I hardly know how to start this one but here goes: books are dead.
In November 2006 I started writing a book about the end of paper books. I called it The Library of Death and I had no difficulty finding an agent. After all, somebody was going to write the first book about the end of paper books and the first one to hit the shops was bound to sell on the back of all the publicity the ebooks would get.
When I started to write it you couldn’t buy an ebook in the UK. The Sony reader was only avaliable in America and Japan. Nobody took what I said seriously. I interviewed plenty of people and they all said that ebooks would never take off and that people would always prefer paper books. A futurologist from New York thought that it would take fifty years for paper to die out. Richard Joseph, of Shepperds Guide, said he thought that in the future paper books would be more in demand, not less. Incredibly, all of them said that the readers were too expensive or that they would hurt your eyes or that the battery would run out. Various other people ‘hoped’ that paper would always be appreciated and waxed more or less lyrical about the texture of the experience, the intimacy of the process and the cultural memory of the medium. Whoo hoo.
Interestingly the only person who agreed with me was not a book man. He was a record man. He’d seen vinyl go from all there was to a barely remembered irrelevancy in just twenty years and he knew precisely what I was talking about.
The agent sent it off in November 2007 and pretty soon it was clear that it was ‘thanks but no thanks’. Several publishers said that they simply didn’t agree, as if their personal opinions were enough to prevent the firm making money and a few simply didn’t like the style, which was fair enough. The first book about the end of paper books, and all the juicy publicity that will go with it is still up for grabs, by the way.
Because I was right. Books are dead. They’re still with us but the writing is on the silicon wall. Today’s teenagers choose screens over paper all day every day for the simple reason that it’s better. Great big clunking text books and guide books and how-to books and reference books and, yes, novels are an embarrassement next to a wafer thin colour reader linked up to the internet.
I spend thousands a year on lovely old books and I’m not going to stop doing that; indeed, the whole point of this blog is to encourage you to do the same. Unfortunately I suspect that soon books will be just another cultural artefact like sugar tongs, teapots or doorknobs. Collecting them will appeal to a tiny minority and seem ludicrous to the other six billion because paper books will quickly lose their status once the readers really take off.
And it gives me no pleasure to say “I was right,” even though I was right. I had 2020 as the absolute last date for paper books being the norm and everything is right on track. Just two dominos are yet to fall. The first is the price of readers, which will soon fall rapidly, in the same way that electronic calculators cost the earth when launched and eventually became essentially free. The second is what nobody else has realised yet – except me and the record man. It is this: It isn’t up to you.
Vinyl wasn’t broke, in the same way that paper books are perfectly adequate now, and have been for 500 years. There is no reason for anyone to switch to another technology unless they’re forced to do so. Record companies got together and simply began to limit the supply of vinyl. If you wanted to hear the songs, you had to buy the CD – which was on special offer, sir, with two extra tracks, madam, and a free booklet to boot. Soon publishers will begin to limit the supply of paper books and to make them more expensive ( the trees! the ink! the oil!) More and more people will give up and switch to a screen. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself this question. When was the last time you bought a record?
Books are dead.
Am I right? I’ll have more to say on this next week, but in the meantime I’d like to hear your thoughts. Will books continue to be collected or will they vanish from the public’s conciousness as they fade away?
There are no copies of the first item for sale on the net at the moment.
R T Campbell’s excellent ‘Bodies In a Bookshop’ is here. They are mainly re-issues.
‘Death Of A Bookseller’ is also a brilliant read. You can find one here.