the future of the book

In January this year, Google hosted a conference in New York called Unbound: Advancing Book Publishing in a Digital World. The video excerpts below highlight the issues I believe we should be discussing in relation to the future of the book:

I went to a discussion at the South Bank Centre in London yesterday, called Digitise or Die: What is the Future of the Book?, which left me wondering if we’re really asking the right questions in the UK.

Authors Margaret Atwood, Andrew O’Hagan and Erica Wagner and publisher Stephen Page, Chief Executive of Faber & Faber, were discussing ‘the brave new world of authors, readers and publishers in the age of new technology’ as part of the London Book Fair.

It was a discussion between people who clearly love literature, love books, and want a bit of reassurance that they’ll still be able to read in the bath. It was one of those events, along with aspects of the Book Fair seminar programme as a whole, that just made me think the book publishing industry is five years behind the current media climate.

I was similarly dismayed at a Book Fair session today, on the current state of the UK book market, where it was asserted that the industry is excellent at adapting to change. It is not.

Much of the Digitise or Die discussion clustered around three themes:

  1. we still need publishers as arbiters of taste
  2. continuous narrative is still important
  3. the book is still a lovely object.

I have some sympathy with all of the above, and there will always be a place for the book-as-object. But, to me, such a discussion is inertia-laden and a little off-piste.

Accompanied by a rejection of the stereotype that publishers are affectionately, sentimentally attached to cracking open a book and sniffing the pages, the panel’s reasons to be cheerful included:

  1. you can turn down the pages of a book
  2. you can read it in the bath or on the beach
  3. you can’t read Anna Karenina online
  4. more books are published today than ever before
  5. the book is a lovable technology.

It worries me when this becomes the focus of discourse about the future of the book. My reasons to be cheerful, in a digital age, would include:

  1. your niche backlist becomes economically viable (see The Long Tail)
  2. reading is opened up to more people, through accessible forms of content – a point made at the event by disability rights campaigner Julie Howell
  3. you can read Anna Karenina, comfortably and portably, as a printed book, unabridged audiobook, or e-book (when e-paper arrives – see below)
  4. more books can find a market than ever before
  5. more readers can find – and buy – your books using Google Book Search and online social networks, for those prepared to engage with these technologies.

It’s more about the content and how it’s marketed than the physical means of delivery. Readers are becoming used to having more control over how, when and where they want to access content. This is a good thing for consumers, and an opportunity for publishers.

The Unbound video would have been my fantasy London Book Fair agenda. Sadly, I fear some of us are somewhat nearer to the technological discussion highlighted in this video:

As for e-paper, we’re not that far off. This is where things are headed in terms of the physical delivery mechanism. It’s something that magazine publishers, already ahead of book publishers, are likely to embrace first:

The book has a future. As David Worlock, Chairman of EPS puts it, “The future of the book is secure. It’s what we do with it, how we promote it, how we develop it, and how we put new layers of meaning around it in a digital context which becomes extremely important.”

See the playlist for this posting, plus extra video clips of the event, at our YouTube Channel

In other blogs

Production and Research in Transliteracy (DMU) – a very thorough write up of the event, with audio and video clips. Also covered by Guardian Book Blog, Broadsight and Print is Dead.

About Jon Reed

Jon Reed is a writer, lecturer and social media trainer. He is the author of Get Up to Speed With Online Marketing (2nd edition, Pearson, 2013) and The Publishing Talk Guide to Twitter. He runs the social media consultancy Reed Media, providing training and workshops on social media marketing. He previously worked in publishing for 10 years, including as publishing director for McGraw-Hill. He launched Publishing Talk in 2007. More about Publishing Talk...

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