E. Mark Windle 8 August 2023
Almost twenty years ago, a book revolution was on the horizon. The advent of Sony e-reading devices in 2006 and the more commercially impactful Amazon Kindle the following year provided a new option for accessing literature. For the consumer, the convenience of having your new or favourite reads delivered cheaply and directly to your inbox and the ease of carrying multiple books on the run seemed to make complete sense. From the publishers’ perspective, a bolt-on marketable option was now available. A certain demographic less concerned with the physicality of their reading material could be reeled in. Digital book technology even made it easier for writers and the industry to create, update, republish and sell their books with minimum effort. It’s no coincidence that the timescale of the self-publishing boom matches that of milestone developments in e-book production.
But then there’s the reality. After nearly two decades of the concept being around, e-books are not quite the success story of the millennium. Physical books have been around for thousands of years ever since Egyptian papyrus scrolls were a thing. In subsequent centuries, religion provided a lot of the drive, particularly with the development of Islamic and Christian texts where illustrative elements provided extra aesthetic beauty. We’ve come a long way since the days of working with Sumerian slate, or scribing on the walls of caves, but our love affair of the printed book persists to this day.
On the surface, the reason why some people prefer physical books over digital formats are obvious, and not just because they are tangible, tactile objects. Ownership also implies representation. The titles that sit on our bookshelves are an indirect but collective statement of who we are, or at least who we would like to be. And, at a basic level, there will always be a technologically less able section of society who are keen readers but unwilling or unequipped to embrace the idea of an e-book. There is a flipside though. As we continue to squander the world’s natural resources, the price of paper and printing has risen by more than 20% this year and shows no sign of slowing. Logistical issues are also making printed book accessibility prohibitive – international freight transport and domestic distribution not only add to the carbon footprint, there are also implications for import taxes, spiralling postage costs and customs charges. Unhealthy international relations, like the UK’s bizarre decision to leave the EU, only exacerbate these effects. Small independent booksellers are squeezed out of the market, and even longstanding traditional publishing houses are feeling the pinch.
So could, or should, digital books be the answer? Well, apart from the obvious advantage of convenience, the innovation has had a major side effect of stimulating self-publication activity. This is a creatively important one, even if (unsurprisingly) it’s not embraced by traditional publishing houses. Some perceive the use of self-publishing platforms as bypassing quality control and the publisher power of veto. A moot point really. Self-publishing writers can and do independently access professional beta reading and editing services. Others argue it provides more freedom for writers to explore important but niche themes, which if pitched to a publisher would never have had a look-in due to a lack of marketability. Another e-book positive is that they could serve society through addressing some concerns of ecosystem and climate change, though paradoxically the electronics industry creates other issues in that regard.
The market introduction of e-books was hardly a damp squib, but the truth is that the honeymoon period is over. Of course, there will always be some consumers who are drawn to the electronic format. In 2020, 191 million e-books were sold worldwide. But that’s a fifth of the peak figure six years earlier, and recent number crunching by Statista Advertising and Media Outlook indicates that overall e-books sales continue to drag way behind that of the printed book. The US ranks high in the top digital book reading nations, yet their annual printed book sales are still twice that of e-books.
Perhaps rather than being bluntly decisive about the way forward for presenting narratives, we should make room for both formats. We’re also being told there’s a third option. While writers, publishers, content mills and book manufacturers tussle with the use, abuse and rate of progression of AI, all are pretty much in agreement it’s going to permanently drive the industry – for better or worse. In my main line of work – biography writing – certain aspects of life stories are now being captured directly from the storyteller through the deployment of AI in various ways. It’s early days, and at present the writer is often still positioned within the process, but many fear for the craft in the long term. The dystopian view of biographies being entirely constructed from a combination of a bot interviewer, artificial learning and data scraping, then to be presented in a neat audio-visual package may not be too far off. In fact I believe it’s already here. Vive la difference?
(Copyright 2023) E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). To discuss services for hire please contact Mark via https://windlefreelance.com/contact/