Submitted by: The Two Sides Team July 13, 2011
There’s no reason why traditional books can’t coexist with ebooks – as long as they succeed in smartening up their act. A compelling insight from Robert McCrum guardian.co.uk, Saturday 25 June 2011
The publication of The Waste Land app, as reported by my Observer colleague John Naughton, marks the end of the beginning. After a decade of panic about the future, it signals a rapprochement between print and digital culture. This new coexistence is supported by the figures. The average UK shopper now spends £4 per month on ebooks. For Random House USA, some 30% of its sales now come from ebooks. After a perfect storm of economic, technological and cultural change from 2000 to 2010, publishers can detect a silver lining.
Look to see this trend accelerating a change in reading habits unprecedented since Caxton. Publishers, literary agents, booksellers and writers are all puzzling over the impact. John B Thompson, author of Merchants of Culture, says: “Truthfully, no one knows what the future holds.”
“Goodbye Gutenberg” made a nice headline, but, as ebook sales surge in the US, thoughtful observers have begun to detect a future for the traditional book. David Campbell, publisher of Everyman, says: “The well-produced hardback, a clear and permanent contrast to the ebook, will fare better than cheap paperbacks printed on newsprint.”
One book trade Jeremiah, Jason Epstein, retired chief editor of Random House, identifies a parallel future for old and new book media. “My own guess,” he writes in the New York Review of Books, “is that the digital future in which anyone can become a published writer will separate along the usual two paths.”
Epstein applies a twin track to future business models. “Some publishers may experiment by setting up their own freestanding digital start-ups,” he says. His hunch, illustrated by the Waste Land app, which is co-published by Faber and Touch Press, is that “a separate, self-financed, digital industry will coexist with many functions of the traditional firms as the logic and the economies of digital technology increasingly assert themselves”.
This coexistence of the old and new worlds of paper and screen is supported by Umberto Eco, who declares that “the book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.” In This is Not the End of the Book, he writes: “The internet has returned us to the alphabet. The computer returns us to Gutenberg’s galaxy; from now on everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium.”
The history of technology teaches that the printing press did not make the manuscript redundant, nor did the typewriter eliminate the fountain pen. Despite dire predictions, television did not kill radio. Technological change is discontinuous. We should not look among the old book world for the pioneers of future content delivery. The scribes who wrote the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle did not invent the printing press. Horse breeders played no part in Daimler-Benz or the Model T.
Publishers are adapting fast. Stephanie Duncan, who runs Bloomsbury’s Library Online project, agrees that “love them or loathe them as a way to read, digital books are now driving book sales”. But Duncan makes no distinction between ebook and old book. “Ebooks are only a format,” she explains, “just as paperbacks were a new format in the 30s. The value and joy of reading lies within the book itself, not the wrapper it comes in.”
The brilliant simplicity of the book should be the equal of the latest technology. Reading a book on a screen is like enjoying wine intravenously. The book remains an aesthetic as well as a literary experience. Owning printed books may soon become synonymous with collecting them.
Richard Charkin, director of Bloomsbury, sees digitisation as an opportunity. “The publisher chooses the book and turns it into something better, publicises it, markets it, and collects the money. What happens in a digital world is identical to that. I am more optimistic about the future than I can express.”
Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of The Tipping Point, is possibly a bellwether. What’s his next project? Gladwell is working with his publisher to produce his oeuvre in a high-priced box set. “There’s a market for Porsche and BMW or Toyota and Fiat,” he says, “but not much in between. So it’s Prada or H&M, ebooks or hardbacks. The book is alive and well, just a tad more exclusive. Perhaps it’s the next big thing.”