Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ramblings on the future of books

Sony e-reader - the UK's first mainstream e-reader, launched 2008

Last week my book was promoted as a free download for Kindle - as a consequence, it rose quickly up the Amazon rankings and many new people will now get to see my work. I'm delighted; I don't write for the royalties - the more who read Counting Steps the better.

The same can't be said for small booksellers who fear the growth of digital e-readers, regarding them as the final nail in their coffin. UK book sales were down 6% last year (in part due to price reductions), but the headline masks deeper issues. Every year the Internet takes more market share, and it is this shift, more than Kindle or Kobo which is undermining independent bookstores.

A major attraction is price - Amazon sells books at a rate which booksellers can't hope to match. But more than this, Internet retailers are convenient: 24-hour access, unlimited catalogues, free and speedy delivery...  Downloads, of course, are immediate - no need even to wait for the postman.

Technology has also transformed international availability. For every one of us who takes a bestseller on holiday, there are thousands more living abroad benefitting from access to English language titles that was once inconceivable. Before we rant at the evils of digitisation we might pause a moment for the positive impact on millions in the developing world - they seldom, by the way, download bestsellers. (Their determination to self improve is an inspiring topic in itself)

For all this, we still have an attachment to bookstores - and libraries for that matter. There's a special pleasure in the process of browsing; knowledgeable staff can be a boon, and there remains something to be said for the physical experience of holding a book, flicking its pages, feeling the weight... Interestingly, children's books have fared relatively well in traditional stores.

By any standard, the Charlton's are heavy book buyers - over 100 a year.  Being candid I purchase the vast majority online; second choice, the local bookstore; third the Kindle (my original Sony e-reader is now virtually ancient technology); and very occasionally, the library which is increasingly depressing to visit. So I suppose we support all types - even the local car-boot!

On a lighter note, I smile at the marketeers' need to define these new formats. There's a rather ugly tendency in the media to talk of 'hard copy and digital content'. Amazon more elegantly refers to Print and Kindle books - but is silent on the existence of competitors. I've even seen reference to 'bound books', 'traditional format' and my favourite - 'physical books' - as opposed to metaphysical ones? 

Quite what's wrong with 'books', I don't know.


  1. As befits a retired librarian I borrow far more books than I buy. Our local library is very far from depressing and has a superbly fast request system. In addition I now have a Nook e-reader so that I can borrow books from the library when I can't actually get there. :-) The books I do buy are all ones I know I will reread and want on my shelves for others to enjoy too. Atypical perhaps, but it works for me.

  2. There is a shortage of english language books in Costa Rica, and the American owned shops that offer secondhand material charge exorbotant prices, so i have two alternatives.
    I can download to my PC from Amazon....or I can order secondhand books from Better World Books U.K. where the orders made go to supporting literacy and book availabiltity campaigns.
    I prefer the latter.

    You are right that digitalisation has opened doors to people previously without access to the means to improve their education and life chances....but that seems to be an unexpected by product of the amazon wish to rule the book world.

  3. Proper books for me please, no gadgets, just pages to turn and paper to smell. Covers to enjoy and colourful spines to line my shelves and make my house a home.

  4. I've been pondering this ever since we discussed how ebooks has meant wider accessibility for impaired vision and disabled readers. I wonder if we're experiencing a similar shift to when the printing press was invented. That broke the printed word monopoly of the rich and the church. I wonder if they rued the decline of the illuminated manuscript as we are with the look, feel and smell of books?

  5. I buy both real and virtual books and have been known to buy an edition of each for much loved volumes. All's good as far as I'm concerned and I'm happy to support both mediums.