Why are books still necessary in the digital age?

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I’ve been thinking recently about how it can be that books is still the essential platform for publishing and publicizing. It feels like an antiquated notion that it’s not until someone has published their thoughts or research in the book format that they have achieved legitimacy. This really shouldn’t still be the case, given that we now have a multitude of other platforms and delivery methods. However, it is still the case that all the other platforms are seen as just a stepping stone to the ultimate goal, of publishing a book.

For example, a few years ago, we saw several popular blogs be turned into books. Then it was taken to the next level when Twitter accounts became books (unless they turned out to be fake, like the Goldman elevator one). None of these really worked. What works in blog format or, especially, tweet format, will often not work in a longer, linear book format.

By now, every other piece of content has been unbundled by digitization. Instead of buying music albums, we buy separate tracks. Newspapers have been replaced by headlines on web sites. TV cables have been cut thanks to the introduction of Netflix. But books retain their stature in our culture.

This is definitely not thanks to the sales numbers. Mike Pesca, in today’s The Gist, had a long, very funny, comparison on how little books sell compared to other media. Hillary Clinton’s latest book apparently sold less this week than there are readers of the tiny newspaper Uniontown Herald and Gazette (or something like that), and it still made number two on NYT’s bestseller list.

And it’s not because people actually read the whole books. This Business Insider article reported on fun research showing how little people actually read of famous books. In Piketty, for example, readers got on average only to page 26. For many books, especially management and business books, it really isn’t essential to read the whole thing, you can get a good idea from reading the first few chapters, or just the abstract.

I think it’s time that we recognize that we need a new approach. Ebooks should be able to significantly shorter without losing value. A post on HuffPo should suffice as a thought piece. Fun tweets should be able to be sold in collected format without necessarily justifying them by calling it “a book”. Let’s take publishing into this century. Hopefully sites like Medium or Contributoria can help bring this on.

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