After my recent rambles on comfort books and moving house, I’d like to post on something a bit more serious today. Something I am both passionate and optimistic about – the future of reading.
I love books. So much I worked in a bookstore for a pittance rather than earn a decent wage when I was in college. It was a small business, staffed and owned by people who also loved books, and the expenses and income tended to be alarmingly close. One morning we got word that another big brand bookstore was opening in the city. Panicking and dismayed, most of the staff prophesied that we would be undercut and unemployed in a month. By the time the manager came in, we had worked ourselves into a frenzy of hair-pulling, chest-beating and despair.
He wasn’t screaming, though. He was smiling. His view? This wasn’t a disaster. This was a chance to , to borrow a poker term, “grow the pot”. The pot was the amount of people who bought and read books in the city, and my boss believed that a big brand presence in the city would raise interest in reading and bookstores generally. The advertising they spent would trickle back to us in people hearing about books. If we continued to concentrate on doing what we did as well as we could, there was a good chance that this development – instead of killing the store – would create more readers in the city, which could only be a good for us.
Over-optimistic? We thought so, but he was right. We stayed the course and the shop didn’t close – the pot grew. Now, reading about the upcoming release of the iPad and discussion of electronic publishing, I am reminded of that confused morning in the store. While people alternate between hailing e-books and the iPad as our saviour from tyranny of paper or the death knell of literature, but seeing the market for e-publishing and paper publishing as a static and self-cannibalising sphere, to me, is not the best way of looking at it.
Are we really looking at the death of books? Or are we looking at a profound shift in the way publishing works, and a bigger pot overall? Nielson Book, which collects and aggregates English language book data from publishers in 70 countries, is cautiously positive. Despite the rumblings of a possible recession in 2009, the number of books sold in Australia grew by 5.8%. The number of new books published in the UK in 2009 was the highest within the last 15 years. According to Nielson Book, the increases “can be accounted for in part by growth in print-on-demand (POD) and digital product, which we expect to continue to increase in the future.”
And across the pond, according to the Association of American Publishers (AAP) total book sales in the United States, in 2009 book sales fell 1.8%; but e-book sales rose by 176.6%. Overall, book sales have been steadily climbing since 2003. Books are (to most people, booklovers like me aside) a discretionary purchase; apparently you don’t need them. So, in a year in America where payrolls fell 6% and unemployment doubled, book sales did pretty well. The pot may be splitting, but it’s also getting bigger.
I’m not going to go into the in’s and out’s of the iPad and e-publishing in depth. That’s already covered by Joel over on The Smell of Books, who discusses the various issues with a depth of knowledge that I don’t have (honestly, my main technical concern with the Kindles, iPad etc is “will they fit in my handbag?”). But, technical issues aside (if it does fit in my handbag, can I get one that matches my handbag?), I’m looking forward to the future of books. I’m hoping that e-publishing will mean not just a bigger pot, but a more diverse and easily accessible one.
And a whole new load of people to share my love of books with.