Screen shot 2011 06 21 at 9 30 43 AM

UNESCO Sponsored, “The Book Tomorrow: The Future Of The Written Word” Conference
This event took place in Monza, Italy.

Podcast: “Do books have a future?” (via The Guardian)

Recorded at the conference.

What does 21st-century technology hold for the printed word? Last week academics, librarians, publishers and writers descended on the Villa Reale, near Milan, to find out.

We hear from a Senegalese publisher struggling with the differences between west and south, from an Argentinian innovator who keeps his office on a laptop and a digital designer who has put Wikipedia between hard covers.

Harvard professor Robert Darnton explains why, far from killing off the book, the new digital technologies are giving it a new life, while the Chilean novelist Antonio Skarmeta – author of Il Postino – asks how the writer is going to make a living in the new world. The American teacher Esther Wojcici suggests that the answer may lie in a radical new form of copyright.

Report: “UNESCO debates the future of the book” (via

Nevertheless, a consensus of sorts began slowly to emerge. There was general agreement, for example, that many of the ancient verities of what used to be called “the book trade” no longer pertain. Ten or 20 years hence, for example, booksellers may have gone the way of costermongers. Publishers may still exist, but not as we know them today.

As Riccardo Cavallero, who runs Mondadori, one of Italy’s biggest publishers, said: “In a close future it is the reader who will call the shots. This means that the publisher will have to open up to the world and react more rapidly … Books will be thought, written, published and sold in a different way, leading publishers to become sort of librarians; not selling, but lending.”

Report: “Inky ghosts at the United Nation’s hi-tech book feast” (via The Independent)

A strong consensus at the conference argued that we are looking towards a long stretch of co-habitation. Unesco’s Francesco Bandarin affirmed, unsurprisingly, that “The e-book and the printed book are bound to live together for a very long time.” True, no doubt. But in this multi-media ménage, who will wear the trousers, and call the shots? Here plenty of uncertainty still reigns.

“New modes of communication don’t displace old ones,” according to Robert Darnton, historian of the book and director of the Harvard University library. “Manuscript publishing actually increased after Gutenberg.” For him, our information environment has become “richer and more complex. That is what we’re experiencing in this crucial era of transition towards a dominant digital ecology.”

So: even Professor Darnton, a level-headed sceptic who calmly debunked the death-of-the-book hysteria, seems to think of the future printed work as a horse to the digital automobile. People cherish their horses – and often make serious money from them – but tend not to saddle up for work.

Besides, the body – if not soul – of one partner in this couple will change. Several specialists emphasised that the era of the e-book as a humble mimic of its printed elder sister will soon end. “Enhancement” of various kinds will allow a new artistic platform to evolve. For Bruno Racine, president of France’s Bibliothèque Nationale, “the electronic book of tomorrow will be very different from a simple facsimile of the printed text”.


  1. Talks about things like “moral copyright” (as described by Mira Sundara Rajan) don’t impress me much, as morals are so ambiguous and differ from country to country, and enforcement is not even discussed. Copyright discussions themselves are pointless, unless a way to enforce laws and protect copyright across borders is included in the deliberations.

    Skarmeta is right to be concerned about how the future author may make a living, as every short-term indication is that his income will be eroded by consumers who think nothing of violating copyrights and sharing works as it suits them.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail