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The Future of Books

October 14, 2014

The topic “The future of books” has grown tiresome, since most treatments use the same sound bites and manage to predict the end of books while simultaneously declaring that they don’t know.

Of course they don’t know. It’s the future.

“The Economist” has a satisfying, six-page essay on the future of books in its October 11^th issue. It’s largely about the history of books, but the point is to catalog a history of change that makes the current ebook “crisis” familiar.

It’s not a crisis, of course, except to anyone whose business is threatened or has been erased. The economics of the book business has changed, but it has changed before.

When cheap paperbacks were first published for the general public, it was seen as a potential financial and cultural disaster. But then publishers worked together during World War II to print many millions of cheap copies of books for soldiers overseas and in the process created a nation of readers.

Some titles were classics; some became classics as a result. The forces of change in the book business are often a surprise.

The tremendous growth rate of ebooks has slowed considerably, and many publishers are sighing in relief to conclude that a large or major part of their business will continue in print—for decades, at least.

Or not. Certain ebook experiments have failed (so far) such as weaving multimedia content into the “book.”Elsewhere, ebooks have been a great success, such as in genre publishing.

At the London Book Fair last spring, eight self-published authors rented a booth. Between them, they’d sold 16 million copies. They were regularly dismissed; one of them, the romance writer Bella Andre, was sufficiently miffed by a publisher’s challenge that she sent him a picture of her bank statement.

In 2012, about 400,000 ISBNs were assigned to self-published books—about a quarter of the total registered. Needless to say, well more than 399,000 did not meet with any such success.

Which points to another issue in the book business: quality. But it is issue slowly being addressed by changes in publishing services, such that a self-published author who cares can find good proof-reading and editing services, as well as help with typesetting, layout, etc.

I’ve seen a lot of self-published fare now, and I will declare that all of the above is necessary.

The sentiment expressed over the centuries—“If everyone writes, who will read?”—might still apply, and now there is little technical barrier to anyone publishing anything. If you can type it up on a computer and get it to Amazon via the Internet, you can publish an ebook.

It’s easy to set up your work for print-on-demand availability through Amazon and other such services. And so many people have.

I am not merely tsk-tsk-ing the whole thing. As the Economist essay expressed in one of its chapter titles: “Chapter III—in which new sorts of author meet new sorts of reader.” The possibilities are being explored as we speak.

From the essay: “There will be new experiments in storytelling, new genres born of the electronic age, and new authors who never would have been discovered in a print-only world.”

At the same time, as Penguin Press editor Scott Moyers said, there is “an imperative now to make the entire physical package itself special.” This is good. I hope it extends beyond high-priced special editions to something like the old Penguin paperbacks that were well-made with lovely paper and ample margins—beautiful things to read.

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