Reading The Future

17th July 2015

Amazon turned 20 on 16 July. In the last two decades it has spearheaded a dramatic change in the way we read, browse and buy. Are we facing a future without libraries and bookstores? Jennifer Lipman investigates...

“The majority of people have decided they don’t want to shop in shops, only on the internet,” explained Stephen Poulter, proprietor of Books@Hoddeson, when I asked about the May closure of his much-loved Hertfordshire bookstore. “Whether they like it or not, the rest of the very large minority won’t have any choice but to do the same.”

It’s a story being repeated across the country, with the bookstores and libraries that were once a High Street fixture toppled from their perch, first by chains, then by online retailers, and latterly by the e-reader market. “Shops are closing around us,” agrees Sheryl Shurville of Chorleywood Bookshop. “We’re a dying breed.”

It’s been 20 years since Amazon kicked off the digital bookselling revolution, and in that time reading – from how we physically turn the pages to where we acquire our books – has been utterly transformed.

Digital, blamed for making bookshops redundant and slicing authors’ earnings, has also revitalised things, making it easier to discover writers and widening options for curling up with a good book. From the environmental benefit of print runs judged by online orders, to the ability to pick up where you left off from Kindle to smartphone, it’s not all bad.

For one, it’s easier for writers to access a global marketplace, or self-publish à la EL James - meaning more choice for us. “It’s become a much more level playing field, and opened up the market to all sorts of niche publications,” says Ruth Ware, a book publicist whose debut novel In A Dark, Dark Wood comes out this summer. “If there’s a market for a book, there’s really no barrier to making it available. That’s marvellous.”

For bookworms, one bonus is the instant downloading of new releases. “If a UK publisher releases an e-book on Monday, then providing the territorial rights have been set-up correctly someone in Australia can buy it the very same day,” points out Helena Markou, a lecturer in Digital Publishing at Oxford Brookes. Equally, reading is an increasingly low-cost hobby, thanks to internet price wars and digital formats costing less than hardbacks. “If you are a heavy book buyer then you are going to benefit.”

The impact of that ease of access – that you can download a book from your sunbed, or buy one from the most remote village – should not be understated, adds Bournemouth University’s Dr Bronwen Thomas. She thinks one-click buying may mean that we see books as ‘just another commodity – something you buy along with household items, clothes, food”. All the better, then, for justifying an impulse book buy.

What’s clear is that the digital revolution has been kinder to books than other art forms. Despite the uptake of e-readers, books haven’t suffered the fate of the audio cassette. “It’s difficult to say whether this is down to the industry response or to different cultural perceptions for TV and music, but if you compare how dominant digital formats in music have been compared to e-books, there is no competition,” says Thomas.

“The book industry has an intrinsic advantage,” adds Ware. “We have a physical product which can be beautiful – and hard to pirate.” Indeed, while many will unashamedly download a film or a song illegally, book piracy remains relatively rare and the legal e-book market is flourishing: worth £275m: by 2013 according to the Publisher’s Association. Formats like downloadable audiobooks are also thriving.

Yet if the industry as a whole is rallying, not everyone is benefiting. With retailers in a race to the bottom on price, authors stand to lose out. Meanwhile, it’s far from enough simply to get published – authors now face a scrum to get noticed by securing the coveted recommendation slots on websites, or building social media followings. “The key word is ‘discoverability,’ says Ware.

For libraries, the picture is gloomy, with public funding cuts hardly helped by the ease and cheapness of purchasing second-hand books online, or the fact that physical encyclopaedias have been outflanked by Google and Wikipedia. Although libraries can lend e-books, there are complex rights issue that make it cumbersome. “You have to physically go to a library in order to borrow an e-book - it’s nonsensical,” says Lauren Smith of campaign group Voices for the Library.

Faced with the digital challenge, some branches are reopening as digital hubs, but many are simply shutting shop, with figures showing that 49 closed in the year to last March. “Everyone loses out,” says Smith, pointing out that while librarians can help find hidden gems for readers, browsing online means choices are dictated by algorithms – leaving less opportunity for ‘serendipitous discovery’.

Campaigners also warn that libraries are used disproportionately by those with the fewest resources, from lonely older people to children seeking a calm homework spot. The Government-commissioned Sieghart report found that usage is higher in underprivileged areas. “25% of people don’t have access to the internet at home,” says Smith.

At the same time – as Poulter knows – independent bookshops are struggling. “They have become places to browse and have a coffee… the purchasing takes place online” sighs Thomas. Physical stores – with rent and staff to pay – are hard pressed to compete.

In order to survive, the pressure is on for bookstores to up their game; to give readers something extra, “whether that’s a signed copy, or just a seductive window display”, says Ware.

“We’ve had to diversify, to offer a service they can’t get online,” says Shurville. “We run as many events as we can – people love meeting authors. And we offer that human touch; people come in for recommendations. Hopefully that’s how we will sustain. But I’m optimistic – it’s an exciting market.”

Yet for many that won’t be enough, and as with libraries, the fear is that something important is being lost. “High street shops and independents play a vital role in breaking out new authors,” says Ware.

For now, digital hasn’t made the format of the book – with its beginning, middle and end – redundant. Could it do so one day? “Particularly in the children’s book market, you can see the impact of digitisation as authors and publishers try to make books more game-like and interactive,” says Thomas. “Books are now more and more just part of the picture with the film, the videogame, the social media account all offering new ways of engaging.”

“One of the most interesting effects of digitisation has been the way it has allowed us to explore the fundamental question – what is a book?” adds Markou. She points out that a digital dictionary is a database, while a picture book becomes an interactive app – “far-removed from the 60,000 words of plain text you read on a Kindle.”

Whether or not books become quite that multifunctional, this isn’t a passing phase. For bookstores and libraries, there is no guaranteed future, although as Smith says, people are unlikely to stop wanting to acquire books, so “it will be to do with how independent businesses are perceived by society and deal with competition”.

Meanwhile, even the biggest Luddites are likely to adapt to e-readers eventually, just as the naysayers did with mobile phones. In any case, the suggestion is that there’s room for both, and we’ll become accustomed to flitting from digital to paper; the former on the go, the latter at home. “I have a colleague who compares books to candles,” says Markou. “They might have been overtaken by lightbulbs in functionality, but we still buy candles as decorative items.”

Ware, who also writes children’s books, says that in her experience, the younger generation still prefers physical copies. “The secret benefit to the advent of e-books has been that realisation of how much we love a beautifully produced physical book, the delight of stumbling over the hidden end-papers, the feel of the embossed cover,” she says. “I don’t think that will ever go away.”

And as she points out, it’s not surprising it’s taking time for the book world to adjust to digital formats or online bookselling. “Arguably the last upheaval as big as the e-book was the invention of the printing press,” she says. “I think we’ve weathered the storm pretty well thus far.”

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