At the annual Australian Booksellers Association conference this weekend there was almost a venomous hiss against the name of electronic books, online sellers, and the technologies of reading that are emerging with such force in the US and UK.
Oh how conservative we are. But the tide of opinion seems to be slowly turning, as (it is no surprise) education increases on the subject. David Taylor, of Lightening Source, spoke about the latest technologies in print on demand. A sister company of the enormous US book distributor, Ingram, Lightening Source is now able to receive a single book order (from the customer) and have it printed, bound and returned to the seller within four hours. Gone are the days of fortune-telling print runs, inevitably ending in either a full warehouse of unsaleable stock or sold out titles with impatient customers demanding why several weeks are required to produce a book they have already seen in someone else’s hands.
This kind of technology goes hand in hand with the wave of ebooks, ereaders and smartphone reading technology that have, as yet, only reached our shores in a very limited way. Neelan Choksi, COO at Lexcycle, also spoke about how his team of three developed the Stanza application for the iphone which allows ebooks to be searched, bought, downloaded and read all from the comfort of that smart-little-phone screen. The implications of this application are revolutionary in the publishing world, for the first time providing the consumer with more control over the layout, font size, colour and – yes – even the preferred cover for their own personal version of the book. As the Kindle, Sony ereader, and host of other upcoming other ereader and smartphone technologies battle it out for the number one spot in this market one cannot help but realise that print publishing as we have known it in the 20th Century is going the way of cassette tapes and vinyls.
The most important lesson from all of this is that ebooks and a new method of print publishing have a future together, hand in hand. There are select titles that we will still want in print, Choksi gave the example of Obama’s book, which customers preferred to have on the physical bookshelf to mark an historical occasion. But the results of this changing industry will save a lot of time, money and paper.
It will also mean many more books that were previously not published can now go online into an ebook and be printed in only one or two copies for the people who want it. Those who claim that this denigrates the ‘culture’ of literature do so from a pedestal that upholds the publishers as an authority on what is ‘good’ writing. But at the end of the day a publisher wants to sell books, and who is to say that their guessing game of ‘what the people want’ is any better indicator of ‘good culture’ than if the consumer is allowed to decide for themselves what they want to see published and printed. If the claim is that publishers maintain a standard of grammar, spelling, literacy etc etc – a general style guide to language – which will be lost in this brave new world, than the answer might be that language, as much as any culture, is a growing organism. Hell, if Shakespeare needed a word, he made one up – if the method is good enough for him, why not us? It is an ethos that embraces many forms of language, for instance the globally diverse uses of English, and brings genuine democracy.
To the traditional booksellers and publishers (especially in Australia) do not be afraid – rumours of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Stories will never die, our desire for new stories will never die, but our mode of receiving them, and expectations of them will change. And dammit, this is exciting!