100 Years Ago; 0r, The Future Of Book Collecting.

Many thanks for your emails – no, I haven’t gone away, or given up! Far from it – I’ve been lying low because I now have a monthly column in the UK’s leading old book magazine, Book and Magazine Collector. It starts this April and I’ll be putting an edited version of it here each month – please leave your comments below.

I’ve touched on this month’s topic before but it’s worth revisiting. In fact at the moment it’s the only thing that matters…

A hundred years ago this little paperback was on the counter of The Waverley Book Store, an Edinburgh antiquarian bookshop run by Robert M. Williamson.

Will anybody want this old paper thing a decade from now?

He’d been a dealer for 30 years when he wrote these wonderful reminiscences about the book world. It is full of his love of books and his tales of thrilling auctions, stupendous finds and undersold bargains make for mouth watering reading today.

It must have been irresistible at the time, too, certainly for one particular customer. On the morning of June 12th, 1908 a Mr Charles Spackman walked in and browsed the stock. At the counter the bold and fashionable design of Bits From An Old Bookshop caught his eye and he added it to his pile. A century later it turned up in a south coast bookshop and the joys of ownership began again when I found it, along with some little slips of paper inside: Spackman’s book plate, a snipped out obituary of Williamson and the dated delivery label from The Waverley Book Store. Taken together they provide concrete evidence of a book collector’s proud memory of meeting the author and of a happy moment in the world of old books.

I’m a book collector and I know a treasure when I see one. This book will be on my shelves until I die. Until recently we could say with complete confidence that it would then pass safely into the hands of another collector but unfortunately I’m not so sure. I love old books, and so do you, but the cosy old world of cosy old books is heading for a showdown, a title fight to the death that has already begun. A slick silicon upstart with warm electric blood is gunning for books and if it wins the war our lives will never be the same again. The story now is not bits from a bookshop; it’s bits from a computer, the bits and bytes that might well kill paper books forever.

The history of books is long but astonishingly uneventful. The codex format, modern-looking books with pages rather than a long scroll, was established 2000 years ago. For the first 500 years professional scribes and illustrators copied out books by hand until a technological marvel called the printing press came along. A decade ago along came the internet, and once again nothing much happened. All the net did was change the people involved and move the stock from high street to store room. Big deal. Books survived it all because books have a special, unique status. And no wonder: paper books have conquered continents, recorded dreams, toppled governments and inspired generations. They have been, without doubt, the single most respected man-made objects ever created – until now.

Books are fast becoming second best. Gutenberg’s press just sped up the production of the same old thing; this time we’ve made factories full of robots to snap together something very different: ebooks. The next decade will be the most important one in the two thousand year history of the book. Now, for the first time ever, the book itself is under threat. Over the next ten years the public will be asked to choose which we want, carbon or silicon, paper or screens. Ebooks are in their infancy but screens have won the first round and we may have already reached peak book.  Open the newspaper and it’s all bad news: teenagers don’t read, Google have scanned everything and schools are dumping their textbooks.

Book collecting will only survive if new collectors take it up and they will only do that if they have some sort of relationship with books. Will the generation born with a silver screen in their hands ever pick up an old book? Will our scanned in libraries be shut down to save money when the books are all on line, free, forever? Will governments push up the price of paper with green taxes and drive reluctant readers to the screens? All these issues and many more will be raised as we race through the decade and the future of our hobby depends on the answers.

Bakelite radios, hat boxes, shellac 78s, paper books, sugar tongs, ear trumpets...

Ten years from now Bits From An Old Bookshop will have been captured and changed from paper into fizzing electrons and if the public are happy about that then we will have lost the battle. When there’s nobody left to appreciate a binding or care about condition or pay extra for a first edition then our books will become worthless clutter like shellac 78s and worn out clothes.

On the other hand the future isn’t written yet. More education means more culture which means more book collecting. Let the screens spread! Let a cheap, durable sliver of silicon find its way to every home and hut on the planet so that a billion new readers will one day pick up a real book, an old book, and think – ‘I wonder.’ If that’s the case then ebooks could lead to a golden age of book collecting where limited supply pushes up prices and a new army of collectors treasures books like never before.

And it all depends on what happens this decade…

Our generation of collectors has an important part to play in this. Are you worried about ebooks? What should we do while the public decide whether they still want to bother with paper? Please leave a comment below.

9 Responses to “100 Years Ago; 0r, The Future Of Book Collecting.”

  1. thomas conneely says:

    Excellent article, as usual!
    I think it’s of interest to look at where the vinyl/record/music industry is in relation to how it coped ( or did not cope) with the recent but slightly earlier arrival of electronic formats. Vinyl is still collected and collectible, and will in my opinion remain so. I think academic textbooks are dead in their current ( expensive) paper form within 15 years or even sooner, and I hold little hope for dictionaries, ( non vintage) maps and other easily updateable items. However, I think for booksellers and collectors the paper format will not go away – and if publishers have any sense they will go down the lines that some are already – in increasing the amounts of signed , limited edition formats, handsome editions ( hardcover and paperback, and reissuing classics with extra content) The book as object , in other words.

  2. betweenthelines says:

    Do as many people collect vinyl today as a decade ago? Closed down record shops and deserted record fairs suggest not. I agree with you re the dictionaries, maps etc. Books may well survive but become the exception rather than the rule. My prediction has always been 2020 for the year when ebooks sell more units than paper and as far as I can see things are right on track or even a little ahead of schedule. Watch this space…

  3. Bertie Wooster says:

    I say old boy! That sounds a bit thick! I’ll go further – it’s downright rummy!
    (Great writing, dude.)

  4. Fnarf says:

    More people collect vinyl than ten years ago, yes. Vinyl LP reissues are exploding — a great many of the great classic LPs of the rock era at least are back in print. A lot of those shellac 78s change hands for hundreds of dollars (though most are worth less than one). High street music megastores are suffering but small specialty shops are definitely keeping up.

    Books as well; publishers aren’t doing particularly well, but some unknown but probably large portion of that is down to the global recession. Old book collecting? You’ll know it’s dying out when prices start to fall. They haven’t. There’s been a lot of adjustment to new realities, as it is now a trivial matter to locate a copy of almost any book you want, rather than having to wait for years for a copy to turn up, so some things are crashing, while others are going up.

    I have a Kindle but I buy as many or more new books in paper as ever, I find. The Kindle is a fascinating but ultimately unsuccessful experience. Maybe when a better one comes around….

  5. Sean Montgomery says:

    There are billions of paper books still on shelves somewhere. So the second hand market could go on (if the books are kept well) for maybe 200 years. New paper books will always be in print just not in large million print run amounts. Maybe buying a paper book will be a special order process that could become more valuable due to the “rarity”. As for new collectors, as long as books still inspire and old collectors share knowledge the game will continue!

  6. Comte de Pinner says:

    Welcome back! I concur with Fnarf–these things (books/kindle) can co-exist. But I disagree with him on prices, mostly they are dropping except for the rare, trendy and exceptional. The internet has shown how common most books are + many collectors have now got what they want and are only looking for very silly stuff, ephemera or irresistible bargains. Kindle is not like the advent of talkies and the book is not a silent film???

  7. phlogiston says:

    Really excellent blog.

    Looking at the silvery habitues of bookfairs, it may be assumed that younger generations are shunning books. But this is not really the case. The vast majority of university graduates today have a genuine affection for books. I simply find bookfairs intolerable and I don’t doubt that many others of my generation do. All the patronising snubs (“excuse me, use both hands to remove a book from the shelf!”, and “have you washed your hands?”) and twitchy stares conspire to alienate anybody ‘suspiciously young’. Book people seem to lack the camaraderie of record/vinyl people.

    I’ve been to a few bookfairs, but the final straw came for me when, upon leaving, a stallholder asked to check my bag (“nothing to worry about – just routine”, so he said with mock friendliness). When I gladly but bemusedly obliged him – unwrapping my purchase from another stall (a tattered, jacketless ‘Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen’) – he had the extra cheek to criticise my tastes, snorting something to the effect of “so you’re not a serious collector, then”. Arse!

    A photobook-collecting friend of mine with hacker proclivities utilises custom-programmed software to send an alert the very nanosecond a book is listed online below a specific price. I’d love to know how he does it, but it’s all very secretive. Apparently, bog-standard ‘wants-list’ notifications on book sites usually have a built in alert delay ranging from a few hours to a week. The prospect of widespread use of such custom software to bypass this delay frightens me a bit.

  8. Joe Vega says:

    What is the future of book publishing and collecting? None of us can say for sure. I think less print media will be published as time goes on, and print on demand will be the norm in very cheap formant I fear. But you know, even that print on demand copies will probably be collectible.
    The more important issue, I fear, is the inherent danger in putting a technology between ‘man’ and ‘knowledge’. In the past, all a person had to do was take a book off a shelf and start reading it. There was nothing between the man and the printed page. You could happen upon books in the street, in others homes, in offices, wherever. In the future books will be hidden on disk drives, memory sticks, and memory cards. Not readily accessible. Not at an arm’s reach. We’ve put a reader, a computer, a phone, technology, between us and the printed page. If there is no power, you can’t read. If your reader breaks, you can’t read. If you cannot afford a reader or those downloaded books, you can’t read. That book won’t be sitting there on a shelf with the spines facing us with their titles; attracting us, interesting us. They will be on an electronic chip. Hidden and I fear even worse, unnoticed.

  9. I, too, own an original copy of Bits from an Old Bookshop which is one of the greatest treasures of my large library. It was given to me by one of the Morton brothers who ran one of the most amazing second hand bookstores in Withington (Manchester) England. I was a student at the University of Manchester at the time. Mortons filled about three separate shops in a little lane and was a treasure house of amazing variety. Mortons was so large that they displayed their wares in a semi-chaos. These were my early days of collecting and the owners took a liking to me and gave me the small book. I subsequently began a collection of books by booksellers (or about second hand shops, such as the recent “Books, Baguettes, and Bedbugs” by Jeremy Mercer about Shalkespeare and Co in Paris).
    My concern about the future of books goes beyond print or online. With the many possibilities of interactive books or additional links, the novel as we know it may cease to exist. Another form entirely may emerge where you choose alternative endings or follow links to other stories or a novel resembles a magazine with pictures and different articles. Who knows? I’m sticking with books.

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