Denise Low Speculates on the Next Decade in Book Culture

By Denise Low

Commentary and remarks from the NBCC's June 8 “Next Decade in Book Culture” event at the Johnson County Library in Kansas, from panelist Denise Low. Low will be reading from her poetry collection, Ghost Stories of the New West: From Einstein’s Brain to Geronimo’s Boots, this evening at 7 pm at Prairie Lights in Iowa City.

Electronic media already have made significant changes in books. For example, seventy percent of the sales of John Grisham’s new book The Litigator are digital. This shift to digitized texts creates sequential changes: big box bookstores are folding, newsstands are dwindling, and textbooks are digitizing—which cuts into thousands of college bookstore profits. Here are a few more consequences that will change the future of book publishing:

Interactive, screen-sized books are appearing in Application format—for example Al Gore’s new Our Choice, with features previewed here. These are beyond pop-up books and Griffin and Sabine books by Nick Bantock. Push Pop Press is the new digital publishing platform, and it includes sound, moving image, photos, foldable “pages,” and text. Already, a travel writer friend has created an application rather than update a new edition of her guidebook. Be ready to learn yet another electronic format!

Formatting that fits eBooks will alter the genres. In fiction, novellas are hot. Major authors are being approached by their publishers to create novella-length books that can be sold for a dollar or two. Flash fiction and nonfiction will become more widespread—especially works that fit the character-limit of an I Pad screen. Book reviewing is moving online—again in shorter versions or combined in “roundups” of a half dozen works. My last book got several of these two-sentence reviews, designed for the electronic page but skimpy on the printed page.  I’m sure they reached more readers than all of my life-time of reviews combined.

Another genre change: Left-hand aligned poetry is easy to convert to eBooks, and spatially complex poetry is almost impossible to convert.  I believe we’ll see more left-margin aligned lines and fewer stanza breaks. Prose poetry will increase.

Magazines and other publications are moving to screen-friendly formats. As president of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs board, a national organization of independent and academic writers and writing centers, I know we are changing our bimonthly publication the Chronicle to be squarish, with crisp new font.

Context materials for books are increasing—photos, author interviews, podcasts, YouTube clips, social media, and instant chats. I predict writers will stay fit and use cosmetic procedures, as image and branding matter more.

Digitized historic archives create opportunities for scholars and historic biographers. Writers will publish more history-based books in all fields.

Libraries will continue to become literary community centers. I have been so impressed since my travels as poet laureate of Kansas with how libraries are now places for community discussions, readings, clubs, teen hangouts, free computer access, film series, conference sites, and more. My hometown public library also is a homeless shelter part of every day.

Independent bookstores also diversify with similar activities, including reading series, and commercial activities. They also can combine with art galleries, food outlets, frame shops, craft outlets, gift shops, and more. Diversification is the key.

I also see an opportunity for libraries and bookstores to become sample shops. Readers do like to graze. Sorting out all the pages of the bestseller lists of hardback, trade, paperback, and E-lists is easier in three dimensions. Bookstores can help by understanding their target demographic and providing print copies for perusal—without the large backstock. The Local-vore movement can help bookstores as they create focus in a more decentralized literary world.

Here is a more sketchy prediction: Art books will become the new coffee table books. Already I see young people in my community turning to art books as a genre. A local cooperative art gallery sells individual art books or low-numbered print runs of hand-colored text and image. They also sell Hand-made paper and other materials for these. In not too long, I predict bookstores and maybe even libraries will devote a section to these individualized, handmade artworks. Museums already curate these.

I predict power struggles among writers, editors, agents, digital publishers, distributors, and all other stakeholders will continue. Among these, I expect writers will continue to be underpaid. Nonetheless, they will continue to write, to love words, and to adapt to whatever technology is necessary to practice their art.

Denise Low, Kansas poet laureate 2007-2009, received her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and her M.F.A. in poetry from Wichita State University . She comments on literature on her blog. A book of essays about Great Plains writers, "Natural Theologies," is forthcoming from The Backwater Press. Her books "To the Stars: Kansas Poets" and "Words of a Prairie Alchemist" are Notable Book of Kansas winners. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and president of the AWP.