Peter James explains how reading will change in the new millennium

(originally delivered as a speech to the Booksellers Association conference in April 1998)

The Observer recently selected a number of items which it predicted would fetch a fortune as prized antiques in a Sotheby’s salesroom in one hundred years time. I was very gratified to see that amongst those items was the floppy disc version of my novel Host, published in 1995 by Penguin as the world’s first electronic novel….

I was less happy that the Sinclair C5 electric tricycle was also on that list, but it was a salutary reminder that not all innovations succeed… There is no question that for many kinds of reference works, the future of the book is electronic, but is it realistic to suppose “the novel of the future” will one day also become electronic?

I’ve always had a deep interest in science and technology – as well as the paranormal – and these areas form the background to many of my novels. One of my first professional writing jobs was as scriptwriter for a CBC television series on computers in Canada in 1972 – and barely a word I wrote then is valid today – just 26 years on – barely one generation. Today’s bog standard laptop computer has more computing power than the whole of NASA had in 1969 when they put a man on the moon. Bill Gates recently said that if the automotive industry had advanced at the same speed as computers, “today’s average family saloon car would cost twenty five dollars and do two thousand miles to the gallon.” But as the President of General Motors responded, “would anyone want to buy a car that crashed at least a dozen times a week?”

My personal Road to Virtual Damascus in electronic publishing began, improbably, in Milton Keynes on a wet November night in 1991, where I found myself judging the Milton Keynes Writers Group Annual Short Story Competition. As I was about to leave at the end, I was approached by a ponytailed American who told me he was a lecturer in computing sciences at the Open University and wondered whether I ever used “The Net” for my research. I assumed he was talking about fishing and was either high on drugs or barking mad. He asked me what I was writing about in my next novel and I told him I was researching into cryonics – the science of freezing people, which I thought might silence him. He asked how my research was going and I told him I was having difficult tracking down people involved in this rather fringe science. He said he would do a posting on “The Net” and get back to me if he came up with anything – and asked for my address. I figured this was a ploy and that in a few days a manuscript would thud through the post asking me for my opinion, but I gave it to him anyway.

Two days later a brown envelope did indeed arrive. But there was no manuscript inside, instead there was a list of names, addresses, phone numbers of 250 individuals and organisations involved in cryonics around the world. I had the names of every cryonics organisation, every scientist in the field, every research paper ever published. I had, in short, what would have probably taken six months of research, in just 48 hours.

This was my baptism into the Internet and, like Victor Kiam who was so impressed with the razor that he bought the company who made it, a year later I and two partners founded the first regional Internet Service Provider in Britain, Sussex based Pavilion Internet plc.

I have to say that not all my technological experiences have been successful. When I was researching HOST, which is about a scientist who believes he could live for ever through a combination of copying the content of his brain into a computer and having his body cryonically frozen, and builds the worlds most advanced computer to try to achieve this, I needed to find a really impressive computer to model the one in my novel on. And I wanted to have something that visually looked a knockout. Unfortunately with miniaturisation in the computer world, computers are getting smaller and less impressive looking all the time.

I was told that there was a very impressive looking system at the Imperial Cancer Research Foundation in London, where they have a gigantic data base co-ordinating all cancer research everywhere in the world. It sounded promising and I made arrangements to go and see this beast.

I was taken down into a basement and then into a large control room with a wide glass window looking onto this huge darkened room, inside which I could see winking lights. This is it, I thought, here we go! The jackpot!

The system manager then said: I’m afraid if it’s drama you’re after you are going to be disappointed – we’ve recently upgraded and got rid of most of our old hardware. He took me into this darkened room, which was about the size of a football pitch. There was roar of air and an impressive hissing sound. But as I looked around I could see acres of empty floor and disconnected wires. There was one tiny metal casing about the size of a tumble dryer. In fact it looked remarkably like a tumble dryer. ‘I’m afraid – er – that’s it,” he said rather apologetically.


“Uh huh. Our hardware used to fill this room and another one like it. It’s all been replaced by this.’

He had one of those deadpan faces and I wondered if he was having me on. I looked around. A few packing cases, more disconnected wires. But then I saw it. My dream machine. Right down the far end, the entire width of the wall was taken up floor to ceiling with shiny metal casings. Rows of winking red and green lights. It looked STUPENDOUS! Star Trek, Dr. Who and Star Wars all rolled into one!

‘That’s it!,’ I said. ‘That’s perfect – that’s exactly what I need for the book. Can you talk me through it all – explain what it all does?’

He looked at me as if I were a total moron, and said: ‘That’s the air-conditioning.’

It was during the time I was becoming involved with the Internet that I heard a Radio Four programme on the nation’s reading habits which stated that 80% of boys under 16 no longer read any novels at all. When asked why, they replied that books lacked the excitement of computers. The truth is that younger generations are becoming increasingly used to interactivity, to absorbing their information from a screen in the same way that my generation is used to absorbing its information from the printed page. Peter Kindersley of Dorling Kindersley said he believes that publishing has always traditionally mirrored the world around, and that this new world around us is an interactive world, in which people will want to interact with their books as much as with anything else.

I began to think about the whole nature of publishing. And I thought that if this was really true that fewer and fewer boys were reading, that maybe changing the form of the “book” into one that they considered modern might be an interesting experiment. And the “tekky” subject matter of Host lent itself perfectly to an electronic version. I rang up Andrew Welham, then Penguin’s very go-ahead Director of New Media and pitched it to him over the phone. He loved the idea. The project was costed and Penguin gave it the go ahead. When Host came out in paperback it was published simultaneously on two floppies.

A lot of people immediately threw their hands in the air in horror and said OH DEAR, THIS IS THE END OF THE NOVEL. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth: For a start, seven percent of all novels currently sold in the UK are already in an electronic form – talking books on tape. In the US in 1995 Americans spent $1.4 billion on audio books. Publishing a novel in electronic form does not mean that the basic text of the novel needs to be any different to before, or that the storyteller’s abilities will become compromised: The electronic version of *Host* contains exactly the same text as the hardback and paperback versions. It comes in a book-sized dust jacket. But inside, instead of printed pages are two floppy disks which you load into your computer and read on the screen. Instead of a page turner it is a page *scroller*.

Where the electronic novel scores is in the numerous features that elevate it beyond the limitations of a traditional printed book: one of the best is being able to choose your own font and print size rather than being stuck with the uncomfortably small print publishers are sometimes forced to use in long novels.

But perhaps the biggest advantage of the electronic novel will have to offer is its portability: When I travel I take a book a day on holiday plus another six in my briefcase in case I’m hijacked. My wife takes the same, which means we lug forty books with us. I could carry the entire lot together with the complete Oxford Dictionary and Encyclopaedia Britannica in the hard disk of my Apple Mac G3 PowerBook which weighs less than one medium sized hardback.

Sceptics say the electronic book will never really catch on because it is tiring to read on a computer screen. This is about to change, big time, with the advent of the LEP – the Light Emitting Polymer – screen which I have seen examples of, and is like electronic paper. It can be viewed from any angle, read in bright sunlight – and can easily be waterproofed so it can be read in the bath. I have no doubt whatsoever that within the next decade, screens will become as comfortable – if not more comfortable – to read than the printed page. And computers will by then have become lighter to carry around than the thinnest paperback books, and just as mallable as paper.

When Host was published in 1995, I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the international storm of controversy it caused – we were front page news in Italy for two days, and I was taken to task on Radio 4’s Today programme here – among many others – accused of attempting to cause the death of the novel. And much of the flak came from journalists and authors who themselves spent a big part of their lives writing and reading works of literature off their own computer screens…

The big advantage of the conventional printed novel is in it’s simplicity. Right now anything electronic has to be read on a computer and you need to be computer literate before you even get to page one. But that is not going to be a problem much longer. Soon everyone in the world who can read and write will be computer literate. So how, ultimately, will the electronic novel fare? What form will it take – a physical object such as a disc or CD? Or will it simply be downloaded to order, like pay TV, straight onto your computer screen from the Internet? Will it ever become a serious threat to the printed paper novel? Will it become a threat to all of you traditional booksellers here in this room? Or is it going to add another dimension to our reading habits and to the book market?

Numerous people have asked me in the past three years, *why* an electronic novel? My response is: Why *paper* novels? Novels were published long before paper was ever thought of. Cavemen first began writing them on cave walls. Then in need of something more portable, people began writing on clay tablets – in 1760 BC in Babylonia, the Epic of Gilgamesh was the first novel written in such form, covering twelve tablets. It wasn’t until 1474 AD when William Caxton, tired of lugging clay tablets down to the beach, ran off *Recuyell of the Historeyes of Troye* on his printing press, inventing the book as we still know it today, and we have never looked forward since. The novel in 1998 is the same inert, bulky object made from dead trees that it was five hundred years ago. There is no question that the conventional printed novel is a design masterpiece, and would have won Caxton a Design Council award in its day. Elegant to look at, exciting to touch, and very user friendly. The fact that it has endured five hundred years with barely any change is a testament to that. But in today’s rapidly advancing world, will it endure for the next five hundred years? Or is the writing already on electronic wall?

A couple of years ago, skiing in Zermatt, I saw a man in a cable car remove a copy of James Clavell’s Tai Pen from his knapsack and in front of my eyes, tear it in half and dump the front section of it into a rubbish bin. ‘Don’t you like it?’ I asked him. ‘I love it,’ he replied. ‘But it’s too sodding bulky to go on carrying around in one piece.’

He reminded me of Oscar Wilde writing about one of his lecture tours in America, saying that he noticed how Americans were in the habit of ripping out each page of a novel as they read them and throwing them out of the train window…he said he dreaded an increase in literacy in US because it would result in the prairies becoming a sea of paper. The point is the printed novel is great but it is not perfect – it does have some serious drawbacks.

One of the most interesting criticisms I have had of my electronic novel is people saying how much they loved the smell of bookshops, and how could anyone ever get those same emotions from the smell of plastic and silicon? It is an important point. We here in this room today are all of generations that have been brought up on traditional books. I love the smell of bookshops, I’m seduced by that smell – I cannot enter a bookshop without buying at least two or three books. But why am I seduced by that smell? I believe it is because when I was a child, books gave me my entry to the adult world around me. It was through reading that I learned there were other people out there in the world who had the same anxieties as I did. The same hang-ups, the same strange desires, the same complexes, the same feelings of guilt and confusion – it was through books that I realised I was not alone in the world with my worries, I wasn’t a freak, I was just like everyone else. The smell of paper in a bookshop brings back that profound emotion, that deep inner sense of discovery and security. But if you look at today’s three-year-olds sitting with easy familiarity at computer keyboards, accessing the world of learning, navigating their way around with a competence that leaves most adults standing, one must start to wonder whether in thirty/forty/fifty years time it is going to be the smell of silicon and plastic that will set the emotional neurons firing inside them and not the smell of paper.

The book as we all here in this room know and love it has a whole trainload of good points. But the downside is that it is not particularly environmentally friendly, takes up a lot of space as any bookseller will vouch for, gets damaged when read even only once and, in our brave new multi-tasking world, has very few alternative functions. If you don’t want to read it you can use it as a doorstop, or for propping up table legs, or even, as Kilgore Trout, novelist hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions found out to his dismay, lavatory paper in a motel mensroom.

The novel faces intense competition from a multimedia revolution still in its infancy which I believe authors, publishers and everyone in the book trade ignore at their peril. We need to understand that in a thousand years from now history may well show that the advent of the Internet had an even greater impact on the world than the invention of the printing press. A few weeks ago the Board of Directors of the Telegraph newspaper were advised that they could only expect to earn substantial revenues from a printed version of the paper for another twenty years. Beyond that they expect their principal revenues to come from an electronic online version through the Internet, in which every customer will be able to download daily an individually tailored version of the paper to suit their interests.

What the Internet and the online world offer us above all else is choice and immediacy and an almost anarchic sense of freedom of expression. Anyone can be an instantly published author just by putting up a web page or posting a literary work to a newsgroup – but this is not the point. Anyone of us here in this room could write a new novel today and publish it on a personal web site tonight and the whole world could read it. Except, the whole world won’t read it – because unless we can add to it editorial skill, presentational skills, marketing skill, publicity skills and merchandising skills, how is anyone beyond a handful of people ever going to know about it? Self publishing fiction on the Internet is only a marginally more sophisticated version of a would-be author photocopying and binding copies of a typed manuscript, taking it along to a car boot sale and trying to flog the copies. I do not believe the electronic world will in any way change the infrastructure of the book publishing and bookselling world. But books themselves, and the way we buy them, will change. The phenomenal success of online bookstores such as the Internet Bookshop and Amazon are already illustrating this.

A mere hundred years ago, we had few choices for entertainment outside of reading. Now we have radio, hundreds of channels of television, CD players, computers…our three score years and ten is not long enough to experience all the creative output the world now has to offer us. Aristotle is reputed to be one of the last people who was physically able to read his entire culture in his lifetime. Copernicus was about the last person physically able to read everything printed in his own language in his lifetime. Last year in Britain alone, 100,000 books were published. If you were to read a book a day every day for fifty five years you’ll only have worked your way through a mere twenty percent of the books published in Britain in just one single year. The one deep regret I have in my life is the knowledge that I will go to my grave having read only a fraction of the books I want to read, and I find that scary.

There is a panic gripping many of us – a sense of information overload, and a desire to get on top of this, to somehow get to grips and manage the deluge. Sadly, fewer and fewer people have the time or inclination to curl up in a cosy corner with a good book and nothing to distract them. The dramatic rise in sales of talking books has shown quite how many of us are into multi-tasking. We now need to devour our novels whilst simultaneously jogging or Netsurfing, or whilst travelling in our cars which are in turn making twenty million decisions for us every second. We pack everything together in order to create time and we use that time to produce further ways to fill it.

Whether the Internet ultimately helps us or confounds the nightmare further is something no one can yet answer. What we do know is that within the next two decades every human being on earth who currently has access to a phone or a television set will have access to the Internet. It will not merely touch our lives, it will become our main gateway to the world around us; to our libraries, our bookshops, our cinemas, our televisions, our phones, our doctors surgery, our supermarkets. Interwoven with the Net we will learn, lose our cybervirginity, mate, house hunt and die – having first selected our Silver Drexel crepe-lined coffin from the Carlos A Howard Funeral Home c/o the Internet Shopkeeper. The first virtual marriage took place a fortnight ago with vows exchanged over the Internet via the bride and groom touching hands on video screens. And the first virtual funeral can’t be far away, for the increasing number of us who are going to be too busy to spare the time to die.

The Internet has no frontiers. It is the global village where everyone can walk their virtual dog, it is both Information Superhighway and Digital Dirt Track, it is the university that will give the Chinese student free access to the English books his government denies him, the virtual hospital that will enable a Bosnian to receive an operation to remove his cataracts carried out by a surgeon in Brighton. And its dominant language is American English. But for how much longer will it remain an English that is recognisable or even decipherable by anyone other than a fully-wired Netphreak? As it becomes increasingly international, will it even remain a word-based language?

Will it, through necessity, ultimately affect the way we read and write? Humans are natural multimedia communicators. In medieval times monks illustrated scenes in the Bible because the church was communicating with a largely illiterate population. Recently the United States government has started commissioning picture rather than text-based warnings for nuclear waste sites, concerned that future generations in a few centuries time will not be able to understand 20th century written English. It is possible that future communications on the Internet will develop into combinations of words, images and speech. And if so, books may progress from just printed words into being multi-media experiences, as the norm. We might not even need to read them at all – through silicon chip implants we may be able, ultimately, to conquer the information explosion.

In the not too distant future we might simply download into our brains, straight from the Internet, the memory of having read a book. Imagine War and Peace downloaded into your brain in a matter of seconds…without having had to spend valuable hours of your life reading it. I can see from your faces that many of you are recoiling in horror at the thought! Tolstoy might rotate in his grave at the thought also – but if, like Penguins’ invention of the paperback, it opened the great man’s work up to millions of new readers, would he be quite so upset after all? And crucially, would all you booksellers be upset with all those new sales generated?

Whatever happens with technology, I do not see the basic structure of our lives altering radically. When videos came in, people predicted the end of the cinema. Twenty-five years on into the video explosion, cinemas are doing better today than at any time in their history. A big part of that is communality. The human need for society, for collective experiences, for physical social contact. In the next millennium, increasing numbers of people are going to be working more hours a week from home, as communications make that a preferable option to commuting. It may mean that more people will shop over the Internet. But I don’t see Internet shopping bringing an end to the High Street. The two will co-exist. But I think going into the “bookstore of the future” will be a different experience to now.

There will still be huge pleasure in simply browsing in a bookshop, talking to human assistants, physically touching objects. But bookshops themselves may well increasingly become like record stores are today and we may browse digital books in the privacy of a booth. Virtual reality could ultimately enable us to interact with characters in novels. We may be able to sit down in a room and talk to characters, share in their experiences with them – and perhaps even to have sex with them…

That’s a little way down the line…but what is not far away is the immediate book of the future, which I call the “SmartBook”. It will be the height and width of a conventional paperback, but wafer thin and powered by a combination of solar cells and the energy off our own bodies. It will contain your Internet connection, which you access remotely via a satellite pop, your medical records including your entire genome, and a library of your favourite books including reference books.

If you imagine you are on holiday, you will download your favourite newspaper, lie on the beach and read it. You’ll see a book review – hopeful of a new Peter James novel – and you’ll think, great review! I’d like to read that book! You will then punch in the ISDN and your credit card number and email it to your favourite bookshop – which is now able to hold, electronically, every novel ever written, in stock. Your bookshop will download the novel straight back to you and you’ll be able to start reading it then and there on the beach. Meanwhile they’ll mail to your home a nice hard copy on a CD in a smart dust jacket for your bookshelves. And…if you are exhausted by the sheer effort of doing this, you can push a button, or speak a command to the SmartBook and it will start to read the novel to you out aloud.

When Penguin produced the world’s first paperback in 1935, traditionalists declared it the beginning of the end of the novel. In reality, through its cheapness and portability it opened up the wonders of reading to millions more people. We all need to consider whether it is these same factors that will ultimately cause the electronic novel to triumph over all other book forms.

Last week’s Sunday Times carried an article about books in which it gave comforting figures that 50% of people who were reading said they were reading for pleasure – a figure which has remained consistent since 1989. Book buying seems to be on the increase – 30% of people questioned bought 16 or more books in 1995 compared with 28% in 1989. This is good news, but it would be a grave mistake to take these figures as proof that all is well and that to secure the future none of us who make up the world of books need to ever consider change – that the future is waiting rosily out there for us.

Last year 90% of book sales in the US were to people over the age of 30 – yet 43% of the population are under the age of 30. Is that telling us anything about what we need to do to ensure the book trade has an even better future in the coming Milennium than it has had in the past one? We are all of us in this room because we love books and they are our lives. They will always be our lives and they will always continue to touch the lives of all who read them. We owe it to ourselves and to all future generations to ensure the book trade goes into the new millennium with its eyes wide open, and to consider that one day reccomendations may not come just by word of mouth but also by word of mouse.