The Printed Book

In March at this year’s SYP 101 conference, Jenny Brown gave the opening remarks and discussed themes and trends occurring in the publishing industry. One theme was the rise in printed book sales. Brown pointed out that Waterstones made the first profit this year since the 2008 financial crash. There has also been a decrease in ebook sales which has resulted in bookshops like Waterstones removing e-readers from most of its stores.

But why?

There are two popular theories regarding the price of ebooks and the general physical medium coming into vogue.

Take a stroll through Amazon and you’ll see a surprising amount of ebooks being higher or similar in price to a printed book. For example, at the time of writing this Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is priced at £6.29 for the paperback version and £8.99 for the Kindle edition. Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye Things: On Minimalist Living is £6.99 for the paperback version and £6.49 for the Kindle version. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is £3.85 for the paperback but £5.99 for the Kindle. Even if an ebook version is a little cheaper people still prefer a printed version as they feel the difference in price isn’t large enough to outweigh the benefits of owning a physical book. Another reason is that to read an ebook you have to own a device to read it on, keep it up to date and charge it. Whereas a printed book can be read anywhere, for as long as you like and keep in your bookshelf until the end of your days. There is also a concern that ebook technology will become outdated and all files could become inaccessible.

The second theory is the rise in the physical medium. In the last five years there has been an increase in Polaroid, camera film, record player and vinyl sales. These are all mediums which have modern digital alternatives, but people have become fascinated with the more ‘vintage’ and ‘real’ options. As printed book sales increased so did vinyl sales, and 2016 saw the highest vinyl sales in 25 years. As we are saturated with digital media, people crave the singularity and simplicity of a device made for one purpose. This suggests a future not dissimilar to the one portrayed in the 2013 film Her, directed by Spike Jonze. Her is set in the not too distant future; a world where the 1950s and 2050s have somehow come together to create a tactile high tech land. Theodore, the main protagonist, has a job at a bespoke letter writing company that specialises in writing and sending physical love letters to people for any occasion. In this world paper seems to be a rarity and so unused that being given a physical letter is not just a nice surprise or gesture like it is today, but a beautiful precious rare object.

Another interesting conversation is the immediate future of the printed book and its rise in popularity. Will is stay? Will it go? Will it become something else entirely? At this year’s London Book Fair, I attended a talk discussing Graphic Novels: The Last 10 Years and the Next. When discussing the next ten years of the industry it was suggested that the printed graphic novel would remain the primary medium and digital mediums would be used to accompany the printed versions. For example, a graphic novel could be packaged with interviews with artists and writers, as well as preliminary sketches and character development. Could this be the norm for the future of publishing as a whole? Could the printed book come with a code or link to a file for you to download the accompanying content? Or will there be a special box delivered to your house containing beautifully packaged extra content goodies? Of course, there are already books which provide extra content in a similar way, but the question is could this be a standard requirement for every book to have some sort of added insight into the writing, design and publishing process? Something that goes beyond stalking a Twitter or Facebook feed, something that only a reader has access to. Will social media campaigns be enough to engage the reader in the future?

For the moment, sitting at home listening to some vinyl with a French pressed coffee with a good printed book in hand (and an iPhone close by), is a good time. Which, honestly, is fine by me. However, I’m excited to see what the future brings and how the relationship between the publisher and the reader evolves.

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