The Publishers Association released statistics this month which show that there has been a boom in the sales of digital titles, with figures increasing by over 180% from 2011. E-books have brought in over £84million in revenue in the first six months of this year so it is clear that the digital age of publishing is well and truly upon us. According to statistics over a third of people now own Kindles or other e-readers in the UK, with many more showing an interest in joining the revolution within the latter half of this year.
And it is clear to see why. There are many advantages the e-book can bring to everyday readers. Firstly, the e-book makes reading far more accessible. Anybody can purchase a book from various online sellers at any time of the day- meaning that more people will be tempted to buy titles they’ve seen reviewed or been recommended. Furthermore, the access is instantaneous- they can download their digital copies straight away to their e-book or tablets. This revolutionises the way in which hotly anticipated books can be accessed; no longer will people have to queue outside Waterstones in the early hours in the hope of acquiring a copy of the next bestseller (circa Harry Potter 2007). And probably the Kindles biggest selling point is the ease of transport. The small lightweight device can carry hundreds of digital books and can slip easily into any handbag; it really is the perfect accessory. Rather than lugging a small library on holiday with you, or on your commute to work, you can simply load an array of literary treats onto your e-reader and be on your way. Hurrah!
And what’s more, the advantages aren’t simply for the readers. Digital books offer a massive advantage to any author who is looking to self-publish. Authors will be able to gain more autonomy over their work; taking control of how their work is produced and sold. It also means smaller authors will be able to get their work out in the public consciousness a lot easier. The thought may leave some publishers reeling but it is a small win for the independent author.
And yet, despite being a regular and avid reader, and a massive advocate of emerging talent, I am just not sold. Let’s get my boring technical qualms out of the way first. To buy an e-book reader, you have a minimum £90 initial output to actually buy the technology to be able to read the e-book. And do you make that money back? Not likely. At the moment, e-books are pretty much the exact same price as a paperback version- despite the fact that there is no printing, no warehousing and no transporting costs. So why is it not massively cheaper to buy an e-book? J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy went on sale yesterday and is currently selling on Amazon for £11.99 for e-book version, and £9 for hardcover with free delivery. Not only then is the e-book not cheaper than the printed version, but is actually more expensive- how does that work? And how many people are aware that when they download an e-book they are simply renting the product rather than buying it? Yes, the seller can remove any e-book from your digital reader without any notice if they ever need to.
But those things don’t bother me nearly as much as my personal reasons for not wanting to jump on the Kindle bandwagon just yet. I have quite a romantic notion of reading; I believe reading is an experience, an experience which cannot be achieved with digital readers. When I choose a book I often like to marvel at the cover art or illustrations within the book (see Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for a nice example). Most people who don’t read say it’s because reading is boring. And yet this new format makes reading even more dull than it has ever been- how is that inspiring the next generation of readers? This new format also makes it impossible to pass on any books you love to friends and family. My mother and I are always swapping books and my circle of friends or constantly borrowing books from each other- it sparks debate and discussion. Turning to a friend and saying “I read a great book the other day, here’s the ISBN you’ll have to pay and download yourself” is a lot less motivating, and is surely detrimental in the long term to our reading experience. And lastly and simply, am I the only one that likes to see how close I am to finishing a book? How many people, eye-lids drooping, check how many pages are left in the chapter before they go to bed? The whole reading experience is just completely lost if you’re reading these digital versions instead of a good old-fashioned paperback.
I don’t even feel like publishers know how this new technology will affect the industry; there seems to be no consistency in their approach to produce and market e-books here in the UK. I am not condemning digital progression, but I do strongly feel that there is a lot to learn about how it will change and shape the future of reading. There are a lot of questions still unanswered about the e-book that need to be answered before people will whole-heartedly buy into the idea, and I doubt the answers will ever be straight forward. What works for the trade industry will not necessarily correlate to academic publishing; especially not when reports are already showing the children retain less information when they read e-book versions of textbooks. And what works for one book release will never automatically work for another. How am I supposed to feel comfortable with this technology, if those at the heart of the publishing industry still seem so uneasy about the change. So for now I stand distant and wary, but will be keeping a close eye on any developments that may well quash my concerns.