The Future of the Future of the Book

Scott Thomas, whose recent book Designing Obama was produced as POD (print on demand) and as an iPhone app, is trying to kick up some digital dust. He recently announced Post Press, which he says “is committed to producing fine books and reinventing publishing in the 21st Century.” An admirable notion, yet he could be standing on quicksand. DH interviewed him about the terrain he’s scoped out.

What is Post Press? Publishing is broken. It is never more evident than now. The concept of a book has evolved more in the last three years than in the last 300 years. When the book went from the being scribed by hand to set with movable type there was an explosion in publishing, I think we’re at the brink of a similar explosive period. With the proliferation of more portable digital devices and with the expanding distribution and availability of the internet there will be massive change in what we consider a book, how we produce it and even how fund it. The future publishers will be programmers, the future authors will be social and the future reader will be electronic.  Books that are stitched or glued will become a different type of artifact in the post press world. That is Post Press.

What is involved in making a digital books more than a typical CD ROM? Digital books bring about a huge opportunity not available to story tellers in the past. The CD ROM may have brought a smaller format and allowed users to interact with content in a new way but the future of books is far more interesting when our reading is networked and accessible by the global village. Bookmarks are now shared with your friends, your book shelf becomes apart of our digital personal profile and ideas become more easily shared. The readers voice and the authors voice merge for the first time. Try doing that with a CD ROM.

What kind of content are you looking to feature in your venture? Post Press is interested in art and design and how the digital and printed artifact continue to have a relationship. Let’s face it, 99% of the books on the shelves at big box stores are put there by a publishing industry distributing as much tree as possible in exchange for more green. There is nothing sacred about the paper these books are printed on. There is little craft in the production of most of these imported commodities. Beyond the content they almost all look exactly the same. In the future of the book, content remains the king. The majority of books will be distributed in the most economic and streamlined method—digitally. The artifact of the printed book will remain for those that make it a truly sought after object or question it’s role in our lives.

Indeed who is this Post Press for? Desktop publishers, designers, everyone? E-books will allow for a larger audience, it will create more publishers, more designers and in fact more readers. Post Press will explore how e-books will include things beyond words, images, interactive elements, maps and so on. The way we interact with design books is rarely discussed in the e-book conversation. Words are only one variable in the reading experience. It’s the other elements and constructs that make up a book that we are focusing on.

Currently, many publishers are trying to figure out what to do with the iPad. What will make this different? I think there is plenty of room for innovation in this area. Everyone is doing different things and exploring new concepts. It’s important for publishers to explore new ideas and whenever possible use the standards set by ePub and the International Digital Publishing Forum. But many of the problems with the e-book stem from this already archaic set of standards. Likely the iPad has opened the flood gates and allowed people wanting to make books without using ePub able to do so with a more robust architecture rich with interactive potential.

What is the financial model? Still workin’ this out.

I understand you are far from the final build on the Post Press programming, so what is your time frame? The landscape has been shaking under our feet. Our exploration has no time frame. E-books is a discussion that we’ll be having for a long time. Especially with the ever-evolving technologies in front of us. The printed book has had a life for over a thousand years. So it’s important to consider our creations need to exist in time and the foundation of this new medium must consider the magnitude of shaking landscape. It would be a shame to have a history with artifacts that can’t be accessed because the Jaz drive has been discontinued. (James Bridle has some really interesting thoughts on time and books.)

How much of your time is this taking up? The first title Designing Obama we released this year is still taking up about 25% of our time. Interestingly, that time is mostly dealing with the woes of producing physical books, including; reprinting, distribution, fulfillment and all the problems associated with physical products. Hence the inspiration for producing a new simple solution to this age old problem.

For more on e-books and digital publishing see sites for James Bridle and Craig Mod (and here).

15 thoughts on “The Future of the Future of the Book

  1. Sharon P. Fibelkorn

    Interesting read.

    One huge problem for the POD hard copy book market is the pricing. This market MUST give the individual publishers the ability for mark up or it just won’t work. Pricing right now is set just from printer to client … but if we are entering the world of being ‘publishers’ then we will need wholesale and retail capabilities and hopefully that’s on the horizon for Post Press. I’ll be calling, as I do have a POD product for 2011 and I am looking for the right printer/ebook/distribution home for the project.

    The second issue for POD will be photographic licensing. A word to the foolish (photographers) don’t sell your rights … you could make a little money for the rest of your life on reprints and reruns rather then letting some company making them for pennies paid to you.

    Rock On!

  2. John Svatek

    I guess the commenting system interprets anything with an angle bracket as an actual tag, so I need to say:

    TAG end rant CLOSE TAG

    Unless there is a tag for “rant”? Sorry for the extra, useless posts.

  3. John Svatek

    As someone who is producing ebooks for my clients, I eagerly began this story, but it quickly devolved into a standard thoughtless bromide. And a statement like “Beyond the content they [printed books] almost all look exactly the same” is the most ignorant statement I’ve read in quite a while.

    “Beyond the content” there is no other reason for a book to exist. Except for their subject, all photos are the same. Except for the difference in glyphs, all fonts are the same. Equally meaningless.

    And I don’t know what dead-tree bookstore Scott Thomas goes to, but Taschen, Dark Horse, and University of Chicago Press produce strikingly different-looking books.

    “There is little craft [in book production]” (thanks for the insult!) is explained by “The future publishers will be programmers”–yes, I look forward to the beautiful book design and sterling content that programmers have provided us in the past. (In software, perhaps, but in design and language, no.) I am so grateful for efforts such as the ASCII character set that programmers bestowed upon us.

    This kind of Panglossian optimism reeks of 90s internet boosterism. Like the growth of the internet, some of the changes in publishing will be good, some will be bad, most will not be foreseen.

    Please find someone who’s actually thought about these issues–it’s a huge and important topic–next time.

  4. Pingback: future? « Hi & Bye & Hi!

  5. Gary G

    @Barbara, your post exhibits an attitude at the most pessimistic end of the scale, especially given history and current observations.

    The concern in your first paragraph is no different than the concerns of every form of media that has ever gone digital. We already know how it ends, and it isn’t that bad. Whether you talk about music, publishing, typography, photography, etc. the trend is the same. At first, traditionalists fear for the world because there is a glut of amateur content that is not worth looking at. But after you wait to get past that, the amateurs realize that they don’t have what it takes and they start to fall away (remember everyone who started a “desktop publishing” business 20 years ago because the computer could do all the work for them?). After the amateurs go away who is left? Just the old professionals, along with new, hungry talent who now have access, thanks to digital, to more and better tools than were ever possible before. And the average quality level of work goes up again, but this time, it isn’t just the old “high priests” who get to do it. We all do. More people get to participate, and publish.

    As for your second paragraph, I am not a huge fan of Facebook and the like, but what caused me to open a Facebook account is that it was an arts group I belong to that meets face to face. They found that Facebook was the easiest way to organize and promote events. And that’s what I have found: Across the social groups I am part of, it is clear that one of Facebook’s killer apps is the way Events are integrated. Invitations are so easy to create, and so easy to add friends to, and so centralized, that invites that once would have been scattered and missed are all in one place on your profile for you to decide whether you’d like to go. I see so many face-to-face events now, I can’t even attend them all. This means the reality is often the opposite of what you portray: Instead of digital interaction isolating us, Facebook and other digital interaction are often used as a catalyst, even an engine, to bring people together in the real world. And the effect of having more “online friends”? I have met more new people, face to face, due to online interaction, than in any other year of my life except maybe college.

    Digital interaction is just a tool. If you feel it is isolating you, ask yourself if it’s the tool, or if it’s you. Because you might be able to use the tool to reverse the isolation, as I am observing all the time.

  6. chris gargan

    Well, I guess if I was trying to make this argument I might have at least started with something a bit less ugly than this example “Designing Obama”. If this was on paper and submitted for a grade in a Design Class it would merit about a C+. But, I suppose that a generation that is satisfied with the crap that passes for downloadable music, and reads primarily for infotainment will be more than happy to browse through something this glib and weightless and then dispose of it back into the ether from whence it sprang.
    I gather that ephemera needn’t be beautiful to look at.

  7. Aaron S.


    I think there are two ways to look at the effect technology has on our lives…

    You’re probably right, if everyone can publish than there will probably be a huge increase in crap and amateur content. Just look at the music industry. But for all the garbage produced by an increase in quantity, some otherwise unknowns will rise to the top and the opportunity to have a voice will us all forward and have a positive influence.

    You’re probably right, digital publishing will reduce face to face time in some instances. But for all of those, there are probably hundreds of more ways it will increase communication amongst those who would otherwise never get to. Like your long distance friends and family. It can provide us with an additional wealth of perspective and connection made possible by convenience and ease of use.

    I say facilitate change in publishing by encouraging growth and pushing the industry forward. It may happen that the industry wasn’t quite perfect and these changes will give us an opportunity improve something we love.

  8. Aaron S.

    Exciting stuff Scott. Glad the Post Family will have a play in this new media environment. The funding model for Designing Obama was brilliant played.

    I think publishing is now less about books specifically and more about media in general. Where is media heading with new publishing capabilities? I think we’ve already moved past books becoming archaic. Now it’s about convergence. How are the various forms of information and media converging? Like a mobile device – it’s now your phone, camera, video camera, Mp3 player, email/calendar, personal planner, 3G/WiFi base, application stack, etc etc. Now that these devices have converged, we’re beginning to see media morphing into one single experience. An experience where your new “book” or “movie” or “TV show” can now have gaming elements, video shorts, social community engagement, and on and on. These things will overlap and interact with each other to make their users a part of the experience. Which is way more fun than turning a page. Although, I do still love to hold a book in my hand. They’re sexy objects and I don’t think they’re going to disappear.

  9. Barbara Greenberg

    And nowhere in this discussion:
    The glut of unedited, mostly unreadable books that will flood the market, and how readers will deal with that.

    The effect on society of an increasingly digital interaction that replaces face-to-face conversation, and bookclubs with tea and snacks and comfy chairs, and your friends right there with you to discuss the book.

    As a longtime reader of alternate realities, the thing that bothers me most consistently about discussions of group reading accomplished digitally, and the hundreds of friends people have on Facebook and Twitter, is the loss of face-to-face human interaction, and the difference in connection in person and online.

    I wonder what others think about this.

  10. Robert Sawyer

    Thank you for this Steven, it much appreciated and gives me, an old liquid ink on rag paper man, reason to pay more attention to the continuing evolution of the book. As always, I find your site and your commitment to it invaluable.
    Many thanks.

  11. Scott Thomas


    I think devices like Kindle offer interesting potential for the distribution of words but for visual imagery the iPad actually gets us closer to the work of visual artist. We produce books and often artwork in a digital space. We lay it out in RGB color space on a screen. It’s interesting that these mobile devices get us closer to the true production method.

    Personally, I use the Kindle on my iPad and love the selection available for the device and I really wish the iPad screen could work in the sun. I’m a little envious of Kindle users that are out in the sun reading away…

    -Scott Thomas

  12. Larry Launstein Jr

    What do you think about the proliferation of devices like Kindle (and software such as Kindle for Mac and Windows)? Do you think that will have an impact on the online book publishing industry? I downloaded Kindle for Mac, and can’t wait to try it.

  13. Mike Marich

    Tim Brown of IDEO posted this about a month ago that also brings exciting prospects about the future of the book. Similarly with other media outlets (Netflix, iTunes), the theme for these vessels will be about content – more than words on a page, but connecting the book to reader in ways we may have experienced only in isolated instances.

    Publishing the physical book might seem like a scary prospect for some – particularly for those within the profession, but truly exciting prospects are on the horizon.