Ideo on the future of the book

IDEO's Future of the Book video shows three different concepts for near-future books. I confess that I found this somewhat disappointing, given IDEO's exemplary track record for innovative thinking. These concepts all seem rather tame to me -- a book that has links to critical reviews, for example -- the sort of thing you might find in the feature-list for a tablet today. I also found the suggestion that a book could overcome bias by having links to objecting points of view to be pretty thin; there is always editorializing -- even if it's just the editorial implicit in deciding what other materials to contrast.

There's also not much attention to the economics of publishing here -- adding extensive, ongoing curatorial marginalia to a book after publication could be free, if all this stuff was picked by algorithms from RSS feeds, for example. But IDEO's vision highlights something that appears to be picked by hand, and I'm not sure who they think will be doing this, and who will pay for them to do it.

Meanwhile, there's not much attention to present-day novel forms of narrative -- MMORPGs and ARGs (the former being not very narrative at all, the latter being very narrative but extremely expensive), for example. There's nothing half so exciting as present-day experiments such as the Mongoliad. There's nothing about physical objects that might accompany these virtual books -- nothing about the Google/Espresso print-on-demand experiments; nothing about high-end art-book remakes from networked communities like Etsy.

In short, it feels more like the kind of thing you'd get if Time's business reporter put in a couple calls to the tablet vendors and a couple of corporate futurists and built from there. There's nothing here that excites, nothing that projects much past the present-day, and nothing that has that "out-of-the-box" frisson I get from the best of IDEO's designs and provocations.

IDEO's Future of the Book


  1. The printed book is a deep bandwidth tangible time machine! The paper book is a perfect design – it just needs to be left alone to do what it does best. The digital incarnations of the book remove the extraneous fluff and leave the paper book even more powerful, an island of persistent attention in the distracting sea of electronic screens:)

  2. Hey Cory, I live in South Africa and e-book readers are still something of a rarity here. I own a Kindle2 and I just love it. I stumbled upon your writing & ideas about copyright whilst searching for sci-fi e-books (enjoyed Super Man and the Bug Out). I also find your ideas about copyright very interesting. I wonder though about the digital divide again. Most people I know in SA think I am strange owning an e-book reader. I only know 1 person who owns an i-Pad. Now we are talking books of the future, whereas we thought the future of books is here already!

    J. Hardspear De La Azotea
    Somewhere near Johannesburg
    South Africa

  3. Interesting point you make here about the failings of print journalism. The IDEO work is so thin, so unimaginative, that’s it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in Time: ‘it feels more like the kind of thing you’d get if Time’s business reporter put in a couple calls to the tablet vendors and a couple of corporate futurists and built from there.’

    I’m sure Cory didn’t mean it quite that way, though he may have inadvertently expressed something a lot of people feel – that much of the work you see in the newspapers and magazines these days really isn’t a patch on what you find online. And that is why print journalism is really suffering.

  4. I really don’t want to know what others are reading, for the most part, and I certainly don’t know want people to know what I read on an intimate level.

  5. I have a Kindle and love the way I can enlarge the type and love how many books I can get on it. Despite that I find the idea of ebooks incredibly creepy. Remember when amazon went on people’s kindles and deleted a book it turned out they didn’t have a right to sell? Updates? They could come into your ereader and change whatever they wanted. Talk about 1984. I still buy a hardcopy for almost every book I buy for my kindle. With an ereader the powerful can change history. I see that more and more on the internet with articles disappearing, being scrubbed from search engines, even disappearing from the Way Back Machine. At least with a paper book they can’t do that.

  6. All of those examples seem to have forgotten about the you can just fucking read it aspect of books. Nonlinear narratives unlocked by being in a specific location? What about lying in my bed before I fall asleep, could that location just give me the damn story?

    (said as a happy owner of an Cybook Opus ebook reader, which only lets you read)

  7. Very cool. But, btw: the written word is not really a cornerstone of democrathy. That would be the freedom of thought and speech (which also covers the written word). At least thats what it is in the rest of the free world.And I have to tell you, the founding fathers of democrathy and freedom.Lol.

  8. The kind of in-depth ethongraphic research that IDEO conducts limits what they manage to prototype to a certain level of innovation. Their research model produces what people want in combination with what they didn’t know they need. This is the criteria for success in much of the design field, and they’re quite good at it.


    Finding the right witchcraft to come up with something truly disruptive and innovative will produce something that people didn’t know they want.

  9. Short-sighted, disconnected, gimmicky, and stupid. But in defence of IDEO, they nailed the cheeky, pretentious, and awful advertising formula down.

  10. I love paper books. You just can’t get any better. They smell nice, they feel nice, and they don’t glow. When it comes to books, I say go with Occam’s razor: the simpler the better. And paper books are as simple as you can get.

  11. I just want an e-book reader that opens like a book. Like two iPads hinged together. Why can’t they make this?

  12. I love printed books. I love my nook. I don’t love these concepts.

    As Cory suggests, there’s an element of ‘…and then a miracle happens’ in this. For NEW works, these concepts might work. For old ones, someone has to go in and add this content. Much of this stuff just sounds like fancy web-linking or hyper-text IN the book, which we really already kind of have. I can look up dictionary definitions from my nook from inside the e-book, for example. The first two concepts are really just massive expansions of that concept and the online store.

    Non-linear story-telling? That could be very cool…IF that’s what the author wants. It could also HARM the narrative and story-telling. It would be great on my second, third or fourth read-through of Lord of the Rings to link to an article about the Elvish language or Runes or map of Middle-Earth that tracks the current location of the fellowship at that exact moment in the story….but on the first read-through it would be a distraction, throwing me out of the story.

    By the same token, hearing contrasting voices while reading a book could undermine the arguments before they’re formed. It’s like having a crowd of hecklers during a presentation. Could it be good? Certainly. But it could also harm the experience….and that’s assuming the implementation worked well and is fair and can actually be found to make a profit.

    I’m not sure what the future of books actually is, but I don’t think it’s these.

    1. “Non-linear story-telling? That could be very cool…IF that’s what the author wants.”

      Does the author have a say in it anymore? Does the author of a book that I read in paperback have any authority over my reading it backward? Rubbish.

      I expect that no corporation will ever meaningfully change the reading experience. But I’m not sure that’s what they’re even trying to do. It seems, instead, that companies involved with eReaders are interested in making the reading experience more efficient and technologized in an effort to maximize profit from reading.

  13. I felt very much like Cory when I saw these concepts: Not very imaginative, since all of this can probably already be done with an iPad/Nook/Kindle.

    I also got the distinct feeling that the people behind this concept had never immersed themselves in a good, long novel. All of the ideas in this video are distractions and sidetrack from immersion, which is what makes a good book great.

  14. We should stop referring to this types of ideas as books or future books or whatever. Just like the automobile didn’t make the bicycle obsolete, digital technology is not going to make paper books obsolete. For certain tasks that books have been traditionally used for, a digital screen might be better. Some tasks books will still accomplish better. Their usefulness spheres only partially overlap. E-screens are not a replacement for books, they’re just a way of accomplishing some of the stuff that books can also be used for.

  15. I’m one of those dinosaurs who still prefers “dead tree” books. I don’t own a Kindle or an iPad. I do, however, frequently read .pdf or online books on my computer; so I don’t have anything against electronic books in principle; but I much prefer the look and feel — and even the smell — of real ink on paper. Nonetheless, I do see value in electronic books, because you can give them capabilities that you can’t give old-fashioned paper books. For example, I like the idea of layered content, as shown in this video, where you can easily go from the text itself to other material related to the text. However, I find the specific examples shown in this video unappealing. I don’t have any particular interest in playing a book like a video game, being flooded by book recommendations from everyone I know, or reading critiques of the book I’m reading while I’m reading it. These things may appeal to other readers; but they don’t appeal to me.

    So, what would I want from an electronic book? What features would tempt me to give up my cherished “dead tree” books and go out and buy an e-book reader? Well, here are my top ten desires in an e-book / e-reader:

    1) Long-term reliability: When I buy a book, I intend to keep it forever so I can re-read it or refer back to it whenever I want. I’m not going to buy an e-book reader unless it offers me a way to permanently store my e-books so I can access them whenever I want. I’m not going to buy an e-book reader that will die on me or become obsolete in a few years forcing me to get a new one and to replace all of my old e-books. And I’m certainly not going to buy an e-book reader if the provider retains the right to delete or deny me access to books I’ve already purchased in good faith.

    2) Readability and display versatility: I want a display that’s easy on the eyes — that displays text in such a way that it looks as much like ink on paper as possible — but that can also display color, photographs, graphics, video, multimedia, etc. in high resolution.

    3) Customizable text display: I want to be able to adjust the text for my own personal reading comfort: font, font size, text color, background color, portrait or landscape orientation, multiple scrolling and page turning options, various options for the layout of the text, etc.

    4) Access to texts from multiple sources and in multiple formats: I don’t want an e-reader that forces me to buy my electronic books from a single source or in a specific format. I want to be able to purchase my e-books from any bookstore that sells them, borrow them from any library that loans them, import them from files on my computer or from the internet, etc. I also want my reader to be able to read all sorts of files, including text files, word processing files, html files, .pdf files, etc.

    5) Dictionary feature: I want to be able to tap on any word in the text and have its definition automatically pop up at the bottom of the screen. And I want the option of displaying either a simple definition or an in-depth, OED-type definition, complete with etymology and usage notes.

    6) Audiobook feature: The e-book reader ought to come with headphones and double as an audiobook reader. Every e-book ought to come with an audio track — either voiced by a human reader or generated by a text-to-speech program — so you can listen to the book as you read it. The text ought to be synced up with the audiobook so it automatically scrolls as the book is being read. The audiobook should be easy to control (pause, rewind, fast forward, etc.), and should have an adjustable playback speed (with automatic pitch adjustment) so readers can listen to it at their own preferred pace.

    7) Annotation features: There needs to be an easy way to annotate electronic texts for future reference. You should be able to highlight text in multiple colors and set up multiple types of customizable bookmarks. You should be able to easily make notes, both in the “margins” of the text (so the notes will be there whenever you refer back to the text), as well as in a separate built-in “notebook” (which you can export to your computer). It should also be possible to copy blocks of text into a “quotations” file, with automatic citations of where each quote came from. And it should also be possible to easily make your own customized abridgments of each text, selecting which passages from the text you want to include in your own abridged version. (This final feature would be very useful for students who want to quickly review just the highlights of a text before an exam, rather than having to search through the entire text looking for the key passages.)

    8) Pop-up notes: Footnotes, end notes, cross references, etc. ought to be accessible just by tapping on the note marker, which will cause the note to pop up at the bottom of the screen for easy reading without taking the reader away from the main text.

    9) Links to additional content: If additional content is available relating to what is being discussed in the text, links should be provided in the “margins”; and by tapping on those links, a new window should pop up that will allow you to look at that additional content without leaving the main text. Additional content may include updates to the information in the text, “appendices” of additional information that expounds upon the information in the text, online resources related to the text, wikis that the publisher has set up for use exclusively by readers of the text, etc.

    10) A “this isn’t what I wanted” option: When I order books online (e.g. from Amazon) rather than buying them from a “brick and mortar” bookstore, I occasionally discover that the book I ordered isn’t really what I thought it was when I ordered it. Sometimes it’s hard to tell from the description on the Amazon page what’s actually in the book (especially for books that don’t have the handy “Look Inside” feature). It’d be really nice if I could order a book, look it over for a day or two to decide whether or not it was what I wanted, and then send it back for a full refund if it didn’t meet my needs. Or else sellers of e-books could send out a free trial copy of any book on request (perhaps with some of the text blacked out or some of the features locked) so you could examine it for a day or two; and then it would automatically be deleted from your e-reader if you decided not to purchase it before the trial period was up. Of course, if you did purchase it, all of the text and features would be unlocked, and there would be a guarantee that it would never be deleted without your permission.

    There are other features I might like, of course — and, obviously, things like size, weight, battery life, durability, etc. are certainly important considerations — but if e-books and e-readers had the ten features listed above, I could probably be persuaded to switch from my beloved “dead tree” books to this newfangled technology.

    1. Don’t be thinking that you’re holding onto Dead Tree Edition of books because you’re an old dinosaur. It’s actually the opposite, you’re holding on to the real book despite being an old dinosaur. Your demographic is taking onto to eBooks far stronger than younger generations – the opposite from most initial gut instincts.

  16. Coming off Gibsons Zero History which I just finished yesterday I keep on seeing how Marketers would find ways to exploit these ideas and models, & ways hackers could do a Literary version of a Rick Roll on people.

  17. And what type of wording would you use to describe the story in an MMORPG? Depending on the company, the gameplay is often called “emergent” but I don’t know if that would apply to the story as well, since it requires even more inventiveness and interaction on behalf of the user to “work” properly.

  18. I don’t understand. A book is a physical object printed and bound. We don’t use the term horseless carriages for automobiles anymore so why do we use the term electronic books, they are not books.

    Electronic or digital text can take the form of novels, short stories, essays, biography, etc and be enhanced with images, audio and links to reviews, comments, expanded footnotes, location (maps satellite images).

    Imagine a scholarly biography of Mozart or Beethoven with embedded clips of music and video in addition to illustrations and images. That is where we are today. Then add streaming how will it change on a large screen tv compared to a laptop or desktop computer, or to a mobile device – smartphone or tablet. Turn on the speech feature and all of a sudden the differences between the book and video blur.

    You will be able to choose the method of consumption as a digital ‘book’ reading from a screen or using speech for audio to a richer experiences utilizing web resources, be they further biographical information on other individuals connected to the subject, location, period society, and interpretation of his music from contemporary to the present day. You will also be able to discuss and debate in real time with other individuals around the world using the internet. Talk to scholars, museum staff, symphony conductors, enthusiasts, The book then becomes your entry to a richer and dynamic world.

  19. @anon #26 “We don’t use the term horseless carriages for automobiles anymore so why do we use the term electronic books, they are not books.”

    Because E-books haven’t been around for over a hundred years?

    An e-book is as appropriate a name as any for the time being. The fact that you couldn’t provide a better name for the concept you described should answer your question. You say we are “there today” but we really aren’t. By and large e-book readers do exactly what their name suggests: display the text of books electronically.

  20. My biggest challenge with audio narration of books is that the author typically has very little or no say in the choice of narrator. There are several audio books I have listened to over the years that have been made a less than ideal experience for me due to the choice of voice actor doing the reading, or poor dramatization, or overuse of music or special effects.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I think that a writer worth their salt will be able to give you the environment via the words, without needing embellishment via gimmicks. A book isn’t a radio play. They have very different evolutions and architectures.

    When it comes to audio books that I do find very effective, the best ones by far are those narrated by the authors themselves, or by others who are close friends to the authors. I can name Cory as one, and Spider Robinson as another. Neale DeGrasse Tyson doesn’t do too bad for non-fiction, and Wired’s Chris Anderson did pretty good job with Free.

    All the other GeeGaws of an evolved book would indeed be useful, but only if I wanted to really explore a book, and not necessarily while I am reading it for the first time.

    I am of course only speaking about my experience, and also what I think I would find useful. It IS a brave new world out there, and maybe I’m not the intended audience for the new models.

  21. The Alice concept sounds great actually. That one has the potential to make reading fun… way more than it currently is. Not that I have anything against current books as they are, per say, but anything that gets you moving and more involved personally gets a big thumbs up by me. imagine the potential market for all the tween girls and their fantasy whatnot books. big money there…

  22. What they’re suggesting here is nothing more than a closed off website, accessible only to those who have purchased the book(s). This is a great idea for books with heavy amounts of scholarly research on them, from Dickens to Orwell. Also, many modern popular nonfiction books, such as ‘The 4 Hour Workweek’ and ‘The Long Tail’ or any book dealing with a very recent news issue or taken from a blog. This could add a large amount of value to those. With that said, it’s an entirely different experience from reading a book. It turns books into websites.

    Scratch all that. I’d like to see this interface on the web for books in the Creative Commons or that have fallen out of copyright. That way everyone can contribute, and it won’t be a walled garden.

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