Everyone in the world with every book ever written in their pockets. Popping into their local Idea Shop to exchange monologues after a quick sesh with the 'TeachURself: Shakespeare' app. Grabbing a flirtatiously-designed copy of Mrs Dalloway on the way out for a quick cruise round Tate Modern. Hold on, your hover bike needs charging! Not to worry, you can hop on its Borisian predecessor instead
It's an exciting vision. But there's something missing. Not from the book cover (whether paper or plastic (or both)). But from what's inside.
Technological advances influence the way we live. They also influence the way we think, and the way we create. To throw out some famous examples: All-weather paint lets artists go outside for the first time: Smackdown! Impressionism. Cut small enough grooves into vinyl: Hello the album. Photography outdoes Realism: Abstraction does it better. Electric power: H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Home editing music software for the antisocial: Wait, is that really a good idea? O, hi Moby.
For better or worse, technology transforms art as well as its distribution. So, on the eve of the digital book revolution, we can make one guaranteed prediction: literature is going to change.
And not a moment too soon. Contemporary writing is in a rut. Postmodernism, the last thing that anyone got (ironically) excited about, was killed off in 1991 with American Psycho. (And some argue that it never really happened in the first place). A glance over the Booker Prize archive and you aren't exactly spoiled for choice: a) Old man/woman poignantly reminiscing past mistakes b) Something about poverty and/or magic in India. Try poetry and we find our esteemed laureate, Carol Anne Duffy: The reason an onion is like love is that it has many layers and it makes you cry." It's not a terrible idea, but if it's done better on E4 then it's just not trying hard enough: Love is like a roll of tape/It's real good for making two things one/But just like that roll of tape/Love sometimes breaks off before you were done."
So, what's the new wave going to look like? There's a great article by Megan Garber, about how the social nature of (non-fiction) books could become more important than the books themselves. A sort of Roland Barthes 2.0. It goes a bit far, but New Fiction will surely be characterized by social. No more book clubs or thinking that no one understands your love for Barthelme, just click on a paragraph and get all emotional with someone who loves it even more than you. This instant, line-by-line public scrutiny will leave little place to hide for the whimpering oldies and onion similes.
The novel itself will contract ('Nanovella', coined) to accommodate shorter attention spans. Style will become more about what is unsaid than what is said and such ambiguity will further fuel speculation and social debate.
With lower distribution costs, publishers will take risks on new writers and those they miss will stage their own social media driven coups against the dissolute establishment.
And the language of literature will evolve, refreshed with the new digital grammar and vocabulary, and pass on its fruits to journalism and copywriting.
Such specific oraculing is tricky. Artistic predictions have to take into account all the politico-cultural-socio-economic factors of tech ones, but with the added unknown of the Muse. Any serious attempts are going to be unrealistic, over realistic or just plain wrong.
But the point here is not what's going to happen, but that it's going to happen. And the last time the publishing industry changed on this scale (the Gutenberg printing press) we got the Renaissance.
So, the digital revolution is coming and the cover will indeed be changing. But thankfully, so too will the book.