Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bell, Book and Kindle: Ringing the changes for books

I am a great believer in and/and. When two seemingly opposing ideas appear in the market or a couple of paradoxes seem to conflict your business, I say give room to them both. It’s by embracing paradox that a new third idea may develop that could move us all forward. I’m not talking about convergence here but the process of change. That’s why I took notice of news that Blackwell, a large bookstore chain in the UK, had joined the print-on-demand trend. Blackwell is setting up an operation in 50 of their stores to print books on demand from a selection of over one million titles. They’ve called it the Espresso Book Machine. I love books and printing one at a bookstore has a faddish kind of appeal, but it seems to me to be a solution that side-steps a paradox rather than comes to grips with it. The paradox in its simplest form: paper v digital.

Books are still important icons for people so book sales haven’t gone into a nose dive, but reading time is competing with everything-else time. I’ve always believed that the best way to work out what will happen in the future is not to look at what you think is in front of you, but at what’s happening around you. People loved reading stuff on stone tablets back in the day, but I don’t imagine they all complained that these new-fangled scrolls on papyrus were too light to hold the door open. Same with books. The qualities we love about books might not change (their portability, the feel of the pages), but the people who love them are changing right now. With digital natives under 30 living on their computers and phones, books are under huge pressure. The announcement that half of the top ten selling novels in Japan were written on mobile phones sends one big signal. These stories might be brief, fragmented and episodic, but people want to read them - and often in hard copy too.

At the moment everyone is throwing paper around like it grows on trees and the number of titles published is extraordinary. But I don’t think more can be a sustainable long-term option for the publishing industry. I believe that books will have to become increasingly high quality and beautifully designed, they’ll often be tied to celebrations and events and they will truly deserve the resources and time expended on them. That will leave the functional end of information and reading to be increasingly picked up by digital devices. Andy Murray, who runs Saatchi & Saatchi X, is in love with his Kindle and apparently publishers make as much from a Kindle download as they do from the sale of a book, but that won’t last. Just ask the music industry!

Are books going to die tomorrow? Of course not. When my granddaughter Stella leaves her teens will most of them still be printed on paper? Not a chance.