything, does Silicon Valley even like books?

Connor Tomas O’Brien traces the tech world’s strange – sometimes strained – relationship with the printed word.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos operates the largest bookstore that has ever existed – but how invested is he in bookselling?

When Steve Jobs introduced the iBooks app alongside the iPad in January 2010, the response from his audience was telling. ‘Let me show you another one of our apps that we’re very excited about,’ he said, clicking over to the next slide, to reveal, inexplicably, a photograph of the Amazon Kindle. ‘Of course, that’s an ebook reading app.’

Apple iPad: Steve Jobs iBooks demo

Steve Jobs iBooks demo presentation, 27 January 2010

If you watch the video of that presentation and you strain to listen, you can hear laughter in the audience. But looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint what, exactly, was supposed to be funny. Were those in the crowd quietly chuckling at the clunkiness of the Kindle, or at Jobs himself, ridiculing the idea of another major technology company wanting to get involved in bookselling? 

Image of a Kindle prototype, obtained by Engadget in 2006, a year before the device's release

Silicon Valley has always had an awkward relationship with the written word – especially long-form works, especially novels. For a while, beginning in 2007 when the first-generation Kindle was introduced, technology companies suddenly appeared very interested in literary culture, but the exact nature of that interest was never obvious. Was the Kindle itself a passion project for Amazon, borne of a genuine desire to make reading more accessible or to improve on the book as a technology? Or was it simply an attempt to enter a market – any market – that was identified as slow-moving and easy to conquer? And were the profusion of breathless articles heralding a soon-to-arrive ‘future of the book’ written by serious readers excited about the possibilities of more engrossing, technologically improved e-reading experiences, or by those who didn’t really like books at all and simply wanted to see them morph out of existence and into social networking apps and smartphone games? 

Some of the conversations taking place just a few years ago – especially in the frenzied months leading up to the announcement of the iPad in 2010 – seem absurd in retrospect. Both the reverence and contempt for print, expressed by various pundits, now seems wildly overstated. In some quarters (especially those closest to Silicon Valley), print books were repeatedly likened to horse-drawn carts, while ebooks of the time were ‘horseless carriages’, themselves soon to be eliminated by more sophisticated apps and devices that would turn the novel into ‘a pastiche of video and audio and words and images that could rain down on the user.’ By 2011, discussions of the future of the book had coagulated into a fixed debate, in which defenders of ereaders were pitted against lovers of print, who relied on evocations of scent and touch to support their apparently soon-to-be-outmoded predilection. ‘I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine,’ wrote Mark O’Connell, now Slate’s books columnist. ‘I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones.’ O’Connell’s piece, and others like it, made a lot of sense at the time – it is tempting to pre-emptively fetishise whatever we believe is soon going to slide into cultural obscurity.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on audio cassette – perhaps the original electronic book (and sold on Amazon)

Now, though, it’s clear that grandiloquent eulogies for the book didn’t need writing after all, because the entire debate was founded on the false premise that new formats inevitably wipe away the old. Caught in the middle of the (second) ebook hype cycle, we’d forgotten that, for years, many readers were already enjoying another kind of electronic book: the audiobook, a format that was neither better or worse than books on paper – just different. By 2013, after the haze of hype had cleared, it had become clear that ebooks were more similar to audiobooks than CDs or VHS tapes, and easily able to coexist with the older format they were only partially displacing.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on a Segway, November 19, 2002. Image by Joe Goldberg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

None of this was clear then. Instead, discussions of the ‘future of the book’ seemed to rest on a number of assumptions – few more prevalent than the belief that Silicon Valley was passionately interested in books, and, once they had succeeded in enticing readers to consume books electronically, would keep on innovating, rolling out increasingly flashy ebook technologies year-over-year. For ebook partisans, this was the promise, and for ebook opponents, this was the threat. In 2010, for example, a New York Times article promised that ebooks were about to ‘fly beyond mere text’ – coming close to suggesting that the logical next step might be the elimination of text altogether – and a 2012 Economist piece suggested that the next step for publishers and technology companies was adding ‘extra gloss’ to enhanced ebook versions of timeless classics – as though the iPad might render centuries-old works suddenly in need of updating. The implication of most ‘future of the book’ articles was clear: regardless of what was about to happen, books would soon look very different – and technology companies would be leading the charge, dragging publishers along with them.

Now, though, in 2015, a visit to Amazon.com reveals the truth more clearly, which is that technology companies are no longer especially interested in books, having already picked the low-hanging fruit and moved on to the next disruptable market. If you’re not logged in to Amazon, the site will display a default landing page – and, in most cases, there will be few mentions of books on the homepage at all. Instead, Amazon will direct you toward its Echo ‘intelligent speaker’, Prime Instant Video service, or the fire tablet – a device that was once in the Kindle line-up, before being rebadged to appeal to consumers more interested in movies, TV shows, and songs. There is a good reason for this. The Seattle-based ecommerce giant already controls about two-thirds of the ebook market, and two-thirds of the market for print books sold online. With a predatory pricing strategy that has allowed them to bankrupt major retail competitors (and weaken the position of publishers), Amazon’smonopoly position in publishing seems assured.

Still from an advertisement for the Amazon Dash, a physical button that can be installed in a user's home and pressed to instantly order macaroni or washing powder

Who can say for sure whether Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ever really cared about books? In interviews, Bezos has spoken of being a keen reader as a child – and a lifelong fan of Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – but he also has a tendency to treat books as interchangeable commodities, akin to washing powder (which Amazon similarly ‘electronified’ earlier this year, introducing a physical button users could attach to their washing machine and press to trigger the order of a new shipment) or potato chips. The Kindle makes a lot of sense in this context. It’s a device enabling Amazon to cement its place as the world’s most popular destination for book sales, in order to in turn enable the company to move on to television shows, mobile phones, $4.85 million Norman Rockwell masterpieces – in the name of shareholder-pleasing diversification. Amazon hasn’t totally abandoned publishing, of course – the company always needs to do just enough to ensure ongoing dominance. The Kindle continues to evolve, for example, but at a sluggish pace (one of the Kindle Paperwhite’s cornerstone features is a new default font, and technology commentators have joked that the Kindle division ‘feels like it has a staff of one person who’s only allowed to work on it for a few weeks each year’), while competitors that seem as though they might pose a threatarepurchased and allowed to continue operating as before, but with profits flowing back into Amazon’s coffers.

Still from an advertisement for the Amazon Echo, an intelligent listening device – and a key component of Amazon's diversification strategy

For others, down south in Silicon Valley proper, ebooks no longer seem worth the hassle. When Apple’s iPad launched, iBooks was branded as its ‘killer app’ – a platform for readers to purchase ebooks to read on a larger device with a colour screen. Since the launch of iBooks, though, Apple has been mired in a protracted legal battle with the US Department of Justice over alleged ebook price-fixing, which seems to have resulted in Apple cooling on further developing the iBooks platform for trade publishers. On Apple’s website and promotional materials, the iPad itself is now marketed as a tool for ‘photography and video, productivity, gaming, travel, kids, cooking, shopping, home improvement, music, and health and fitness’ – no mention of books at all. In some sense, there is a real possibility that Apple, now finding it difficult to establish the kinds of mutually beneficial relationships with trade publishers it initially intended, is now no longer especially invested in iBooks. Its existence is perhaps only important as a weak counterpoint to Amazon’s otherwise unchecked dominance.

Steve Jobs introducing the iPad, 27 January 2010

Did Apple ever really care about books? Several years before launching the iPad, Steve Jobs mentioned that the ‘whole conception [of tech companies selling books] is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.’ This may have been one of Jobs’ typical deflections, designed to draw attention away from Apple’s then-secret tablet project, but it is also clear that Jobs was much more interested in music than he was in reading. In 2015, Apple is now a company more interested in wristwatches than books, and this, too, has a good explanation: beyond the sheer revenue potential of wearable computers dwarfing the money remaining to be made in bookselling, Apple designer Jony Ive prefers watch-collecting to reading.(The man reads, yes, but one of his favourite books is 100 Superlative Rolex Watches.)

If anything, perhaps it’s a relief for publishers and booksellers to feel as though the tech industry spotlight is no longer shining squarely in their direction. When Silicon Valley targets your industry, the future can look both wondrous and terrifying, depending on how you happen to tilt your gaze. It’s quieter, now. More stable. There are certainly start-ups that continue to innovate in the ebook space – Kobo and Oyster, for example, and Scribd and Wattpad – and most publishers now produce ebooks as a by-product of their regular workflow. But most tech companies that have had the ability to pivot away from publishing as a core concern seem to have done so long ago. Now, the only players left are those too huge to exit the industry, or those whose commitment to books goes beyond a straightforward commercial imperative – like the independent booksellers who have managed to ride out almost a decade of uncertainty.

And – who would have thought it? – ebooks, only recently derided as a print-killer and hailed as the saviour of publishing, have been left in an interesting and unexpected position. The ebook is now a strangely unglamorous format supported, for legacy reasons, by technology companies more interested in cracking the market for wristwatches and virtual assistants. But that’s okay. After all, we don’t necessarily need continuous, frenzied innovation. After all, as Jeff Bezos said the day he introduced the Kindle in 2007, as soon as the technology disappears, ‘what remains is the author's world, the author's words.’

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