This piece by Lincoln Mitchell, “The future of the future of books: thoughts on Amazon, e-books, and future of how we read words” makes a lot of sense. It is on Buzzfeed and comes to me via Book Business. All the talk about the p-book being dead is obvious nonsense. If 30% of book sales are e-books, what do we imagine the other 70% are? I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, and someone said “But isn’t digital killing the business”. In reply I waved my arm around the stalls, all heaped with books (printed books) which people were buying.

We have come through testing times, and it’s not amazing that some things have been said that test the limits of sense. If the future of the novel were indissolubly tied up with the future of the e-book, then maybe we should think about how to make novels more interactive so that they might compete against video games or whatever. But it’s not, and nobody has really suggested that it is, though calls for experimentation have of course arisen. No reason why fiction on Twitter shouldn’t be delivered in 140 character lots, but I don’t think we should expect “The Great American Novel” to arrive that way. “Art forms survive by figuring out what makes them unique, not by trying to emulate other mediums” Mitchell says, and I expect he’s right. Let’s hope it’s just a passing panic which makes us clutch at augmented reality or whatever as the salvation of our industry. Just make books more book-like (whatever we might mean by that) and maybe that’ll be the answer.

One niggle about Mitchell’s piece is the way, like so many commentators on the book world, the author’s good sense deserts him when it comes to his comments on the music industry. It’s just not true to say “In seven years after the iPod was released, the CD market was dead.” Greatly reduced indeed, but 30% of the market is far from death. (See the gif I posted recently.) Music labels still make and sell CDs — unsurprisingly facing problems with their largest retailer which are only too familiar to book publishers — and there’s the same self-published phenomenon as we find in books: any self-respecting busker in the subway these days has his/her little stack of CDs which the casual fan can buy. But however tempting it is to draw lessons from the music business, it remains very different from book publishing. People just “consume the product” differently.

As I’ve said before, I do think the big shadow hovering over the future of the book industry is the possibility that lack of volume will hurt the book manufacturing business so severely that it’ll become hard to get your book printed economically. Book printing is a capital-intensive business, and reductions in volume will have effects. (Whether this effect is also to be found in the music business I don’t know — I suspect the effect is less marked — just reflect that you can duplicate a CD on your computer for a very low cost.) Public access to POD does exits, e.g. via those Espresso machines in bookstores and libraries, but the machines are quite expensive, unlike a blank CD. I remain sanguine that the business will settle down at a level which keeps e-books available alongside printed books, perhaps at a volume which means that p-books will mostly be manufactured via print-on-demand.

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