Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Back to the Future

I see today there are lots of posts on lots of blogs, all from people who went to BEA (BookExpo America) last week and are now buzzing about digital books and How They're Taking Over And We Can't Stop It, and How It's The End of Books.

OK, so I'll say it here. Just a small comment, but I'll say it.

Think of people buying books. It's a money-making opportunity. So you write a book, and you go find a printer and get it printed up, and then you go to some place where people will hear your voice, and you try to sell it. Or maybe you know how to do the printing yourself, so you go out and find books to print and you print them and then you go to some place where people will hear your voice, and you try to sell them.

Everybody's their own entrepreneur. One person can write a book and sell it - and thousands more will try it and fail but that's not the point. The point is that the industry - and the money - is in the hands of the little guy.

Does that sound like the current state of digital publishing?

That's odd, because it's a description of the state of book publishing 350 years ago. Back then, your book was printed by cold type on a handpress, either by you or by some guy who lived down the alley, and you might be hawking your book on the village green, but you had the power to publish your own books, and to price and sell them. Over time, little publishers arose and became big publishers, and a giant industry arose around the process of printing and publishing - one in which the writer and the printer were fairly small cogs in the process. Publishers made money through volume, and volume arose through cheap printing which came via machine-made paper and then huge offset printers and dozens of other money-saving advances, and with each one the amount of capital expense needed to publish a book rose until the little guy pretty much couldn't handle it.

Now, thanks to digital publishing, we're right back where we were in the 17th century. Anybody can publish a book, but they're hawking them on the Internet rather than on the street.

I'm not saying digipub isn't a bad thing for some people. There's a loss of professionalism and a loss of knowledge and lots of books that won't get through to as many people because they don't find out about them when the bookstores aren't there to put them on their shelves. I'm not saying the industry isn't changing - I'm just saying I don't think it'll be the end, and I don't think it's necessarily a disaster.

Last week I had an interview in which I tried to explain being a bookbinder. Knowing that in the average population most people don't really understand bookbinding, I took along four books I had bound - a full goat, an historical full calf, a buckram and one bound in velvet. I slapped them into the interviewer's hand and bid her hold them and turn the pages. She wanted to keep on holding them. Once I figure out how to get more people to experience well-bound books again, I think people will be clamouring to have their books rebound.

No comments:

Post a Comment