The Future of Books | A Response

I recently attended the Baker Book House Youth Pastors’ Breakfast. I’m not a youth pastor; I was there because I work for Baker Book House. But I still got to eat a delicious breakfast (catered by the coffee shop that will be in our store when the renovation is complete, Icons Coffee) and listen to the guest speaker, Thomas Bergler.

Bergler is associate professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University and the author of The Juvenilization of American Christianity (read the article that preceded the book here). His presentation at the breakfast was great if a little heady for eight o’clock in the morning. He went through the history of youth ministry and touched on the reasons why modern American Christianity resembles the youth rallies of yesteryear much more than the traditional models which had served for many hundreds of years. But the most interesting thing that he said, the thing that stuck in my mind, he mentioned in passing.

Photo Credit – John Reeves

Bergler quoted the communication theorist Marshall McLuhan when he mentioned that “the medium is the message”. What that means is that the way that we experience a message becomes part of the message and interprets how we receive that message. A message may be something you listen to, something you read, something you watch on the big screen, the small screen, or the stage, and in each instance, though the message is the same, the reception of the message will be different. The medium leaks in.

Think of any book that has been made into a movie. When you are reading the book, your mind is free to imagine the distinct facial characteristics of the characters. When you see the movie that was based on that book, this power has been taken away from you, but you may be better able to understand another aspect of the story that wasn’t readily apparent in the book.

Recently, Andrew Rogers, an employee at a major Christian publishing house and a friend of mine, posted a video on his blog introducing some up-and-coming developments in the e-book industry by a company called IDEO. Take a minute and go watch the video. It’s pretty cool. After the video, Rogers asked the question, “Does the future of books presented here by IDEO excite you? Or not? Why?”

Since the “media is the message” concept was still fresh in my mind when I watched the video, I couldn’t help but see that this turn in the publishing industry will help users experience content in a new and entertaining way, just like the television introduced a dimension to a radio world. But just like the television and the radio, I believe that there is room in the world for both forms of publishing.

E-books in general and IDEO’s presentation in specific present us with a brand new medium for messages. This medium is more interactive than the traditional book, it’s true. But saying that one model is better than the other, placing expectations on them to perform in a certain way, is like comparing apples and oranges, and then complaining that a caramel dipped orange tastes gross.

The printed word has been around for a very long time, and I am confident that it will be long after e-books have planted the seed for the next major innovation in new mediums comes to fruition.

I am not frightened by the e-book. I am excited to see how the medium enhances the message. I would love to write a book for an interactive medium like this, but it would need to be intentional. A screenwriter for a television show writes television screenplays, he doesn’t write 800 page novels for each episode. Writers hoping to succeed in the IDEO e-book world will need to write with their medium in mind, lest their message fall flat because it could have been better as a non-gimmicky traditional book.

In conclusion, the loud voices that herald the downfall of the traditional book model in favor of the e-book remind me of the first video that MTV ever played. Sure we have music videos, but we still have radio too.

10 thoughts on “The Future of Books | A Response

  1. Josh,
    Thanks for posting your thoughts. This is an excellent contribution to the discussion. “The medium is the message,” is an idea that I’ve mulled over for a couple of years now. Not because I’ve read McLuhan (because I haven’t yet) but because I read “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman. Postman quotes McLuhan extensively and writes a lot on this idea. His book is in response to the rise of Television in American culture. However, his ideas and concepts easily crossover into conversations about other mediums for conveying ideas, like the internet, ebooks, and whatever else. I cannot recommend that book highly enough. You’ve got to read it sometime!

    I really appreciate your comparison to music videos here. Music videos didn’t “kill” the radio, they just changed the music industry landscape to include a visual presentation. I can’t predict what books will look like 20 years from now, but I agree with you: 1) writers need to write for the medium their book will be published in; 2) enhanced eBooks like IDEO offers won’t “kill” traditional books at all. The mediums are simply too different and have too much value in their own ways for one of them to die out.

    Thanks again for joining the conversation. I value your input.

    • Andrew,

      Thank you for a wonderful prompt. The future of books is a topic that is always at the forefront of my mind, both because I am a writer and because I work in a bookstore. Thanks again for opening up the discussion!

  2. Josh, thanks for this thought provoking post. I think the line “placing expectations on them to perform in a certain way, is like comparing apples and oranges, and then complaining that a caramel dipped orange tastes gross…” pretty much sums up your point. And a very good one it is indeed.

  3. Respectfully, that’s not at all what Marshall McLuhan meant with the phrase ‘the medium is the message’. What he meant has more to do with how a new medium changes society and people with its introduction – the reorganization of sense ratios, the new ways of life and living. And it’s not all about communications media either. Think about how the world changed with the introduction of trains, of the automobile. He explains it in the first chapter of his book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’. It’s worth a read, and will give you much more to think about!

    • Andrew,
      I’ve heard others use the phrase “the medium is the message” similarly to how Josh has above. Would you say this definition, “the way that we experience a message becomes part of the message and interprets how we receive that message” is way off base, or is it just incomplete? I’m thinking of Neil Postman and others’ usage of this phrase especially.
      Thanks for your time!
      – Andrew Rogers

      • “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”, or “the way in which you deliver a message affects how it’s perceived” are not necessarily off base, but they’re not nearly the most important consideration – and they’re not what McLuhan was getting at with his statement ‘the medium is the message’ (which was originally delivered in a lecture in the 1950’s, well before Understanding Media came out in 1964).

        Wikipedia also unfortunately gives a similar definition, and leads people astray. But you can’t change Wikipedia easily if the people in charge are only willing to consider popular opinion. I’ve tried to add McLuhan’s words from Understanding Media to their definition of ‘the medium is the message’ and was blocked and accused of self-promotion. Oh well.

        The best way to get a handle on it is to read the first chapter of Understanding Media, where Marshall explains it quite plainly. That’s actually the best way to understand many things – go to the source material rather than rely on popular interpretations. Popular interpretations are often wrong, but it’s easier to accept them than to work things out for oneself. I don’t mean to be insulting.

        But another way to look at it is to know that much of what McLuhan said and wrote was intended to provoke thought and discussion. He called his aphorisms, or sayings, ‘probes’. I think he considered it his mission, if he had one, to wake people up to their situation, to the almost invisible environments they/we live in (he saw media, among other things, as environments).

        Thanks for allowing me to be part of the discussion!


  4. Pingback: Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman « Tell Better Stories

  5. Andrew M.,
    Thanks for this response. I agree with you about primary sources. Like Josh, I’ll add “Understanding Media” to my to-read list. I work in an over-mediated environment (online marketing) and constantly wonder about how all of this is affecting me…

    Back to the usage of this phrase: Thanks for the clarification. I especially resonate with the idea that we have “invisible environments” around us. One of the great benefits I received after reading Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” was the awareness of how much I had let the medium of television unwittingly affect me. I can only imagine that other “environments” I constantly experience (email communication, texting, driving on highways, fast food restaurants, you name it…) also are affecting all of us for good or ill. I look forward to reading “Understanding Media” and will put up a post on it after I do.

    Thanks again for your time. And now that I’m aware of the McLuhan website and blogs I’ll keep an eye on them.

  6. Pingback: The Medium is the Message | Josh Mosey | Writer

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