Should it really be a ‘print vs. digital’ war for the future of the book trade? Box Cox-Wrightson muses on the possibilities…
The Digital Future has been written about, and agonised over, ever since the growth of e-readers and the digitisation of content. But calls for something other than paper, ink and glue have been around for longer than you may think. Stephen Fry, a lover of both books and technology, once wrote the following about the printed book:
“Waste of trees, stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative the better. A book is a piece of technology” – Stephen Fry
This was written in 1991 in his first novel, ‘The Liar’. At that time, the closest piece of technology to an e-reader was a Psion PDA.
In fact, in publishing, the ‘digital future’ has been around for quite some time. Since the late Eighties and early Nineties, the growth of desktop publishing meant that the only part of the publishing process that was consistently non-digital was the final output, the printed book.
With the launch of the Kindle in 2007, much has been written about the threats that a digital world poses. But what about the paper future? Can paper and digital survive side-by-side? I think they can.
A Happy Harmony
I buy both printed books and ebooks, and my choice of which to purchase is decided by price, convenience and desirability. If I’m interested in consuming the book as text, and have no interest in the book as an object, I’ll more than likely purchase an e-book. Sometimes I just need to buy the cheapest and most convenient source of information I can get, even if what I’m paying for is more content than book.
So what if I want to treat myself? What if I want to buy a book as a gift? In this case, I’ll take the time to go to a bookshop and browse. Browsing is difficult online, and bricks-and-mortar bookshops have a way of leading you to sections you weren’t planning on visiting, to look at books that you never knew existed.
The ‘gift’ market is an area where the printed book can challenge digital. With e-books replacing cheaply made and cheaply priced paperbacks, the space left in bookshops is slowly being filled with lavishly designed books that warrant a price tag which far exceeds the same title in a digital format. For example, the beautifully designed, hardback Penguin Classics range, illustrated by Coralie Bickford-Smith, have been a great success.
But why is this, when many of the classic titles are also available as e-books for very little money, or for free?
In my opinion, it’s because Penguin has realised that, for some customers, the book as object is just as important as the book’s content, and there remains an audience for both.
So I feel the printed book and the digital book have a future that is complementary, competing side by side, but for different markets. The shape of the digital and printed future will be shaped by the habits of buyers, and the desirability, price and convenience of the product. What will ultimately win is that which serves the customer best.