According to pollsters YouGov, 1.3 million Kindles (of which 92% were Amazon) were sold to be given as Christmas presents in 2011, doubled from a year before. 60% of these were for women, and the over 55s were twice as likely to have received one as the 18-24s.
Christmas Day brought a surge in esales as new owners downloaded books for themselves. It now seems certain as if the electronic book is likely to be the saviour of the publishing industry.
But not so the bookshop. Head of Technology and Telecoms at YouGov, Marek Vaygelt put it succinctly: ‘the late-medieval technology of the printing press was finally challenged by a 21st century digital alternative’.
Bookshops have declined dramatically on the high streets, but those that remain are fighting back and turning themselves into community hubs of knowledge, sociability and communication. Exhibitions, internet facilities, music and poetry performances and lectures are offered to increase footfall and diversify the financial bases.
An often overlooked consequence of the ebook revolution is the future of public libraries. In April 2011, NPR broadcast a programme about how bookstores and publishing companies are managing the advent of ebooks.
HarperCollins decided they would limit the number of times its ebooks can be borrowed to 26 times, after which the product disappears from screens when the time is up. Of course, it can then be rebought.
That beat libraries practices. No late dues. Now many libraries have started lending ebooks too. But as they can lend some traditional books dozens of times over, eloans have to be limited to libraries as well as individuals. Now there is no physical restriction on how many ‘copies’ of an ebook can be lent at once, thus affecting the business of the publishers in a different way.
Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble, the largest bookstore chain in the USA are planning to separate e-reader business from traditional bookstores as its profits slumped almost 30% and they issued trading warning to shareholders. Necessity is driving them, like so many other businesses, to rethink radically.
Rather belatedly, library services are waking to the fact that ebooks are digital files, not print books, and they have to do business in a different way from the past. 20th Century business models do not fit digital content. Some new forms of subscription packages may evolve.
The more radical thinkers are wondering if some form of direct deal with content providers will not be devised, so libraries distribute material to the public. Such thinking could benefit writers, publishers and libraries directly.
Customers will not wait for downloads willingly. They want everything instantly, and that is the driving force of today’s supply and demand. As local authorities face spending cuts, the whole future of public libraries is up for serious discussion. Whatever is the outcome, the days of SILENCE, and whispers among the studies are long gone.
Back in September 2006, Time Magazine was just one publication asking if newspapers have any future. Michael Kinsey’s report said that on one hand, newspapers are expected to provide content free on the web, while on the other, their profitable classified advertising is seeping to sites like Craiglist.
He described blogs as ‘terror’ for newspapers, people ‘getting their understanding of the world from random lunatics riffing in their underwear, rather than professional journalists with standards and passports’.
People under 50 are not generally reading newspapers, news which is often cold anyway. They have the instant internet and rolling news. They have simultaneous comment and analysis. They have their news filtered through entertainment in ways that chime with their personal interests.
The old certainties of the tabloids and the qualities catering to their respective audiences are blurring. The on-the-record, off-the-record briefings are fading in the face of net democracy. Like so many things in society. Many have given up charging, and rely on ads to pay for free distributed papers.
Newspapers may well have a future life as personalised delivered packages to people on the move, with their personal ads merged as part of the entertainment.
But the days of paper printed sheets may soon be over. Unless they are small, localised, owned and managed by people from a given area, replacing the huge media empires we have seen dominating in the 20th Century.
In short, newspapers could return to how they began. And that’s not something the digital age will allow to happen in many industries.
Photo: Lars Aronsson