In the beginning was the Word
The launch of the third-generation Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad in the UK last year sparked a string of stories about the beginning of the end of the publishing industry. ‘I fear for the future of publishing’, wrote Henry Porter in the Guardian. Critics envisioned poor Gutenberg turning in his grave as printing presses around the globe ground to a creaky halt while the digital revolution leered malignantly over the decaying corpse of the publishing industry and the languid death throes of local libraries. Impoverished authors scavenged the streets outside, the inevitable victims of royalties lost as pedestrian copyright laws failed to keep up with the new kid on the block: digital publishing. It seemed the end of the publishing world was nigh (again).
You can’t jump a jet plane the way you can a freight train
In the UK in particular, we can expect things not to move so fast. We still fetishize the printed word and cling on to our books, displaying them on bookshelves long after we have finished reading them. We are a long way off seeing a book as such a disposable commodity as other things we buy for under a tenner. One of the main complaints you hear about e-books is their immateriality – how do you display your e-book purchases or satisfactorily browse them by running your finger over their spines before making a reading decision? It may be that reports of the publishing industry’s death will prove to be greatly exaggerated. We still love the physicality of printed matter with its striking images on front covers, satisfyingly thick spines, and reassuring barcodes and blurbs adorning the back.
Libraries without walls
The e-book, on one level, looked to be the saviour of the libraries in the UK, hit on both sides by diminishing borrowers and threatened budget cuts. Surely ebooks would effectively wave goodbye to problems of tracking a library’s assets through label printing on each stock item, as well as resolve issues such as allowing multiple borrowers to have the same book at once. Furthermore, they would dispense in one fell stroke with the most tiresome thing about a library – the need to actually go there to have books issued and returned. But in the process of easing issues, e-books have created issues of their own.
Recent news stories have claimed that following abuse of some libraries’ e-book lending systems – with China-based readers circumnavigating copyright laws by becoming library members specifically to pirate virtual collections for free – publishers have tried to insist that in their commercial interests e-books should not be downloaded remotely, but borrowed in person at the library. And this, of course, defeats the object of the e-reading concept for a library.
There may be troubles ahead
It certainly is the case that on many levels the publishing industry and library sector will need to adapt and change because of the issues posed by digital publishing and e-readers. There will be copyright implications, and these need careful consideration. Sales confirm, however, that the printed word is far from dead – we still cling to books and will continue to do so for a long time to come. In the meantime, it is the readers, institutions and publishers who work to grasp the challenges and opportunities offered by new forms of publishing who will profit the most.