Book review. The end of ebooks. 20 visionaries on the future of digital reading.

Het einde van ebooks (This book is published by publisher Eburon in Dutch. Original Title: ‘Het einde van ebooks. 20 visionairs over de toekomst van digitaal lezen)

The title indicates the intention of the book. To make a prediction of the development of ebooks by looking at what comes beyond. It’s an interesting play of thought, but unfortunately the idea doesn’t always come to it’s full potential as the articles circle around similar predictions that have been around for a while. They focus mainly on the technical potential of ebooks and the changing position of the author, reader and publisher that follow. Some of the authors also critically address the (technical) limitations that detain these visions of the future to become true, but a perspective on what we want this future to look like seems to be missing.


Many of the authors describe the Ebooks of the future as explosions of video and sound, where people interact with the book, each-other, and the author, allowing ‘social reading’ and personal publications. Ebooks will thus become multimedia publications that should not be seen as book, website, game, video or any other kind of document, but as a hybrid in which interactivity is key. Readers can not only change the size of the text, or add comments and highlights, but also exchange reading habits and experiences with their fellow readers. This social reading can already be seen in services like Readmill, Goodreads and Bookshout!.

As Bob van Duuren describes in his article “Uitdaging voor de boekenvakker: innoveren en afscheid nemen” this Social Reading process can also give the authors the opportunity to include user feedback into their writing process. (Making you wonder to what extend authors should start writing for the sake of their readers). But the position of the author will not only change in this respect. As Erwin Blom points out in “Boekenwereld, geef de koper wat hij wil, anders gaat hij het halen” new platforms like iBooks from Apple make it easy for ‘everyone’ to create their own ebook and distribute it to their readers directly. This ease of publishing is emphasized by the absence of printing costs, and other free platforms like Abulafia that allow you to create an ePub and distribute it with ease. As a result everyone can publish ebooks endlessly resulting in an overload of publications instead of scarcity that is characteristic of printed books.

Publishers, who normally gate keep what is being published and how it is being published, don’t have a defined role in this user driven publishing network anymore as Dr. Willem de Laat describes in his article “Memo 3: Het einde van het ebook?”. Moreover, big players, like Apple, Amazon and Google seem to push publishers even further from their position as they develop their own formats, readers and apps to connect as many readers to their platforms, which results in private ecosystems. This is also the case for smaller initiatives or services like Readmill. To make use of the social layer of the book, you are bound to their platform.

The shift in the position of the publishers also leeds to questions about business models. How can you ensure any income from your publications when everyone can publish, when authors can skip the step of the publisher and distribute the books themselves, when readers can download the book you so carefully produced on any of the torrent sites and copy them endlessly? More than ones the connection to the music industry and the iTunes and Spotify business model are made. From this perspective people no longer pay for the ebooks themselves, but for the service and ease of use. From this perspective it becomes more important to create a user-friendly platform with a complete collection for a reasonable price. But these new business models are not without problems as Willem Mastenbroek Jr. in “De toekomst van het ebook Nieuwe hoop of totale ondergang?” describes. The consumption of ebooks is not comparable to the consumption of single mp3 files – how many pages can you read during one song? – leading to the question when such a service will be profitable.

Move beyond predictions?

Overall most of the articles stay rather close to these predictions and hesitations. It is as if we are still blinded by the seemingly endless possibilities of the ebook that we are unable to look beyond them or take a clear stance on where this development should lead. It confirms the goal of the digital publishing toolkit project. To look really closely at the development of ebooks from a designers perspective, and see the practicalities of the technical potential, and use these to reflect on a possible future for ebooks.

From this perspective it becomes even more clear how critical we should be of the position of platforms like Amazon, Google, and Apple within the publishing world. It is not only that they are overthrowing the strong position of publishers within the publishing chain, they also enforce certain formats that limit, or at least direct the possibilities of design. In the case of Apple this is even more pressing as you can only sell your ‘beautifully designed’ iBooks within Apples stores. Gonny der Zwaag makes a similar assumption: “It creates tremendous need for simple tools to make magazines and books yourself. Who offers the best tools and becomes market leader, can earn a lot by taking a percentage of the sales.” Unfortunately she doesn’t address the problems that come with having a market leader without having any real alternatives.

Peter de Ruiter in his article “Binnenkort op uw tablet: de killer foto-app” addresses these problems and he wonders to what extend we should conform to Apple’s ecosystem and give the company 30 percent of our revenue. He looks at the development of ebooks from a photographers perspective and notices that the tools to develop beautiful photography books, outside of the Apple ecosystem, are missing. He describes the technical limitations of creating a simple product as a photo ebook – not a photo app, which is very expensive to develop. In this way he makes clear that even though ebooks can be explosions of multimedia, on a practical level this doesn’t always add up. He makes a clear plead for developers to create an easy to use tool for this, thus being fully aware of the problematic position the iBooks format has.


Essentially the book thus gives a clear overview of all the different perspectives, arguments, pro’s and con’s of digital publishing. But is it enough to simply predict these changes by looking at what is happening right now, and not envision what you would like this future to look like? Will we allow platforms like Apple, Amazon and Google to define the field of digital publishing, and possibly overthrowing the role of publishers, or do we create parallel platforms that allow for experiments in content, revenue models, and most importantly in the case of the digital publishing toolkit project: design?