British Fiction Focus

Are Physical Books Back After “A Bad Attack of Technodazzle”?

The book hasn’t had an easy time of it recently. Here, there and everywhere, headlines have alleged that the death of traditional print publishing is inevitable, and to date, these doom-laden declarations have been borne out by sales data that does indeed demonstrate a decline in the appetites of physical book buyers. But last week, a study by the Publishers Association revealed something surprising: that “sales of print books are rising, while digital sales are down for the first time since the invention of the e-reader.”

A couple of (clearly quite excitable) commentators have taken this to mean that “peak digital” is in the past—that the industry simply “suffered a bad attack of technodazzle” as ebook sales skyrocketed and the trade in printed editions fell commensurately.

Would that the fact of the matter was as straightforward as The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins thinks it is:

The book was declared dead with the coming of radio. The hardback was dead with the coming of paperbacks. Print-on-paper was buried fathoms deep by the great god, digital. It was rubbish, all rubbish. Like other aids to reading, such as rotary presses, Linotyping and computer-setting, digital had brought innovation to the dissemination of knowledge and delight. But it was a means, not an end.

The truth is that digital readers were never remotely in the same ballpark. […] Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen.

On his own blog, Damien Walter—he of the Weird Things—took Jenkins’ various claims to task:

If it’s fair to say that the more wishful the thinking, the less evidence it requires for celebration, then Jenkin’s thinking is the most wishful of all, as he presents hardly any evidence at all, and badly misinterprets the few data points he invokes.

A 5% rise in Waterstones’ print book sales is good news. It’s driven by colouring books sadly, a temporary hobby fad. Even with that temporary boost, Waterstones isn’t profitable. [And] the news that Waterstones has stopped selling Kindles is singularly irrelevant. If they stop selling Moleskines will that indicate the death of writing?

Jenkins killer “fact” is a fall in “digital content” sales of a few % points. Jenkins doesn’t mention that this is the same period [some] publishers jacked up the price of ebooks in an act of near criminal sabotage against their own authors.

Nor does he take into account the failure of the Publishers Association to account for the innumerable independent imprints and self-published success stories that have seen their ebook sales continue to climb.

So… what? It’s all a wash?

Well, no—it’s not that either. If anything it’s good news, because the report also found that “overall sales in the UK publishing industry sales were up to £4.4bn in 2015, a small rise from £4.3bn in 2014,” and that’s not even to speak of the remarkable growth of audiobooks, downloads of which increased almost 30% in that same period.

For my part, I find myself in agreement with the managing director of Penguin General Books, Joanna Prior, whose conclusions, though lacking drama, do paint a positive picture for the industry going forward:

Both the increase and decrease are too small […] for us to make any claims for big shifts in consumer behaviour or make predictions for what lies ahead. But I do think that any suggestion that the physical book is doomed can now definitively be refuted as we trade less neurotically in a more stable, multi-format world.

Could she mean that there’s a place for everyone at the party? That digital and physical editions can simply… co-exist?

Who’d have thunk it!

Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative ScotsmanStrange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.

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