The immediate future of the book is clear. E (electronic) is for easy; P (print) is for posterity. Book readers today are leading double lives. We are faithful to our libraries at home, but stray towards the delights of digital the moment we board a plane, train or automobile.
The pleasures of E means downloading the new book we fancy, from reviews, word-of-mouth or plain curiosity. The satisfactions of P come from acquiring lovely print editions for our bookshelves. In due course, but not quite yet, the world’s writers and their agents will work out how fully to monetise this double market.
One unintended consequence of this irreversible trend has been to give the hardback a new lease of life. If the ebook is all about ease, and short attention spans, the ink and paper book must satisfy not just the thrill of reading, but the deep aesthetic pleasure associated with owning, holding and even scenting a favourite text. Already, there are signs that some publishers have cottoned on to this.
Not since the palmy days of late-Victorian publishing has so much care and attention been lavished on the hardback. Go into any bookshop now and you will find piles of brand-new hardbacks sporting coloured endpapers, scarlet silk bookmarks, heavy, deckle-edged paper and elaborate laminated boards. If Stevenson, Kipling or Conan Doyle were to wander into Waterstone’s today, they would feel quite at home. Selling to high-end readers, admittedly a smaller market, allows the publisher to charge £35, even £40, for the new edition destined for the library shelf…
The e-publisher’s riposte to beautiful books has time and technology on its side. This is also the age of the book app. 2011 was a milestone year in lots of ways (Arab spring, death of Bin Laden, English cricket revival), but never more so than with Faber’s launch of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land as a book app.
Even the most devout print-conscious bibliophile could hardly fail to be impressed by the possibilities of reading, and listening to, this great poem in many different formats, including two recordings by the poet himself. Agreed: this treatment works especially well with a long poem, but Jamie Oliver also understands, and is profiting from, the market for the book app.
In every Darwinian struggle there must be a loser, an injured beast that slinks away into the undergrowth to die, alone and forgotten. Amid the celebrations for the brave new world of E, we should not forget that other kind of P, the trashy, mass market paperback. That’s where the future’s murky, and where the corporate publishers are really worrying.
I agree with most of McCrum’s stance on the relationship between ebooks versus print books, but I would also add that the mass market paperback may be dying in print, but it is certainly surging in the ebook market.