When the Amazon Kindle first arrived on the literary scene a decade ago, it was heralded as the future of reading and, as a result, was despised by purists.
The grim fate of the CD had made its mark and fans of the physicality of books were afraid that they would be brutally swept aside by the uncaring march of process. Readers drew battle-lines that look absurd in the modern day, people would refuse to even look at a kindle, or would sell their book collections and frequently act like that old fashioned paper typesetting was as physically painful to them as a cross to a vampire now that they had seen Amazon’s Damascene light. When it was first released (looking notably futuristic in the pre-Ipad era) it sold out in under five hours even with it’s then price tag of £195. Beyond the fact that Kindles felt like the future and so hit the cultural ubiquity of any new flashy gadget, books themselves weren’t offering much by way of quality competition. Prior to the Kindle’s release several book companies had developed a rather nasty tendency towards making books on the cheap: pages would turn yellow and curl in direct sunlight, with a tendency to glue rather than sew that left many turn of the millennium books liable to begin a corpse like decomposition almost immediately. As a result the market couldn’t have been riper for a seismic shift.
However in the harsh light of 2017, things haven’t turned out quite how the doomsayers or the proselytisers had predicted. Instead figures recently released by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Whilst consumer spending on books was up £89m across the board last year, compared with 2015. Clearly a pendulum has begun to swim and part of the problem has unexpectedly proven to be the Kindle itself: Compared to the positively Sci-Fi looking tech of smartphones and tablets, they now look clunky compared to their ever evolving touchscreen brethren and, barring the occasional backlight upgrade, have little to practically upgrade and refine. In addition, in a world of ephemeral digital products, reassuringly solid books have become increasingly attractive, sometimes as much for the aesthetics of them as objects themselves rather than for the words contained within them (the rise of tumblers such as #bookporn is a, potentially alarming, testament to this). There are other reasons for the decline of consumer ebooks. Children’s books, which represent an area of significant growth, just don’t work well on e-readers (although there are lots of children’s reading apps). Neither do young adult titles, even though this age group might be expected to opt for the most technological reading experience.
It’s not all doom and gloom in the digital arena however. Fuelled by the success of podcasts such as Serial, the rise of audio is one area of digital success, with downloads up 28%, according to the Publishing Association. Audio publishers are beginning to flex their muscles to attempt to see books on submission at the same time as physical publishers, while physical publishers have become disinclined to acquire books without audio rights. The digital arm of publishing is in no danger of disappearing, but neither has it grown into the ravenous titan that some feared or hoped it would, when it comes to the future of the written word, the future is far from written.