We’ve probably all heard the arguments about whether, in the future, books will be replaced by devices such as the Sony Reader, the Kindle and other digital formats. But perhaps we’re looking at this in the wrong way. Perhaps what we should be focusing on is how our reading habits our changing and how publishers need to adapt.
I will never stop buying books. Never. As long as they print them I’ll buy them. Nothing can beat browsing a book shop on a Saturday afternoon and going home with an armful of books to read. However, as soon as the Kindle hits UK shores I’ll be one of the first in the queue. I don’t think it will replace books. If anything, it could have a positive effect on book sales.
In an article in the US version of Wired (June 09, ‘The Future of Reading’, p 50) Clive Thompson writes, ‘To save books, publishers must go digital – and let audiences unlock the potential of the written word.’ It’s understandable that publishers are reluctant to release their books in a digital format, where content can be copied and shared for free. But Thompson argues that if you get the model right then it could boost book sales rather than decreasing them.
When a news story goes online, readers can immediately begin commenting and share the link via email, text, Facebook and Twitter etc. We can even take snippets to refer to and discuss. This is much harder with books as they mainly exist as a hard copy format. This sharing of and commenting on books isn’t really a new concept. We’ve been annotating and discussing books for years. Microsoft researcher Cathy Marshall found that many university students scour second hand books before buying them, to acquire the best annotations. Well, imagine if you could do this easily online. You could look up a specific chapter or paragraph and as well as accessing the book, you could access other people’s annotations and discussions. Thompson notes that ‘book nerds’ are already working on a XML-like markup language that would allow for this kind of linking.
But what about the authors? What about the publishers? Well again this comes down to how we read. I often read by author. I find a book that I really like and then read other titles by that same writer. But what I really like is recommendations. My husband buys books for me for birthdays and Christmas and they’re always my favourite gifts. I love to find out what he’s chosen for me. If a friend comments on a book and says how good it is, it’s likely that I’ll look it up. The same is true of ‘virtual friends’. If someone on Twitter (not just anyone, I might add, but someone whose opinion I trust and whose interests are similar to mine) tweets about a book they’ve just read and enjoyed, especially if there’s a link, I’ll check it out. In fact Thompson notes that for the few authors (most of them sci-fi writers) that have given away digital copies of their books, their book sales have increased as a result. Why? Because the books have been discovered by more people.
Reading for me is a solitary activity and one of the few times that I don’t have to engage with other people. I don’t want to change that. But wouldn’t it be great if I could share my thoughts and views, in the ways suggested above, with other like-minded people?
In the Guardian this week, Chris Power wrote about The Book Seer website. It’s very simple. You type in the last book you’ve read and the writer and The Book Seer will make a number of recommendations for you. Results are pulled through from Amazon and Library Thing. I had a go myself and the results are quite surprising. I typed in ‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters, which I’m still reading (and enjoying very much by the way). It only returned one other Sarah Waters novel, ‘The Night Watch’ which is set a few years earlier than The Little Stranger. The others were all different. One of the results was ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House’ by Kate Summerscale, which is already on my book list. The Book Seer is just a bit of fun but it illustrates my point. If as research suggests, the future of digital is in creating relationships and trust, then traditional publishers could be missing a trick.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Stephen Fry, via Twitter. It’s his response to the Kindle replacing books.
‘This is the point. One technology doesn’t replace another, it complements. Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators’. (Stephen Fry, Twitter, 11 March 2009)