Don’t fear the reader

I love reading. Books particularly. Hundreds of them scattered all over the place. Many, of course, on shelves, but many more in boxes and in random stacks. Some are read over and over whilst many are read and find their way to the bottom of the pile, never to see the light of day again. Never once have I started a book and left it before the end. Not even Dahlgren (although the temptation was strong).

A book has almost the perfect form-factor, especially the paperback. Light, hand sized, pliable. It works in most light conditions and is simple to use. There is a joy to be had in the holding of a book.

Even though they are likely to be of limited life, books are a cultural artefact in that they spread culture. This may not always be a positive thing but it is a thing. And it is not just the content of the book that is spread, it is the language. On a visit to Bangladesh a few years back I suggested to a teacher that it was interesting that the English of so many of the sixth-form students was so good. I was told that it was because universities taught mainly in English. And they taught mainly in English because the books they used were in English. Because to print texts in Bangla was prohibitively expensive for a poor country like theirs. They had to rely on buying older texts printed in English.

But here is a truth. Books are dying. And I for one will be glad to see the back of them.

They are dusty, they smell, they set off my hay fever. They take up huge amounts of space in my house. I can never find the one I want (unless I develop OCD and put them into some kind of order), and eventually they go that horrible browny colour which makes them hard to read in poor light. Whilst we are on hard to read, if i pick up a book I bought 30 years ago, the print is so small! That’s not good for my eyes.

So, books are dying. Not as a concept, but as a technological device. They are dying because there is a better technology taking over. We currently call it the e-book, but soon enough we will learn to just call it a ‘book’. I mean, we don’t buy an e-song, or an e-track, do we?

There are two main reasons for the death of the book. One is commercial and one is technological.

First the commercial. This is dead simple. This is not about you as a book reader preferring a paper copy. This is about profit, pure and simple. The marginal cost of production of an e-book (a term I’m using for clarity) is zero. The marginal cost of printing a typical paperback will be around £1.50. You are a publisher. Which model are you attracted to? Let’s use an example. A Brief History of Time has sold over 10 million copies since it was published. As a publisher would you have preferred the printing of that book to cost you £15 million, or zero? Maybe a few people wouldn’t have bought the book because it wasn’t paper. So, a few sales lost, but £15 million saved. There is also the risk issue. Currently, publishing a book is a huge risk. The books have to be printed before a single copy is sold. The business model in publishing is ‘sale or return’. The publisher prints the book (or magazine), sends it to the bookshop. The bookshop sells what they can and sends the rest back to the publisher, paying only for those they have sold. If the book sells well, that’s OK. If it bombs, then it is the publisher that takes all the risk. Remember, it’s not just the printing cost, it’s the marketing and advertising as well.

So the main reason that the traditional book will die is that the business model almost mandates it.

This is not so depressing as it may sound. The reason is that in my view the replacement is a better technological solution. Let’s list some of them:

  • I can have as many as I like in my house without having to build an extension.
  • They attract no dust.
  • I can find the book I want instantly.
  • I can annotate my book with highlighters and notes, then clear them if I want to have a clean copy.
  • I can look up the meaning of a word that I don’t understand without leaving the page.
  • I can search within the text for the section, page, phrase or word that I want.
  • I can get a sample and read it before I buy.
  • I can place as many bookmarks as I want.
  • My book can read to me
  • My book can play videos and other multimedia

There are also some things I can’t easily do with an e-book:

  • Read in the bath
  • Lend a copy to a friend
  • Give old books to the charity shop (I keep mine, anyway)
  • Impress visitors with the breadth of my library

I would argue quite strongly that whilst there are a few slight deficiencies over the traditional book, the additionality provided by the e-book make it a better model.

There are obvious issues with e-books. The initial cost of entry for the consumer is high, but that is coming down. Plus the devices have additional affordances over and above the book reading which can make that cost worthwhile. But still it is an issue of equitable access which needs to be resolved.

So where are we on this journey? Recent estimates are that 30% of book sales are e-books*. Last year e-book sales increased by 20% in the UK** and this shows no sign of slowing. An amazing 13 million tablet devices were sold in the UK in 2013, with some estimates suggesting that half the population owns a tablet of some kind. These numbers are predicted to fall in 2014 but to no lower than 10 million devices.

Interestingly the move to e-books has increased the number of self-published volumes, which may cause some form of rethink by the publishers in their business model. The really interesting time will come when the first mainstream author goes direct to the customer online. Some (like Stephen King) have dabbled, but this has largely been part of a publisher marketing approach. Should, say, Lee Child decide that he no longer needs a publisher and will go direct we may see a break-up of the traditional publishing houses. It has been strange that this has never really happened in the music market, despite the almost complete digitalisation of the industry.

Books will continue to exist in their present form for many years to come. But not across the board. Even in the music industry around 50% of album sales continue to be on physical media. Risky publications will go first. That new author will be published digitally rather than on paper.  I suspect that certain niche products will disappear first. School text books being one of them. They are expensive to print and (*puts head above the parapet*) digital versions provide wider learning affordances. For those seeking to introduce tablets into a school this should be your starting point. Digitalise everything that is read by students. Put in on a tablet. Then a cost model for tablets starts to make sense.

Whilst the tactile allure of the paperback is strong, it is the joy, the sadness, the anger, the pain, the fun and the knowledge, most of all the knowledge that stays with us from a good book. We may at times pine for the physical page turning experience that a book gives, but we shouldn’t work too hard to push back the replacement. Simply, because it’s a better technology.



**The Bookseller



2 thoughts on “Don’t fear the reader

  1. Found this interesting, Mike!

    I still enjoy both books and my Kindle, for different reasons.

    Like you, I’ve never started a book I didn’t finish (though that isn’t a strategy I would recommend others adopt) and I have OCD and will come round to your house and alphabetise your paperback collection just for the fun of it if you want me to…..

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