As the module, and indeed the taught part of the course itself, comes to an end we are left looking to the future and speculating on where it will take the book… and publishing… and libraries. Helping us do this was Alaistar Horne of Cambridge University Press, who had been at the London Book Fair that week with lots of other people who were likely wondering the same thing.
The answer – at least for now – seems to be that the future is complex, plural and diverse. There is no one killer app, or platform. Formats, channels and audiences will be multifarious. Take the e-book, for example. Much press was made when Amazon’s book sales in the UK tipped from being mostly print to mostly e-book nearly three years ago (how much that was due to 50 Shades I don’t even want to know). At the beginning of this year there was another slew of stories reacting to figures suggesting that the printed book was fighting back and e-books were going out of style.
It turned out that the origin of the story was Waterstones’ MD saying that sales of Amazon’s e-reader Kindle had all but evaporated in the chain’s shops. If I point out that this has little to do with the popularity of e-books vs. print books, I wouldn’t be the first. E-ink readers are now the Sony Betmax of digital books. People buying e-books from Amazon are doing so via the app on their tablets and phones.
The fuss was also fuelled by sales figures that showed a decrease in the rate of decline of print book sales. Again, not really big news.
A productive class discussion led by Horne threw up some interesting contradictions. Most of us preferred ink on paper as providing a better reading experience, but that turned out to mean simply that it was easier on the eyes. We tried to argue that printed books can have ornamental and sentimental value, and can be shared, but we could also all reel off the true benefits of ebooks: cheaper (if only a little), instantaneous, space efficient, not tied to one physical location, lighter (what’s easier on the eyes isn’t easier on the shoulders), etc.. There is also the as yet seldom realised potential of ebooks/apps/whatever to be simply better than print books at presenting content, certainly in a non-linear and more interactive way. And they can have audio, video and gaming elements. They can use the device’s sensors – mic, camera, accelerometer, GPS, etc. – to provide feedback.
As for the basic e-book, it turns out we like both formats and would buy either for different reasons in different circumstances. I personally think the book publishing industry could do its customers a favour by making buying a book more like buying a film on disc. Why not get a downloadable digital copy for the cost of the hard copy? Film companies probably do this to undermine the market in pirate downloads of their catalogues. Book publishers probably don’t feel the need to do the same. Similarly, the way in which Spotify almost gives away music for nothing only makes sense when seen as a response to digital piracy and the music labels’ fluffed response to digital in general that fed it in the first place.
Subscription means access for as long as you pay your monthly fee. But people want to own books, right?
Tell that to public libraries, which are now experimenting with e-book lending themselves, thanks to publishers’ belated agreement. Libraries been giving it away for years. No wonder the suits are finally trying to close them down.
Its only just beginning…