Advocates of the book - stand up

by Angus Phillips

The future is bright: the future is global. If the printing press enabled scalability - one book can reach many different readers - then digital means that the book is even more scalable in that demand can be satisfied straight away almost anywhere in the world. This is a tremendous opportunity for books and knowledge to spread in new ways, across new networks. A reader the other side of the world no longer has to wait for a book to be printed and distributed, or translated. They can download the book on first publication and have immediate access. Readers in those countries without a developed infrastructure for the distribution of physical books can access content directly.

The impact of digital on the world of book publishing is like the tide coming in, up a beach.  There are islands of sand which remain unaffected, but gradually the water washes into every area. There are parts of the world where print remains the dominant medium but as the internet and mobile technology spread ever further, the water continues to rise. It may be construction workers reading on mobile phones in China, children learning on tablet computers in Turkey, or commuters using their dedicated ereaders on the Metro in Moscow.

Now that three-quarters of the world’s population has access to a mobile phone, the opportunities to produce content for a world market are larger than ever before. Around a quarter of mobile devices are used to access the internet, and the developing world has followed a different path to the developed world with what is called the ‘mobile first’ trajectory of communications. Users will often have a cell phone before they have computer access; and these countries have pioneered micro-payments using mobile phones. Low-priced tablets, in all markets, are set to revolutionize access to the internet and a range of content including ebooks. In a region such as the Arab world, where the distribution network for physical books is poor, ebooks can reach all parts of the market. In Brazil there are fewer than 1,000 bookstores for a population of nearly 200 m people, and there are large parts of the north of the country with little access to physical books.

Across the world from the USA to India and China there is a strong desire amongst young people to write fiction for their own generation. Books can be cool to new generations of readers, alongside movies and the latest fashion trend. The growth of global culture, in particular in the youth market, offers opportunities for books to join other media in having blockbuster potential. Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that the success of movies and other cultural products depends on contagions. ‘It is hard for us to accept that people do not fall in love with works of art only for their own sake, but also in order to feel that they belong to a community. By imitating, we get closer to others – that is, other imitators.’  New devices and platforms encourage the convergence of media, which helps books to merge with other media in the mind of the consumer. A good example of this is the phenomenal success of the Hunger Games franchise.

The book is evolving in the digital environment, and experimentation is taking place. The book in digital form can become larger or smaller, faster to market, expand its horizons to encompass multimedia, or content itself with linear text which stimulates thought and imagination.  Books no longer need be square, rectangular, with boundaries; they can be any format or length, free of the restrictions imposed by print. Already we can see a return to shorter forms of writing, such as short stories and novellas, and serialized fiction which responds almost in real time to the market. In China there are 100m active users of one mobile reading platform, paying for whole books or by the chapter; and over 200m people reading across mobile and literature websites. Authors writing what are essentially entertainments for a mass audience can gain immediate feedback on their characters and plots; new chapters may be written daily and posted both online and to the mobile audience.

Perhaps to the surprise of some doomsayers, the book is still with us, and what is striking is how text remains meaningful in a highly visual world. With the decline in investment in print journalism, there are fresh opportunities for the book to help explain what is happening in society.  A significant element in the creation of the semantic web, the next generation of the web, is trust - how then will machines determine the most trustworthy and reliable sources of information? One of the reasons why Google wanted book content in their databases was that they saw the value of this high-quality information - considered, well-structured and edited content will still be valuable in the future.

Optimism has to be tempered by realism about the place of the book in the world. Ultimately the future of the book is driven by user behaviour amongst book consumers and readers. The evidence on IQ suggests that our vocabulary is more developed now, not as a result of leisure reading but from the complexity of the working world. Research on reading suggests that pupils do better at academic work if they also read for pleasure, but there are other forms of reading which have become important, mainly on the web. Reading of books has diminished faced with competition from other media, and the book has had to step aside, downgraded from prominence. Taking the book on to mobile devices opens up the possibility of whole new readerships, but it also makes the book compete directly with the web, social media, games, videos, and a host of other content.

If we still believe that books should remain important in our society, then the most powerful driver is the impact of a generation of readers. The advocates of the book need to stand up and be counted, and ensure that it holds a prominent place in our world. Parents reading to their children, books being around in the home, investment in books in schools and libraries, reading groups, literacy programmes, city read initiatives - they all work towards creating the next generation of readers, and writers. There lies the future of the book.

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About the author of this article

Angus Phillips is author of Turning the Page: The evolution of the book, Routledge, 2014.

Edited by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 01 Apr 2014 around 11am

Last edited: 01 04 2014