The End of the Printed Word?

Originally published in Fest magazine, August 2011.

One thing is obvious: change is imminent for everyone involved with the written word. Publishers, for example, will need to re-think their role and tactics: Nicola Solomon, general secretary of the Society of Authors and former copyright lawyer, said in this week’s EIBF even, The Rise of eBooks that “many publishers don’t have a strategy yet.” Fellow speaker Peter Burns, the publisher and, in the words of chair Angus Konstam, “eBook supremo”, agreed, saying that although he doesn’t see the printed book disappearing, publishers’ focus will change: “I can see eBooks replacing paperbacks. Publishers will focus on producing beautiful, special hardback editions.”

For authors, too, it seems that it is not a simple case of their livelihood either disappearing or flourishing. Rather, they face some difficult decisions: digital books make it easier to self-publish, which cuts out issues of low royalty rates or interference from publishers, but also creates problems regarding branding, marketing and indications of quality. “People with a cult following like Neil Gaiman might not need publishers,” Solomon says, “but most people do.”

The low costs of digital books, whilst largely being a positive for readers, is also a concern for authors. Writer Ewan Morrison, speaking in The End of Books?, said, “We need to leave behind the romantic notion of the author in the garret. Books could not work without the economic framework that supports artists, and that economic framework is changing.” Solomon feels similarly, saying, “Books are cheap as they are, they shouldn’t be free. The idea of 99p books just doesn’t work; it will drive people out and drive quality down.”

Even readers, whilst undoubtedly benefiting the most from the new technology, have cause to worry: an audience member in The End of Books? pointed out that there is a risk of us becoming a generation of “dabblers”, never focusing properly on one book because we have so much more available to us—so instantly—should we want it.

The printed book is, however, far from dead just yet. Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead said, “As a literary editor I don’t see a decline in books coming into my office – we still get about 500 a week.”

Whether it deserves to survive is a different matter. She went on to point out that in environmental terms, the rise of the e-reader may well be a good thing, saying “There is an awful lot of rainforest being slaughtered for the production of books.”

The audience in The End of Books? voted by a fairly considerable margin against Ryan’s proposed motion, that the book is dead. It seems, though, that while we won’t see the disappearance of printed works any time soon, there is a growing acceptance of digital of books. On only one issue were the two panels unanimous: the literary world may be changing, but as long as we have readers and writers, everything will be alright.

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