This Christmas has been hailed as the proof of the fightback against digital. The print book sale has reached a three-year high, and perhaps the hopeful excitement of this news should be more obvious, but it’s not.
The bookshops and online stores took £75.4m in sales in the week running up to the 22nd December – figures not seen since 2009’s £75.7m [figures provided by Nielsen BookScan]. Popular books included those with films – Life of Pi and The Hobbit – the usual celebrity biographies* (Miranda Hart’s Is It Just Me? and Bradley Wiggins’ My Time taking 2nd and 3rd on the charts respectively), and Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals sealing top spot, making it a 5th year as Christmas Number One for the chef.
But does this mean that print publishing is fighting back against digital? Amongst the tentative excitement were words of caution, with books industry consultant Philip Downer reminding everyone that the industry is still in a state of flux.
Making bold statements about anything in the publishing industry at the moment is treading shaky ground; whilst those above stories are circulating, there comes further news of bookshops on the decline, increased digital readers; but then yet more announcements that the e-reader market might already have peaked, thanks to the popularity and accessibility of dynamic, slick tablets like the new generations of iPads and Google’s own contributions, and suggestions (but no evidence) that we are already moving away from Kindles and Nooks and thus the current incarnation of eBooks.
In an industry that is both reeling and driving forward, it is hard to say whether or not paper or digital will win out. We can no longer assume that a paper book is enough in a world where immediacy is imperative, and this must be acknowledged and delighted. But equally we cannot assume that everyone demands such instantaneous gratification. It’s almost naïve to make blanket predictions about the future of publishing in such black and white terms.
The future may not be so simple – for me, there will be no “death of print” and no Digital Age where we all read on e-readers and tablets and we’ve forgotten what a physical book looks like. There will always be moments where “print fights back” and there will always be moments when eBooks look set to take over. I think there is a new kind of publishing era ahead – with both print and digital making their mark. As a traditionalist print-reader, I like the idea of the underdog fighting back, but it’s questionable whether it’s a fight, or a natural result of an industry in flux.
*When the wonderful Alastair very kindly read this post pre-publication, he pointed out that this year’s celebrity biographies seemed to buck the notion that the genre was in decline – as discussed in 2009 and 2011. Are we seeing a renaissance in celebrity memoirs?