Sunday, May 15, 2016
Books are back!
The hysterical cheerleaders of the e-book failed to account for human
experience, and publishers blindly followed suit. But the novelty has worn
Friday 13 May 2016 10.43 BST Last modified on Friday 13 May 2016 17.05 BST
At last. Peak digital is at hand. The ultimate disruptor of the new
information age is - wait for it - the book.
Shrewd observers noted the early signs. Kindle sales initially outstripped
hardbacks but have slid fast since 2011. Sony killed off its e-readers.
Waterstones last year stopped selling Kindles and e-books outside the UK,
switched shelf space to books and saw a 5% rise in sales.
Amazon has opened its first bookshop.
Now the official Publishers Association confirms the trend. Last year
digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a
plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.
They have been boosted by the marketing of colouring and lifestyle titles,
but there is always a reason. The truth is that digital readers were never
remotely in the same ballpark. The PA regards the evidence as unmistakable,
'Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on
to digital.' Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships,
are not real. People want a break from another damned screen.
What went wrong? Clearly publishing, like other industries before (and
since), suffered a bad attack of technodazzle: It failed to distinguish
between newness and value. It could read digital's hysterical cheerleaders,
but not predict how a market of human beings would respond to a product once
the novelty had passed. It ignored human nature. Reading the meaning of
words is not consuming a manufacture: it is experience.
As so often, the market leader was the music business. Already, by the turn
of the 21st century, its revenues were shifting dramatically from
reproduction to live. This was partly because recording and distributing
music became so cheap there was no profit margin, but it was largely because
the market had changed. Buyers, young and old, wanted to witness music
played in the company of like minds, and were prepared to pay for the
experience often to pay lots. Soon the same was true for live sport, live
theatre, even live talks. The festival has become king. The money is back at
Books must be the ultimate test. Admittedly some festivals now give away
books for free and charge instead to hear the writers speak.
But just buying, handling, giving and talking about a book seems to have
caught the magic dust of experience. A book is beauty. A book is a shelf,
a wall, a home.
The book was declared dead with the coming of radio. The hardback was dead
with the coming of paperbacks. Print-on-paper was buried fathoms deep by the
great god, digital. It was rubbish, all rubbish. Like other aids to reading,
such as rotary presses, Linotyping and computer-setting, digital had brought
innovation to the dissemination of knowledge and delight. But it was a
means, not an end.
Since the days of Caxton and Gutenberg, print-on-paper has shown astonishing
longevity. The old bruisers have seen off another challenge.
© Guardian 2016