The future of the book (#1)

11 December 2008

It is a bad idea to run a night-time seminar for PhD students on ‘Getting Published’ if you haven’t had your dinner. Come to think about it, no matter what its subject is, running such a meeting without food and not finishing until after 10 p.m. just isn’t smart.

Well, that’s my excuse for my negative attitude at a session that I ran in Norway recently.

With me at the seminar was a librarian who shared her vision of the future. Where once her library had shelves and shelves of journals, now almost everything is online. Half the shelving has disappeared. The rest is used to hold various newsletters that probably no one looks at and the few journals still determinedly holding out against the digital future.

The monograph collection is next. Within five years, she announced, 80% of her library’s book acquisitions would be e-books. The printed book has a limited future.

What my librarian colleague said might be true, but it certainly wasn’t what the students had come to hear. Nor did I help by weighing in and pointing out (again truthfully) that the business of academic publishing isn’t thriving and maybe a book was not the appropriate form for the material they were gathering and presenting in their thesis. Perhaps they should rework their theses into articles or create an online resource or …

In short, I forgot an essential requirement of being a book publisher: being positive. Sorry.

So is it only doom and gloom?

The global economic recession is starting to bite. Someone I was talking to the other day works for a company selling specialist equipment to businesses around the globe. He glumly revealed an 80% drop in sales. British high-street booksellers are praying for a Christmas lift in their sales but so far the talk is of a 5–10% fall in sales since this time last year.

On the other hand, academic sales seem to be holding up for now. For instance, earlier this week, Wiley (which is a significant academic publisher but probably is more known for its books for accountants, lawyers, architects and the other professions) announced a modest increase in sales compared with last year. It was indeed academic and educational books that kept Wiley in the black, whereas professional and trade (general public) sales plunged 12%. For what it’s worth, this is substantiated by my daughter; she recently started university and complains about the number of books they are supposed to purchase – and the prices.

Elsewhere, not many weeks ago, the general publisher Bloomsbury acquired the respected Oxford academic press, Berg, and via this platform is launching an academic list whose titles will all be free to view and download. Bloomsbury are gambling that sales of printed copies will hold up or even increase because the free digital copies will help promote these sales. We shall see. The publisher wryly notes, ‘If I’m right, we’ll be profitable. If I’m wrong, I’ll get kicked out’.

A contradictory vision of the future

There are other bright spots on the generally bleak academic skyline, too, but let’s not dwell on this matter any longer, at least not for now. Rather, it is worth exploring the contradictory situation of the book and its future. Here are some of the issues:

  • If Wiley are making money in academic publishing, what kind of material is this and in what format is it published?
  • Bloomsbury is not the only academic publisher offering free content. What exactly is this approach, how does this work, and what does it mean for authors?
  • Amazon.com says it’s selling a lot of e-books for use on its Kindle e-reader, which apparently is now sold out (several weeks before Christmas). No more stock will be available until the Kindle 2 is launched in February. Meantime, over on Apple’s iPhone, downloads of the Stanza e-book application have vastly exceeded Kindle sales and tens of thousands of new titles are being added every few weeks. Has the e-book revolution finally taken off?
  • The Book Expresso machine is slowly spreading across the globe. Recently, the first such ‘ATM for books’ to be installed in an actual bookshop went live in Australia. What future has the modern-day bookshop? Will it end up as a book kiosk and coffee shop?

Certainly, for authors the future need not be bleak, even if the book seems to be evolving into many different formats. In short, I had no excuse to be so negative. And maybe I should have put the perspective of my librarian colleague in a broader (more positive) publishing perspective. I’ll have to think about doing that more in future.

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