The first written words were chiselled out of stone tablets over 5000 years ago by the early Egyptian civilisation Now, in the twenty-first century AD, a large proportion of the world’s population read on electronic tablets. What’s the future?
On October 11th The Economist published an article: From papyrus to pixels-the digital transformation of the way books are written, published and sold has only just begun.
The article predicts an optimistic future for books, and in particular e-books. It’s lengthy, but well worth a read. A few extracts and a précis of some of it follow.
It starts with a description of the first printed copy of de Officiis (On Duties)–a book written originally in 44BC by Cicero, the great Roman orator, for his son Marcus–in Mainz, Germany, on a printing press owned by Johann Fust, one of the pioneers of early European printing. Cicero probably dictated the original to his freed slave, Tiro, who copied it down on papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn.
‘Fingers stroke vellum: the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper, but richer, almost oily. The black print is crisp, and every Latin sentence starts with a lush red letter. One of the book’s early owners has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to passages worth remembering.’ The Economist
Technology is not detrimental to the book.
‘But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes encased in a dead cow,” as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement of and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one
‘Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which slipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.’ The Economist
Since 2010 a survey of the profit margins of the publishers Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Hachette, George von Holtzbrinck, and Penguin Books has shown they’ve hung in there with their percentage profit margins. Life’s been tough, but none have seen a disastrous decline in margins; some like Harper Collins have seen a modest increase: 8% in 2010 to 13.5% in 2103.
A dramatic increase is forecast in e-book sales in the US, the UK, Japan, Germany, China, and Italy by 2018 (source PricewaterhouseCoopers).
Consumer book sales in the above countries, by format, $bn.
- 2009: Print 39.8. E.book 1.3
- 2018: Print 27.9. E.book 13.7
While sales of print books are forecast to decline by 30%, sales of e-books are forecast to rise by 953% or $12.4 bn., bringing the total number of books sold in all formats to $41.6 bn, half-a-billion dollars more than in 2009, and that’s due to e-books. E-book sales in the US and the UK are forecast to be more than 50% of total book sales in 2014.
Publishers make less money from e-books, and they make nothing from self-published e-books, which account for a large chunk of the e-book market, however e-books can claim credit for slowing down the slide in printed book sales.
Not all e-book readers were once readers of printed books. Many are new readers, motivated to read by the user-friendliness of an electronic device, weighing no more than a thick paperback, and with a capacity to store dozens of books. The decline in print book reading has been happening for some years, well before e-books, as people chose to be entertained by TV and film, rather than poring over a book. There’s no doubt that the improved quality and instant availability of media, the popularity of electronic games, and social media, particularly YouTube, has accelerated the move away from reading for pleasure.
More valid points.
- Printed visual books make better gifts. Some sorts of books, like illustrated cooking, gardening, travel, and home renovation, stubbornly remain in print form.
- Amazon’s dominance of book and e-book sales comes in for a constructive, objective appraisal. Not all is good, there is criticism, but overall Amazon is seen as beneficial. Anthony Horowitz, The British novelist, is quoted as saying about Amazon, ‘I loathe them. I hate them. And I use them all the time.’
- Traditional publishers scouring for the next big thing resort to sites like Wattpad–where self-published authors can upload all or part of their books–to read the comments posted by readers.
- The average earnings of self-published authors in the last twelve months has been around $1180, reckons Mark Coker, the boss of Smashwords, a self-publishing platform.
- ‘Most readers still gravitate to books which have been professionally written, edited, and reviewed.’ The Economist
‘Books will evolve online and off, and the definition of what counts as one will expand: the sense of the book as a fundamental channel of culture, flowing from past to future, will endure. People may no longer try to pass on wisdom to their sons and daughters through slave-written scrolls, as Cicero did in de Officiis, or even in print. It may be that Voltaire was right, and that none of them will ever write anything more wise than that what was set down 2,000 years ago. But it will not be for want of effort, or of opportunity, or of an audience of future readers ready to seek out wisdom in the books they leave behind.’ The Economist
I rest my case. Get writing.
The Harry Fingle Collection–a trilogy. How Harry Fingle, single-handedly, takes on the CIA and MI6.
Harry Fingle is an investigative journalist who takes no prisoners, does no favours, and digs until he exposes the truth. He’s honest, popular, but a danger to some people. When his brother and sister-in-law are murdered and he’s fired for no reason, it’s time to bring those who want him dead to account.
Working on and off with his ex-lover, he realises he’s unearthed a conspiracy so shocking it implicates governments. Harry does what he does best. He charges on, regardless of whom he might upset. But then a ruthless Russian assassin is hired…
The Harry Fingle Collection-trailer
How it all began, an interview with Harry, the guys in his life, and some excerpts from the three books.
The first story.
Giant international corporations hire hitmen. The CIA and MI6 sanction immoral and illegal skulduggery. People die. Harry Fingle–an investigative journalist, searching for his brother’s killer–is appalled, and tries to publish his findings. He’s gagged, an assassin is briefed, and his ex-lover is stabbed.
Harry’s a pawn in a real-life game of chess played out by the security services.
The second story.
The wrong man is murdered in a café in Istanbul. A feared Russian assassin is mortified and vows to right his mistake. Harry Fingle’s lover becomes over-inquisitive, and his spy-friend tells him to watch out.
Tension mounts. The Russians hire a Serbian hitman as a back-up executioner and Harry begins to question his trusted spy-friend’s loyalties.
The final story
Murderers walk free from court, juries are nobbled, spooks leak secrets, police fix investigations, prisoners escape, and the media stay silent. Zero One is dominant. One man controls it.
A lingering love affair, Harry Fingle’s discovery of the name of Zero One’s chief, and the breakout from jail of Harry’s nemesis–the feared Russian assassin Grigoriy Nabutov–make for a tense and emotional conclusion to the trilogy.
Wattpad. Read for free:
Selected chapters from the three books in The Harry Fingle Collection–Playing Harry, Assassination Continuum, and Zero One–plus the The Harry Fingle Collection-trailer in full.
Plus three complete books in the Originals series. A further book will be added each week.