- 9 Feb 09, 09:34 GMT
I took a short train ride on Saturday to a local shopping centre, and in my bag I packed a book to while away the quarter of an hour in each direction.
Sadly, the book never emerged from the bag. I was too busy with my internet-connected mobile phone: sending messages to friends; reading articles after clicking on links they'd sent; even looking at a couple of pages of a Sherlock Holmes story which I have stored in an application on the phone.
It strikes me that there are two separate issues: the impact of new technology on the publishing industry and the change in readers' habits caused by the arrival of a flood of online material.
So is the Kindle going to be the iPod, symbolising the moment all publishers had to get with the digital revolution or see their businesses submerged under a wave of piracy? No, because there is no evidence that book sales are declining in the way that CD sales have throughout this decade. In the United States, there was a steady if unspectacular rise in book sales between 2002 and 2007, with quite a shift from the high street to online bookshops.
In the UK, according to the Booksellers' Association, the value of book sales grew from £2.7bn in 2004 to nearly £3bn in 2007. Again, pretty slow growth, but a lot healthier than what happened to the music market over the same period.
In 2007, the UK music industry's total sales - including digital - amounted to about £1.4bn, down from nearly £2bn three years before. Sales of "digital" books are so low that they do not feature on the publishing industry's charts. The book market is not falling off a cliff - even if the bestsellers' list is full of celebrity biographies and cookbooks - and there is no urgent pressure on publishers to go digital.
Electronic books - from the Kindle to the Sony reader to the "Stanza" application on the iPhone - are gimmicks right now, beloved of early-adopting geeks, rather than the mainstream playthings that MP3 players have quickly become. And there is no obvious reason why that should change quickly.
Music is, like it or not, an art form that can be enjoyed part-time, on the move, while doing something else. But it's difficult to read a book while engaged in another task, although I've occasionally found myself walking into lamp posts while engrossed in the final chapter of a compelling novel.
And perhaps it is fiction that will survive best in its analogue form in the digital age. Factual and reference works, which you may want to dip into rather than read all the way through, are ideally suited to online access. Has anybody other than Ammon Shea ever read a whole dictionary or encyclopedia? But a successful work of fiction is something you dive into, leaving the outside world to get on with its business.
The biggest threat posed by new technology is to the attention span of the reader - the "Google is making us stupid" syndrome. The argument goes that there is so much information online that we flit from link to link, without ever reading more than the odd paragraph.
It certainly rings true to this reader. I returned recently from a week's holiday where, with limited internet access, I managed to get through 400 pages of a pretty heavy book. Since getting home, I've barely managed ten pages a day.
But perhaps I'm the exception, and most of you are more diligent readers? Or maybe you didn't make it beyond my first paragraph?
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