THE BOOK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE BOOK

Guternberg priting pressFor five hundred years nothing much changed; there was Gutenberg and moveable type.

Then there was the quill, Shakespeare, the typewriter, Inspector Poirrot, the 21st century and before we knew it someone invented Amazon and who let the dogs out? The Apocalypse was at hand. The number of the Beast was Amazon and the Big 6 were all dead.

Well, maybe.

APOCALYPSE NOW

Jurassic, dinosaurs

source: Márcio Luiz

The landscape of publishing has been razed in just five years; once were dinosaurs, a handful of large publishing conglomerates and book chains providing a dwindling choice of books. The gatekeepers were a few powerful uber-agents who were an indispensable part of the food chain. Now a comet called Amazon has hit and the climate is undergoing radical change. Some species are on the endangered list already.

The sale and return model was rubbish anyway. It was the law of diminishing returns that just about sentenced any author who didn’t break out with his second novel to a slow lingering death on the back shelves.

IT’S JUST FREE MARKET ECONOMICS IN ACTION

EBooks now make up 20% of the market, with that figure much higher in genres like SF and thrillers. Romantic and erotic fiction have gone gangbusters on digital, of course. No one wants to buy their vibrator or handcuffs at Walmart.

As sales of printed books plummet and sales of eBooks soar, the assumption is that this trend will continue. But I wonder if this is logical. After all, sales of eBooks are slowing in the US and picking up in the UK where the take up came later. Perhaps they’ll find a level and ease out. TV was supposed to kill the movies and so was video.

The demise of print has been predicted before; remember the paperless office? Yeah, right. Companies now use 40% more paper than in those dark days before Bill Gates. In every government and big corporation anywhere in the world you will find people hard at work designing and printing multicolor spiral bound presentations when their boss is looking and personal birthday flyers and Lost Dog posters when they’re not.

WE HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND THE FUTURE IS … WEIRD

There is a now a machine now called the Espresso Book Machine. You put in a digital file and a paperback with a nice cover comes out the other end. It’s pretty useful.

Kim Campbell, Canada, Prime minister

photograph: Skcdoenut

A bookstore in Alberta, Canada recently hosted former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell and ran out of books. So they had their machine run off a few more with a new cover plus two new chapters written exclusively for the event.

Imagine the book signings of the future; fans asking authors not just to sign their book but to write them a different ending.

Right now the Espresso is the size of a canteen refrigerator, but in 20 years it will look likeyour home printer, which means bookstores might be replaced by a kiosk in the mall selling coffee and a cosy; you can browse Amazon or Nook while they’re making your double decaf cap.

I’ll have a Nora Roberts and a bagel to go thanks.

The future is already here because now you can get an app of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land with a critic’s notes, a facsimile of the manuscript as annotated by Ezra Pound, as well as an audio recording of the poem, two by Eliot and one by Red Hughes. All on the same download. We’re not living lives of quiet desperation anymore.

TS Eliot, the Wasteland

Simon Fieldhouse

But consumer attitudes are changing. After all, with a book, you got something solid for your money. An eBook is just another file. Soon readers may be paying $1 for the book, $10 for the t-shirt and $30 for the signed souvenir poster of the author eating a cream cheese bagel while he’s typing the individual ending they asked for … all printed off the same machine.

WE ALL LIKE HORSES BUT WE PREFER TO GO BY CAR

In short, books are not dying, but the medium is evolving rapidly. All forms of communication are changing anyway; I never imagined one day writing an article about technological advances in publishing and being able to do this …

Some people say reading a book on a screen is like enjoying wine intravenously. All I can say is don’t knock it till you’ve tried it; drinking wine intravenously, I mean.

But there’s also advantages to hard copy that you can’t replace. People will always want print books. See my post on it here.

ITS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD, JUST JUDGMENT DAY

But reading habits are changing. Some people like print, some don’t. But it’s not about the wrapper, it’s about the candy. Besides, everyone is different; there is a new breed of reader that buys an eBook and if they like it they order the hardback so they can have it on their shelf as a souvenir without ruining it by cracking the spine.

Others like to be known by what’s on their bookshelves. You now have the choice of buying a hardback Jonathan Franzen for the entry while you curl up on the window seat and read Fifty Shades of Grey quietly to yourself on your Kindle. Everyone wins.

But I don’t buy the Apocalypse just yet. Besides, if books were going to disappear the Mayans would have last Judgment, apocalypsepredicted it on their calendar. But I could be wrong. It’s a revolution and in a revolution you never know day to day who’s going to get stood up against a wall and shot; sometimes it’s the Czar and sometimes it’s Trotsky.

The only thing we can be sure will not change is the certainty of change itself. Strap yourself in. I think we’re in for a bumpy ride for quite a while yet.

About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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16 Responses to THE BOOK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE BOOK

  1. Julia Robb says:

    This is an excellent post; very well thought out. You told me things I didn’t know. A machine to print out ebooks!! How great.

    • Thanks Julia! I was being kind saying it was the size of a refrigerator. At this stage it takes up about half a room. But so did the first computers, and these days they can fit the computer that landed Apollo 11 into a pocket calculator. It looks like the shape of things to come.

  2. prudencemacleod says:

    Ah Colin, my friend, the possibilities are indeed endless. Isn’t it grand?

  3. A book vending machine? .!? Like those machines that used to make business cards? ( These days I just do them on my printer). Talk about POD! Actually, I have an ebook of The Hobbit which lets you change the coloured pics back to the original black and white if you are a purist that way,adds an intro by Christopher Tolkien, extra maps, the original first chapter AND three of the songs, if you press play, J.R.R Tolkien sings them for you! Okay,the extra writing could be done in a print copy, but try doing THAT in a hardback!
    Both forms have their place. I use ebooks to read on public transport and print ones to curl up with, but there are other reasons why I love my iPad book reader: I have so many books I just have no space for more till I give away a whole lot. I tend to be reading a stack of books at once anyway and this way I can carry them all with me. I do a lot more impulse buying, I confess, but it’s nice to be reading about a book, say,”Hey, that sounds good!” and download it right away. A lot of formerly out of print books can now be read again without counting on a publisher to spend money printing it. It’s great for research. The other day I downloaded a book called Paris Vistas mentioned on The History Girls blog. One visit to Project Gutenberg and it was there on my virtual shelves – what’s not to like?:-)

    • Exactly Sue – now you can do them on the printer. That’s the way it’s headed. And I think the rest of your comment just about summed it up – if you’re a reader this is the Golden Age. It’s about CHOICE.

  4. Karen McFarland says:

    I’ve heard of that book vending machine. That’s amazing, isn’t it? But what’s up with using more paper after Microsoft? Wasn’t that supposed to cut down the usage of paper, thus saving a tree or two or three? I don’t know. And I’m not sure if I really care. I like reading. And now that I own an e-reader, they’re much more comfortable for me to hold and read. I think it’s personal preference and both forms, be it paper or electronic can exist happily together. 🙂

    • I was surprised about the paper usage too, Karen, but apparently it’s true. Bill Gates didn’t save the trees. But as you say both forms can and will co-exist – but I think the revolution that’s taking place is not about digital v print, I believe it may turn out to be an even more fundamental change. Interesting times!

  5. Bob Mayer says:

    Exactly on target. In NY right now for Discoverability Conference and my take is the Big 6 are too big. They can’t adapt and change to the organic element called the eBook.

  6. I never thought I’d like e-books but since I got my kindle, I rarely buy books anymore. And I rarely go to book stores – which used to be a favorite activity of mine. Now I sit at home and cruise Amazon. LOL Times they are a changing. for sure. Movies are still around but the theatres in my part of the world are struggling to stay afloat. great times for observing social change. thanks Colin

    • Well Louise like you I find shopping at Amazon just a better experience. I can actually find what I want and I’m not being led by the nose by what someone in New York or London thinks I should read. It’s not the technology – it’s that I feel like I have a lot more choice. Plus 90% of the cost of a book was going to the publisher and bookseller and frankly they weren’t earning it, not from my reader’s perspective anyway!

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