The future of the printed word seems smudgy

Updated: Nov 13 2005, 05:30am hrs
Concluding the end of a session to school teachers on the value of books and the promotion of reading, I stated that it was now possible to read books on hand-held rocket readers where text is downloaded on to a screen. Even the iPod, a portable device that plays videos as well as MP3s, may well store books in its next version. I bravely stated that if these devices were the harbinger of a new world, than reading would have a secure future in this world. While no one quite asked me about the future of books in this world, I must admit to some disquieting thoughts about a future where reading, ironically, appears to be secure but not the printed book.

The recent Google challenge, where the search-engine has announced its mis- sion statement to organise the worlds information and make it universally accessible, has shaken up the publishing world like never before. Google did not specifically indicate that it would respect books protected by copyright law but said it was up to respective publishers to indicate which books they would not like to be scanned and put out in digital format.

Publishers stated that they would not be able to enter into an agreement with Google if copyright law was not respected, and some went to the court to get an injunction to stop Google.

Other reactions to the Google challenge were varied. Yahoo announced its policy to serve digital content but only of books that were out of copyright, and more recently, Microsoft announced a similar plan. A consortium of German publishers announced their intention of digitising books at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, and stated they had 100 publishers on their rolls. Random House, the worlds largest trade publisher, has just announced a comprehensive plan to digitise, index and sell content online.

More recently, Amazon has announced that it too plans to sell e-book content. For a fee, Amazon will allow consumers to read a section of a book online. A second programme, Amazon Upgrade, will let them purchase access to digital copies.

While programmes to meet the digital challenge may vary between publishers, booksellers and software agencies, there seems to be a near unanimous resolution that a digital future is the way forward, and this may revolutionise the way books are bought and sold.

Is it possible that copyright law on books may well become meaningless, and books may become a fast-disappearing commodity Not quite. Googles Print for Libraries project has only put books in public domain from the libraries of the universities of Michigan, Stanford and Harvard.

Again, Amazon will allow access to digital copies only of physical books purchased through the e-tailer. The digital technology is invaluable. The Google project makes available lots of books online to researchers where physical access is impossible.

A digital plan may promote books and a desire to buy the physical book. While reading itself may be secure, the future of the printed book may have to depend on preferences of the individual consumer. The holding of a physical book and the reading from a printed format will have to continue to give a reader hours of uninterrupted pleasure. But books need to have a utilitarian value to secure their future in a digital world.