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Ben Williams Collects Five Quotes to Sum Up The Future of The Book

#STBooks: Reports of its Death are Exaggerated

by Ben Williams for The Sunday Times

This week, I gave a talk at the South African Book Fair on that vexed and vexing subject, The Future of the Book. The following five quotes encapsulate, to some extent, my thinking on our dog-eared old friend.

America AgainBurning the PageUnix Power ToolsShatzkin Files

“I didn’t buy it on Amazon.” – Stephen Colbert. The comedian launched an anti-Amazon campaign after the e-tailer put the squeeze on his publisher during contract negotiations, making it difficult for fans to buy his book. Amazon’s battles with publishers settle the question of the future of the book in the short term, at least: books are a precious commodity worth billions, to blame for business feuds galore. As long as book-treasure is lusted after on this scale, we can rest assured books remain in good health. (Don’t forget about Books LIVE’s Book Finder, which searches Kalahari, Exclusives, Loot and Takealot for the best prices.)

“In the space of one generation, [new] print books will be as rare as vinyl LPs. You’ll still be able to find them in artsy hipster stores, but that’s about it.” – Jason Merkoski, author of Burning the Page: The eBook Revolution and the Future of Reading. Merkoski’s opinion, which is not just melodramatic, but probably also wrong, nevertheless speaks to the future of the place where we buy our books. Many bookshops have gone the way of pharmacies, selling in categories far distant from their core products. Although there’s lately been a movement back to the book in these shops, don’t expect to find, in the cookery section for example, that the cookbooks have entirely reclaimed all the shelf space they lost to encroaching high-end kitchen utensils. Bookshops as hip arts and crafts stores? There’s every chance.

“The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” – Tim O’Reilly. O’Reilly, who made his fortune publishing software manuals, may be the dandruffiest flake in books – full of soundbites and fury – but like a stopped clock even he occasionally knows the time. And the time is one for changes to copyright. Players in grassroots publishing – self-published authors, indie imprints, literary hackers, etc. – will create new business models to exploit the systems of piracy that threaten mainstream creators of books.

“Where are the apps?” – Everyone at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. We’ve been breathless for years, waiting for the smartphone and tablet apps that will change books – the vogue term is ‘disrupt’ – and we’re still waiting. Instead, the best book apps revolve around nothing more innovative than ebooks, which merely represent new containers for information, rather than new forms. As long as there are no viable new forms, the old containers won’t be going anywhere.

“Soon … every university, every law firm and accounting firm … certainly every content creator in other media … will become book publishers.” – Mike Shatzkin, whose blog is one of the most astute on the book business. As traditional publishers concentrate on pushing their frontlist titles, squeezing their midlists and regurgitating their backlists, expect more non-publishers to recognise that it’s easier and cheaper than ever to make and sell books – and hence to do just that. Including your very own Sunday Times, which has begun publishing nonfiction books on subjects that complement our hundred-year-old archive. (Watch out for our book on World War One, due out soon.)

This, then, makes for a fairly simple, and reassuring, equation when it comes to the future of books: More publishers, more books.

Follow Ben on Twitter @benrwms – the hashtag is #STBooks

Image courtesy of My Written Romance

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Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 17th, 2014 @17:29 #

    I've also got a presentation on the subject -

    - that one day soon will be augmented with notes :)

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    June 19th, 2014 @09:41 #

    "but like a stopped clock" hey? I see what you did there.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    June 19th, 2014 @10:46 #

    The best quotes are Ben's own: "full of soundbytes and fury" is my personal fave.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kelwyn Sole</a>
    Kelwyn Sole
    June 19th, 2014 @12:58 #

    Ahem. Anyone noticed that vinyl is making a comeback?

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 19th, 2014 @13:42 #

    @Rustum: I wanted to use another word, a la Withnail, but it wasn't on.

    @Helene: Required reading on O'Reilly:

  • Kepner
    June 19th, 2014 @20:08 #

    @Ben Thank you for adding some excellent context to the multiple commentaries about the prognosis for our "dog-eared friend".

    And another thanks for posting the link to the O'Reilly article. A long read, but well worth it.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    June 20th, 2014 @08:41 #

    Thanks, Kepner. Yes, the O'Reilly article is a bit of an epic, but also quite rewarding.

    @Kelwyn - agree that vinyl is making a comeback, but only in a limited, specialised/artisanal way, whereas before it was the default format, which then went extinct. Books never went extinct, and remain the default format. I don't see them dying out like vinyl did at one point.


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