New future for printed books that smarten up their act

By Robert McCrum

As ebook sales surge, observers are detecting a parallel future for the traditional book. Photo / Supplied
As ebook sales surge, observers are detecting a parallel future for the traditional book. Photo / Supplied

The publication of The Waste Land app marks the end of the beginning.

After a decade of panic about the future, it signals a rapprochement between print and digital culture.

This new coexistence is supported by the figures. The average British shopper now spends £4 ($7.70) a month on ebooks. For Random House in the United States, about 30 per cent of its sales now come from ebooks. After a perfect storm of economic, technological and cultural change from 2000 to 2010, publishers can detect a silver lining.

Publishers, booksellers and writers are puzzling over the impact of this change.

As ebook sales surge in the US, thoughtful observers have begun to detect a future for the traditional book. David Campbell, publisher of Everyman's Library, says: "The well-produced hardback, a clear and permanent contrast to the ebook, will fare better than cheap paperbacks printed on newsprint."

Jason Epstein, retired chief editor of Random House, identifies a parallel future for old and new book media. "My own guess," he writes in the New York Review of Books, "is that the digital future in which anyone can become a published writer will separate along the usual two paths."

Epstein applies a twin track to future business models. "Some publishers may experiment by setting up their own freestanding digital start-ups."

His hunch, illustrated by The Waste Land app, which is co-published by Faber and Touch Press, is that "a separate, self-financed, digital industry will coexist with many functions of the traditional firms".

This coexistence of the old and new worlds of paper and screen is supported by Umberto Eco, who declares that "the book is like the spoon, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved".

In This is Not the End of the Book, he writes: "The internet has returned us to the alphabet. The computer returns us to Gutenberg's galaxy; from now on everyone has to read. In order to read, you need a medium."

Publishers are adapting. Stephanie Duncan, who runs Bloomsbury's Library Online project, says "love them or loathe them as a way to read, digital books are now driving book sales".

She makes no distinction between ebook and old book.

"The value and joy of reading lies within the book itself."

- Observer

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