Are printed books ready for the scrapheap?

Imagine: books - the last chapter suggests that paper books have had their day - do you agree?

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Are books about to go the way of music CDs and be rendered obsolete by new technology? According to tonight’s instalment of Imagine (10:35pm, BBC1), the answer might well be yes…

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The physical book trade is in decline at the moment and its condition appears to be terminal. Industry magazine The Bookseller reported a four per cent month-on-month slump in the sales of paper and ink tomes in September of this year, and an alarming £12.3m decline in year-on-year sales in October, caused in part by readers’ migration from print to digital.

Tonight’s Imagine is timely in being broadcast just before Christmas, when a great many of Britain’s readers will doubtless awaken on the big day to find a shiny new e-reader under the tree. And so, as the industry braces itself for more consumers of physical books to make the move to digital, an assessment of the state of western reading habits couldn’t be more necessary.

Dismissing romantic notions about books, the programme sensibly makes the point that the function of a book is “a mechanism for transmitting ideas” and viewed in such dispassionate terms, it’s easy to see why books might benefit from an overhaul, much like newspapers.

Across the globe, newspapers, which also exist solely to communicate information, have already been forced to embrace digital after being sidelined by the internet, where news is available much more quickly and, crucially, at a lower cost.

Roy Greenslade recently pointed out that the total number of newspapers sold in Britain over the past year has fallen by 6.75 per cent, while “users of virtually all the newspaper websites go on rising month by month. In front of our eyes, the press business is changing shape.”

And book publishing is mutating alongside the press. Success stories abound of authors who’ve self-published e-books of their works, usually for a nominal fee, and made huge profits from the practice.

USA Today printed a report only this morning of a self-published author whose books have logged 42 weeks in the paper’s bestseller list. Writers and readers are finally able to sidestep the traditional publishing process and make their own choices about what to write and read, and how much to charge and pay for the privilege.

As the programme unfolds, Imagine demonstrates that some books actually work more effectively when they harness new technology. The writers of a book on the elements of the periodic table, for example, demonstrate how a tablet computer version allows readers to examine 3D models of the elements and explore the information the authors are presenting in a novel, interactive way.

But even conventional-looking printed books are starting to embrace hypertext. The programme highlights Douglas Coupland’s biography of Marshall McLuhan, which contains printed YouTube links and Wikipedia references, the inference being that the book would work better if it was read on an internet-enabled smart device.

And of course, there’s the issue of space. Books take up a lot of room in their physical forms, something eliminated by e-readers, which allow users to store thousands and thousands of books on a device slimmer than a paperback. Combine this with the fact that digital books do not cause the same environmental problems that come with production, shipping and storage as printed ones, and the argument against the survival of the traditional book seems all the more compelling.

If all that wasn’t enough, possibly the programme’s most shocking claim is that some sections of the populace have absolutely no relationship with books. A contributor points out that there’s now a generation of young people who’ve been raised without ever needing to pick up a book, and to whom paper and ink books are almost alien. If these people already do their reading off screens, it makes sense to assume that they’ll continue to do so.

So is it time to consign books to history? While I can see that all the arguments above make sense (and there are many, many more put forward in the documentary itself), I just can’t imagine giving up reading a real book. 

I don’t associate reading with pressing buttons, which many e-readers require you to do, and have yet to see an e-reader that genuinely looks like paper. And books themselves are beautiful objects. I mean, how many record collectors would be satisfied with only owning MP3s of their favourite records instead of their beloved LPs?

But maybe that’s just it, maybe books will end up like vinyl records – enthusiastically consumed, but by a small minority of people.

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What do you think? Is it time to digitise the British Library and make a pyre of its contents, or will you resist the e-reading revolution? And if you’re undecided, watch the programme tonight. It might just change the way you look at books for ever…