Tue, Jan 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The future of the printed page

The world of publishing stands on the cusp of the greatest innovation since Gutenberg. With cheap, portable electronic readers just around the corner, what is the future of the printed book?

By Robert Mccrum  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Every year at the Booker Prize, there's an odd little ritual in which six 21st century writers come face to face with the art and craft of the book as Chaucer knew it. Before the winner is announced, each writer is presented with a sumptuous, hand-tooled, hardback edition of their novel. Once a reaffirmation of a venerable, but vital, tradition, in years to come this ceremony may seem absurdly quaint. All the signs are that the book as we know it may be going the way of the codex and the illuminated manuscript.

This is paradoxical. Rarely in the UK has the book trade seemed so vigorous. In 1990, 65,000 new titles were published here. Last year, the total had risen to a staggering 161,000, far greater, pro rata, than France, Germany or even the US. Never mind the figures.

The UK's literary microclimate is tropical in its fever and Elizabethan in its profusion. Book festivals from the south coast to Scotland heave with visitors; book clubs and reading groups have become middle England's bingo; book prize news breaks ceaselessly.

And then there's the broadcasters. No genre of contemporary writing escapes the programmers.

If, on this evidence, you were tempted to call this a golden age of publishing, you should first talk to the publishers. To them, the IT revolution cuts both ways. It has inspired a boom, but it also threatens to turn the book world upside down.

"I spend four-fifths of my time worrying about technology," said Richard Charkin, president of the Publishers' Association.

In the near future, Charkin believes that book publishing will be unrecognizable.

The future might already be here. Microchips have transformed the music business (iTunes) and film and TV (DVDs).

"It's only a matter of time before this same type of functionality comes to the book world," said Paul Carr, editor in chief of Web-to-print publishing house the Friday Project.

"The moment someone invents a portable electronic reader that looks [and reads] like paper and that allows books to be downloaded on to it, there will be an explosion of e-books," he said.

When that invention arrives, and from where, is anyone's guess, but companies such as Sony and Philips are striving for the big breakthrough. As Carr points out, "digital time" is faster than "normal time." In 50 years, the industry is likely to experience the equivalent of 1,000 years of technological change. This, from a purist perspective, has already begun. Not since Johannes Gutenberg (German metal worker credited with inventing moveable type in the early 15th century) has technology so transformed the way we receive the written word. Text has already become electronic in so many ways: e-mail, Web sites, blogs, CD-Roms and text messaging.

In India, Macmillan recently launched a scheme with operator Airtel that enables subscribers to download definitions of English words to their mobiles for a fraction of a rupee each. How long will it be before the Oxford English Dictionary promotes a similar scheme to mobile users in the UK?

Almost every IT expert in the world is agreed that the book faces a revolutionary challenge from e-books and e-paper.

"In the next five to 10 years, maybe much sooner, we'll see a decent, ultra-lightweight, portable e-paper device that allows book lovers to download titles straight from the Internet, either legally or illegally," Carr said.

This story has been viewed 5385 times.
TOP top