Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Digital - the new garlic bread?

It's an old joke, 'Garlic bread - it's the future.'

At the London Book Fair I sat through two seminars on the future of publishing. First one was a prediction for 2020 (=digital) and the second a discussion on what's free in the new digital age and where the money is going to be made.

Everyone agreed with the speakers of the first talk that digital is where we are heading (and fast), but where the large publishing houses thought they could make the money was unclear. As an aspiring novelist, I was scared to see people who'd been in the industry for decades looking at best confused and at worst defensive. It was clear that the members of the panel didn't know - or wouldn't say - what they intended to do about the digital revolution, how they plan to make money for authors or themselves, or how they would even survive. A question from the floor, 'Are publishers going to be needed in the future' was left largely unanswered. Another comment from the audience was, 'No-one has mentioned book sellers?' The answer to that was a dry, 'No.'

On Saturday there was an article in The Telegraph titled, 'Is the writing on the wall for books?' I started reading with great anticipation but soon realised it was merely a promotional piece for various e-books on the market and on how to get free downloads. It did have one piece of good news for old-fashioned books. Apparently they are a hard act to follow.

"The book is an exemplary example (sic) of good design, being robust enough to survive spilt cups of coffee, sun cream and sand, or being buried at the bottom of the briefcase or handbag, yet always ready for use."

The LBF panel of publishers cited examples from other industries struggling to adapt to the digital age: Newspapers give away issues, music artists make their money from performances (not cd's or downloads), in the TV and film industry piracy is a business model.

It occurred to me that books have other good features:

1. Books are generally only read once. It's not necessary to store them in the similar way as music or film on an ipod to be listened or watched over and over again by the same person.

2. Books are not current. They last forever, whereas yesterdays' newspaper is today's recycling (or should be).

3. Books are tactile - even paperbacks. They can be shown off on shelves and stroked.

I don't think it's wise to stare blindly at the horror stories from other related industries of moving to the digital age without considering the very unique aspects of the book. Surely the book as a form of communication is older and wiser than the rest of the field?

And no, I've never liked garlic bread much.


The Dotterel said...

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. After all, the Jews had done pretty well with papyrus scrolls until the early Christians patented to codex. What troubles me is the antiquated nature of publishing and book-selling, based on woefully outdated models. Things are changing fast, and publishing will have to respond or die. But I agree, books are probably forever.

Helena Halme said...

I completely agree that the book industry is antiquated. Writers have up to now been bottom of the pile. But if books don't survive, where's the money going to come from? I at least need to be paid for my toil.