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Welcome to the Hybrid Age of Reading

by Mark Warner, May 2013

For hundreds of years printed books were the only source of reading. However today we are in the midst of a mixed format transition where consumers enjoy both print and digital books. The baseline future for reading sees authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers continuing to thrive. Technological development, social interaction, and educational evolution will all play a role to shape the reading experience of tomorrow. But a leveling off of the growth curve of readers who switch to digital from print could disrupt the baseline future, as would an emergence of new reading technology that would eclipse today’s ebooks. This paper offers four scenarios, or possible futures shaped by two questions: “how do we read?” and “what do we read?”.


“…while lecturing to a large audience in a modern hotel in Chicago, a distinguished professor is bitten in the leg by a cobra. The whole experience takes three seconds. He is affected through the touch of the reptile, the gasp of the crowd, the swimming sights before his eyes. His memory, imagination, and emotions come into emergency action. A lot of things happen in three seconds. Two weeks later he is fully recovered and wants to write up the experience in a letter to a colleague. To communicate this experience through print means that it must first be broken down into parts and then mediated, eyedropper fashion, one thing at a time, in an abstract, linear, fragmented, sequential way. That is the essential structure of print.

And once a culture uses such a medium for a few centuries, it begins to perceive the world in a one-thing-at-a-time, abstract, linear, fragmented, sequential way. And it shapes its organizations and schools according to the same premises. The form of print has become the form of thought. The medium has become the message.

— Father John Culkin, SJ, 1967 (emphasis added) 1

firstchartThe way the English language is structured directly affects how writing, reading, and ultimately thought occurs. The blue ovals on the chart to the left show graphically what Fr. Culkin was describing in his 1967 Saturday Review article, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan.” The formation of language led to writing. Over time, and especially post-Guttenberg, writing led to widespread reading. The action of reading, led by the structure of writing as illustrated by Fr. Culkin’s example, affected human thought; hence the McLuhanesque sentence in bold above, “The form of print has become the form of thought.”

But one area that Fr. Culkin did not mention, nor would one expect him to, was how form not only affects print but also affects reading itself. This is illustrated by the red oval in the chart. The form of writing (linear, sequential, etc.) affects reading and thought; the form of reading (book, tablet, computer, etc) also affects reading and thought. How something is communicated conveys meaning, just as the actual content of the communication itself also conveys meaning. This article will dig deeper into that structure to look at the future of reading.

Any discussion about the future of reading must include some aspect of the future of education or the future or learning. The conveyance of information through words strung together into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books has been the foundation of education and learning for hundreds of years. So when examining what the future holds for reading, attention must be paid to the future of education and learning. For example, an iterative process that over time shifts the learning experience away from the traditional classroom and into the world will have a resulting shift away from formalized textbook learning and toward more decentralized learning tools. This would affect books, reading, learning, and education.

When this article discusses reading, it is primarily within the context of published books. Today a tremendous amount of reading takes place in non-book forms: blogs, newspapers, magazines, and the like. While these formats for reading are important and merit further study, the space allotted here will be focused on what is traditionally thought of as a book: ink printed on paper and bound into a volume – and the modern-day digital equivalent.

The time horizon for this examination of the future is ten years, peering into the year 2023. This could be considered a relatively short horizon. After all, reading has thousands of years of history and printed books have hundreds of years of history. However given the state of transition that reading is in and given the current evolutionary state of reading-related technologies, 10 years is sufficiently long enough to draw out implications for the future based on the current trends and leading edge thoughts.

To assess the current and expected future conditions in this domain, it will be helpful to view the evolution of reading through three distinct eras: the Printed Page Era (past), The Hybrid Era (present), and the Digital Era (future). This admittedly is a simplified classification of eras; a more thorough treatment would certainly lead to bifurcation or trifurcation of each era to provide additional detail.

Current assessment: the Printed Page Era

printedpageeraAlthough it started earlier (see the chart to the right), Gutenberg poured gas on the small flame of the printed page era with his invention of the printing press in the late 15th century. Before the time of Gutenberg, reading was not always seen as a private or silent act. In the 5th century book Confessions, St. Augustine comments on the uncommon nature of Ambrose’s reading habits:

“…we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off…” 2

Prior to Gutenberg, books were duplicated by hand transcription which limited the ability of the masses to have any role in reading, other than listen to the spoken word. Post-Gutenberg, literacy increased as more people gained access to printed books. Aside from improvements in reading education, printing technology, and book distribution, very little about the essential act of reading changed from the sixteenth century until the late twentieth century. Primary stakeholders in the Printed Page Era include authors, publishers, printers, distributors (both booksellers and book shippers), and readers.
Current assessment: the Hybrid Era
Today we are witnessing a shift from the traditional ink on paper printed books of the last half-millennium to digital pixels on screen books. Beginning around the turn of the twenty-first century, the Hybrid Era is characterized by the availability of both print books and digital books ebooks.

Today readers interact with text predominantly via printed books, although there is an increasing share of digital readers. In April 2012 21% of Americans reported that they had read an ebook in the last year, up from 17% in December 2011.3 This shift in consumer reading habits is also causing a shift in consumer expectations for what books can provide. For example, Gutenberg’s most notable printed book was the Holy Bible. This lengthy religious text saw a major transformation in 2008 with the release of the free YouVersion Bible App from Starting with just a few thousand subscribers in the 2008, YouVersion has seen strong growth. As of April 1, 2013, YouVersion had 87 million user installations5, with a rate of adoption of around 1 million per week6.

Another characteristic of the Hybrid Era centers around the social aspect of reading that technology provides. Early in the Printed Page Era, readers gathered together for corporate reading of book content (e.g. in public religious services). Early in the Hybrid Era, readers are gathering together on the internet via social networks to discuss their books. Social reading sites like provide a place for readers to interact with one another and with authors. Twitter and Facebook have allowed authors to interact with their readers much more frequently than a few decades ago. Primary stakeholders in the Hybrid Era include readers, authors, publishers, retailers (especially Amazon and Barnes and Noble, higher education (both universities and publishers).

Baseline future assessment: Constants

In the illustration below, the Communications Circuit shows the basic structure that supports reading in the Western World. This framework has been in place for hundreds of years. Books will continue to be written; stories will continue to be told. Reading will remain an active experience that is distinct from other forms of media like gaming, video, etc. These points will remain constant:

  • Authors will continue to write and seek publication, whether through the traditional publishing structure, the self-publishing structure, or other means.
  • Publishers will continue to connect authors with consumers via the sales pipeline. The definition of a publisher will continue to evolve as the form of books evolves, but the place of the publisher in the communications circuit will remain.
  • Booksellers will continue to sell books. The form of those books will continue to shift from print to digital, and it is likely that a third form of books that can be sold at retail will emerge. But the place of the bookseller will remain.
  • Readers will continue to purchase, borrow, and read books.

communicationscircuit The Communications Circuit7

Baseline future assessment: Disruption points

In the illustration above it is expected that disruptive change will occur for printers, suppliers, and shippers. As reading preferences gravitate toward digital, printers will see a decline in business as publishers face increasing economies of scale challenges where printed books are concerned. Initial print runs for new titles will become smaller and smaller, forcing printers to cut cost as much as possible and seek to scale up printing alternatives like Ingram Content Group’s Lightning Source on Demand. An additional future strain for printers and suppliers will come in the form of digital first publishing initiatives which often leave printed books out of the supply chain. Today larger publishers are beginning to experiment with digital first and smaller publishers have adopted this strategy out of necessity with varying levels of success.

Shippers who deal primarily with books will also feel a slight disruption, but most shippers are diversified in their product delivery options so the impact that declining print book production will have on shippers like UPS or Fed Ex will be far less than the impact that will be felt by printers and suppliers.

Baseline future assessment: Driving forces

Three driving forces work together to shape the reading experience of 2023. First, technology will continue to create opportunities for reading to become a more digital experience. Second, the social aspect of reading will continue to evolve. Interactive forms of book media will bring readers and authors together like never before. Third, the educational system will see movement away from traditional printed textbooks. Innovative solutions like customizable digital textbooks8 and real-world socialized learning structures9 will continue to be developed.

Baseline Future: the Digital Era

In 2013, despite living during a time in which many would be comfortable in characterizing it as a “digital age,” the Digital Era of reading is not yet upon us. Certainly we see some of the beginning stages of the Digital Era as we witness readers become more comfortable with reading via screens. But despite all of the press surrounding current trends like the exponential growth of ebooks, the majority of people (78%) still buy and read books printed on paper.10

The beginning of the Digital Era will be marked not by the elimination of the print book business, but by the shift in consumers reading habits toward primarily digital means. Vinyl records remain a small but viable format – even after the birth of the compact disk and the digital mp3. In the same way, print books will continue to be printed, bought, and sold long after the Digital Era begins.

The next iteration of the social reading experience will arrive in the Digital Era. Immersive reading as a social experience will combine the best aspects of the previous two eras, reading together in groups and internet interaction. Research into massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) shows a strong correlation between real world social structures and online social structures.11 New forms of massively multiplayer online role-playing experiences will emerge centered on book content, providing immersive reading experiences that allow for readers to interact with the text in a uniquely tailored manner, layered against constant interaction with other readers via wearable computers or neural networks. Primary stakeholders in the Digital Era will be authors, publishers, booksellers, readers, and hardware/device manufacturers.

Baseline future: Discontinuities and uncertainties

A leveling off of the adoption of digital methods for reading would disrupt the baseline future. Also, the emergence of an eclipsing technology that would render the need to read in the traditional sense obsolete (e.g. uploading a book directly into the brain).

Alternate Futures: Scenarios

Below, four scenarios for the future are briefly examined based on two primary questions related to the future of reading:

  • How do we read? In 2023, are readers splitting their time between print and digital, or are readers primarily reading digitally via ebooks or other more advanced methods?
  • What do we read? In 2023, is our reading fueled by the need to satisfy an urge for a quick hit of information, or are we seeking deeper, lasting content? To refer back to the opening illustration from Fr. Culkin, is our reading focused on deeper things which lead to an ocean’s depth of knowledge or is our reading focused on items and topics that are a mile wide and an inch deep?

The Future of Reading 2023:

                    four scenarios                    

      How do we read? (Methods and tools)

Print and


Digital and


What do we read? (Content preferences)

Shallow: information based



Deep: meaning based



The iTunes Scenario

Human reading habits are shaped by a more transactional relationship with content. In the same way that iTunes can be used to bring one’s collection of physical music CDs together with their digital music collection of mp3s, people will continue to seek a mix of physical books and digital ebooks. This scenario represents an arrested development: remaining in the Hybrid Era of reading without progression into the Digital Era. Book reading habits, under the influence of an always connected environment, tend to skew more toward the shallow side. Search and index become more prominent due to demands of society in an information age. Premiums are placed on knowing “in the now,” whatever the cost. Newspapers and blogs become preferred by many over books.

The Spotify Scenario

We see the death of the printed book. Because of the convenience and value of digital books, plus the environmental concerns about print books, readers discard the notion that printed and bound books are of any intrinsic or aesthetic value. The bookshelves in many homes are emptied as people realize they can digitally search and read any book at any time. Search is a major factor for readers; the ability to find something quick without flipping through pages is one of the catalysts that bring about this scenario. Reading in this scenario becomes quite business-like: it is all about the results. Few will read books like War and Peace cover to cover; instead they will utilize integrated reader’s guides and multi-media presentations via hardware like wearable computers. Reading a single book for hours at a time is seen as a waste of time. Much effort will be made by publishers to “chunk” content so that readers can read/consume books faster, thereby increasing publisher revenue.

The Netflix Scenario

We will see a mixture of print books and digital books continuing to provide readers young and old with the opportunity to read content in the way they prefer. Print books are seen as retro-cool. Due to increasing costs associated with printing books, digital reading becomes the preferred method for less affluent consumers while print books become a status symbol for wealthier book connoisseurs. Social/collaborative reading takes place somewhat, although it is difficult because many readers continue to read using unconnected print books. Publishers have stopped chasing after the next “big thing” in book formatting, opting instead to focus their efforts on producing exceptional book content in both print and digital formats. Recognizing the need to stay within core competencies, most publishers choose to license their book content to their party developers for the creation or multi-media rich ancillary book content.

The Kindle Scenario

Digital has almost completely replaced print for the book publishing industry. Once the ratio of digital to print sales passes the three to one threshold, publishers no longer can afford to print physical copies of all but a very small percentage of books. Publishers issue print runs for only the top 1%-2% of books. Print on demand becomes more common for distributing printed books, but it too is fading. All books become customized for each user based on historical reading and learning styles. New ways of reading socially become more common, similar to massively multiplayer online role-playing games, but with immersive book content as the thread. Readers don’t just read the new book Harry Potter vol. 12; they actually step into the plot via wearable computers and augmented reality.


Marshall McLuhan’s oft quoted axiom, “the medium is the message”12 bears witness to the evolution of reading through the past, present, and into the future. How one reads a book will continue to be as consequential as which book they chose to read. Today’s reader has tremendous flexibility in both content and format, and tomorrow’s reader will have even more options. The expected future of reading will be shaped by technological development, social interaction, and educational evolution. The future of reading could arrive more slowly if the trend of digital adoption slows. Any new reading technology that arrives will have the potential to reshape the future of reading completely.

Information sources

1. Culkin, J.M. (1967, March 18). A schoolman’s guide to Marshall McLuhan. Saturday Review, pp. 51-53, 71-72. Retrieved from

2. Augustine, S. (2002). The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Oxford, MS: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation. Digital file.

3. Rainie, L., Zickuhr, K., Purcell, K., Madden, M., Brenner, J. (2012). The Rise of e-reading. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from:

4. YouVersion Blog (2008). YouVersion now available for your Mobile Device! Edmond, OK: Retrieved from

5. (2013). YouVersion. Edmond, OK: Retrieved from

6. (2013). YouVersion. Edmond, OK: Retrieved from

7. Darnton, R. (1982) What is the history of books? Daedalus 111(3):

65-83. Boston, MA: Harvard. Retrieved from:

8. Santos, A. (2013). McGraw-Hill reveals the SmartBook: an ‘adaptive’ e-book for students. Engadet. Retrieved from:

9. Gorbis, M. (2013). The Future Of Education Eliminates The Classroom, Because The World Is Your Class. Fastcoexist. Retrieved from:

10. Owen, L. H. (2013). Ebooks made up 23 percent of US publisher sales in 2012, says the AAP. PaidContent. Retrieved from:

11. Szell, M., Thurner, S. (2009). Measuring Social Dynamics in a Massive Multiplayer Online Game. University of Santa Fe. Santa Fe, NM: Santa Fe Institute. Retrieved from:

12. McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press.

Mark Warner is completing a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight degree at Regent University and has worked in the publishing industry since 2005 in the areas of sales, business development, strategy, research/analysis, and project management. He is employed by HarperCollins Christian Publishing and lives with his family in Nashville, TN. You can find him on Twitter: @markawarner

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