2020: All Books Will Be Cross-Platform and Interactive.

Future “books” will be bundled with soundtracks, musical leitmotifs, 3-D graphics, and streaming video. They’ll be enhanced with social bookmarking, online dating, and alerts from geo-networking apps whenever someone in your locality purchases the same book as you— anything so you don’t have to actually read the thing. Authors will do their own marketing, the reader will be responsible for distribution, the wisdom of crowds will take care of the editing, and the invisible hand of the market will perform the actual writing (if any). Writers will respond either by going viral or by going feral.

2030: All Books Will Be Crowdsourced and Cloud-Based.

Novelists will start out designing their characters in the form of sets of vinyl figurines. If these generate enough buzz, fans will produce the actual novel collaboratively as a wiki. As you read it, thermal cameras will measure your physiological signals, including flickers in eye movement, facial muscle contractions, and heart rate, to determine where you want the story to go next—it will be expected to read itself to you, explain itself, and unobtrusively weave your incoming text messages into the dialogue. You will also be able to fine-tune details of how the characters are digitally rendered, fire at them, and (when imperative) indulge in cybersex with them. If a novelist is posthumously discovered, his or her vinyl figurines may wind up as collector’s items.

2040: Authors Will Become Like Tamagotchi.

Having determined that what readers want is a “sense of connection,” publishers will organize adopt-an-author promotions, repackaging writers along the lines of Webkinz and other imaginary pets. “Feeding” your favorite authors by buying their books will make their online avatars grow less pale and grouchy. If they starve to death on your watch you will lose social networking points. Book clubs will cultivate with their favorite writers the warm, fuzzy, organic bond a trainer develops with his or her Pokémon, a process that will culminate in staged fights-to-the-death between your author and the author sponsored by another book club. These fights will occur offline, since there will be one or two bookstores left and something has to happen there.

2050: Analog Reading Will Be Digitally Simulated.

As people spend more and more of time immersed in massively multi-player role-playing games, they will begin to crave some downtime. Virtual simulation worlds will start to include hideaway “libraries” you can lock yourself into. There you’ll be able to climb into a virtual bath and lovingly turn the pages of a pixilated representation of one of those dog-eared tomes—reliant on old-school linear narrative— that by this time will have been made illegal in the real world. Perfectly reproduced will be the sensation of turning the pages, the crack of the spine, and even the occasional paper cut. By 2052, 95% of the activity of 73% of role-players will take place in these hideaways, since they’ll be the only place to escape the incessant building of community and connectivity that will by then be such an infuriating aspect of offline reality.

2060: Physical Books Will Make a
Comeback in Annoying Contexts.

As printed matter gets harder to obtain, Antiquarian Archipelago will become a popular infotainment show, starring heavily-armed archivists who teleport from island to island in search of rare gems. Meanwhile new printed works will continue to be released—in the form of dust jackets made from edible fungi—as faux-antique treasures at Renaissance Fairs and related nostalgic historical reenactments. The last bibliophile will traverse the city in a daze, wondering where the bookstores went. Meanwhile all of human knowledge will be encrusted onto a chip and sent into outer space by sixth graders, as a ploy to get out of doing their homework.

2070: We Will All Become Cyborgs.

New brain-computer interfaces will redefine narrative, as electrodes implanted in the neocortex induce stories to form, without the intervention of a third party, as sustained hallucinations. Hence the “readers” of the future will spend most of their time in an epileptic fugue state. Artificial intelligences will use deep-structure pattern-recognition, predictive modeling, and information theory to ensure each new trance state is popular enough to get upvoted on the hottest content-ranking platforms. Nanobots in our bloodstream will inform us how to behave, coordinating our actions with real-time marketing data on behavioral and attitudinal trends, until the very concept of individuality is reconfigured, resulting in the death of independent thought and the elimination of many of our descendants by transpersonal mindviruses.

2080: A Golden Age of Informational Fluidity.

For the benefit of those people at future-of-publishing panels—there’s always one, for some reason—who insist it’s really not about the text but the smell of the book, books will by this time be available exclusively as lines of fragrances. Subsequently, humans will modify themselves into a species with a powerful olfactory sense, able to read underwater by decoding strings of pheronomes. Aroma-bibliography will triumph, as vast epics are composed for newly developed scent receptors, transforming the rising seas into a giant bath of community-assisted transmedia content. Also around this time, the oral literature of dolphins will be deciphered and will turn out, inexplicably, to be all about vampires.

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James Warner’s novel All Her Father’s Guns (an actual book!), is available at your nearest bookseller.