The reinvention of the book

Books Will bookshelves simply become shelves?

Video never did kill the radio star. But it might cause a lot of books to be pulped. Re-written by machine and new technology, paperbacks could become ancient history. Oh-a-aho no.

Oh-a-aho yes, according to John Makinson: chairman and chief executive of the Penguin Group. The likable, ebullient publishing boss - a Tigger in the CEO jungle - foresees a new age where books become electronic gateways to trivia and chat:

"I don't expect that readers will open Jane Austen on page one and read through to page 300 and then put the book down.

"I think they will go on little journeys into other media and other conversations and they will want to do research into the dance moves or recipes of the period or look up info about Jane Austen online or talk to their friends on social networks about the experience of reading the book."

Good golly. Are books as a linear entity over? You'd expect to hear that from Steve Jobs while peddling iPads, but not perhaps from Penguin.

The publishing house was founded in 1935 by Allen Lane whose big idea was to mass-produce huge quantities of well-written, well-designed paperbacks that would be affordable to every household in the country.

Sara Lloyd, Pan Macmillan: "The basic process of writing will stay quite stable, but the authors who will do particularly well are ones who think about how to build a digital audience."

Penguin was to be the peoples' publisher: their books read by those attending the universities of life and Oxbridge; available in bookshops and tobacconists. Within 12 months he'd sold three million copies. Visionary is in Penguin's DNA.

So maybe John Makinson's prediction is correct. E-books are all the rage.

Sales increased by 318% in 2010 and continue to motor. Most predict that at least 50% of all books sold within ten years will be digital downloads.

Apple has already sold over 25 million iPads, Amazon is also doing brisk trade in Kindles and then there's Sony's e-reader and so on.

Adrian Hon, blogger: "You can pirate a book in about a minute... the reason why it's starting now is because of the Kindle and the iPad."

Lacking imagination

We can't rewind, we've gone too far.

But Sarah Waters is worried. The author of Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet said that she wanted "people to read words", adding "If I'm writing a description of a house I don't want there to be an image or link pop up to the sort of house i'm writing about. To me that seems like a failure."

It would inevitably change the role of the author and their approach to the craft of writing.

Allen Lane with Penguin books Some of the first Penguin paperbacks included works by Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie

As opposed to having the sole responsibility for conjuring up images, atmosphere and environments in the reader's mind, the e-book author might be closer to a scriptwriter; working with musicians, filmmakers, researchers and actors to create a piece of multi-media content that leaves much less for the 'readers' imagination to do.

That's a thought to turn the stomach of many writers. It could also provide a clue as to why video might not kill off the literary star.

Radio has survived - thrived even - because of its immediacy and inherent ability to fire the listener's imagination.

By abstracting so much material information (faces, places, objects are all unseen) radio gives the unconscious mind an outing and the listener a chance to momentarily un-couple him or herself from the pervasiveness of the rational world.

A book does that and more. It is a chance to escape and set the mind free.

Freer than it could ever be looking up recipes via a hyperlink on Pride and Prejudice.

Will Gompertz Article written by Will Gompertz Will Gompertz Arts editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I think that non-fiction books never suited the book format, the concept is always bigger than two-dimensions. Illustrated books are for the reader who is a participant and who want to more than just text.
    It is crazy that eBooks are working for Fiction when it is non-fiction that will be vastly improved through an App format where multiple media enhancements can be easily attached see vizebooks

  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Most of the books I read are academic ones, and I'm hoping that the development of electronic versions will make it possible for me to follow up the references in the footnotes - or, alas, endnotes - immediately.

    But I don't yet see my Kindle replacing the mass of books open on the table while I follow up different interpretations.

    And the books with large plates and maps are still safe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    He ran down the corridor, ducking under the flurry of arrows that perforated his jacket, cracking his whip to catch a beam in the ceiling and swing across the chasm. Suddenly a bass rumbling caught his attention, and he glanced back to see a giant boulder rolling towards him.

    "Oh no..."

    If you can't imagine how this might look and wish to see a clip from the film, press the red button now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I am a big fan of the convenience of ebooks. However, currently ebooks are still not a perfect format. For example, books with pictorial decoration or maps do not display well on an ebook (if at all), nor are many ebooks of high quality. It is unlikely therefore that more interactive media will become part of ebooks for awhile, particularly if they distract from a good read.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I prefer the feel and look of a book - I'd probably only use an electronic reader if I was travelling for a large amount of time and there was a limit on what I could pack in my suitcase.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I've been genuinely shocked by the dreadful quality of the 'extra choice' available since switching to digital TV; every technological advance seems to have served to undermine rather than enhance genuinely interesting discourse and engaging entertainment.
    The silver lining in the cloud, though, is that books are now so cheap.

  • Comment number 37.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    Perhaps we will all have to turn back to paper once all of the oil is gone, and electricity - to charge the batteries of electronic devices - becomes a luxury.

    Personally, 'books' in non-paper form are abominations; it is pity they cannot be burned on bonfires....

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    12.George wrote

    "The acid test is would you read a book on an ipad whilst having a bath."

    Been there done that -- wrote off the ipad! and laptop previously and mobile phones dead in the shower too!

    Where are the waterproof ipads - waterproof cameras are available, why not waterproof ipads?

    Maybe some enterprising Chinese manufacture can solve the heat and connectivity problems?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    A couple of points.

    Vivian (8), while the user cannot easily replace the battery in these devices it IS possible. Also the manufacturer will usually offer a battery replacement service at a significantly lower cost than buying a new device.

    Random Guy (32), there are waterproof covers available for Kindles, iPads, etc. which allow full operation. If one is used the device wont be damaged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Great article outlining the challenges of the publishing industry!

    A year ago, we began to conceive of a better way to connect writers w/ the publishers they want to reach. Today, Inkubate (dot) com is a real place w/ real people who care about the future of writing and the people who write. We invite writers to sign on, post work & build a literary brand.

    [Personal details removed by Moderator]
    Stacy Clark

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Errm if I drop a book in the bath it just gets wet. A kindle fries and is gone.

    Yesssss We reads in the bath precious....

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    There are many examples of technical books when this would be good - a book about woodworking including videos for example.

    For fiction I want to read not be bombarded with "related" stuff

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I love e-books. I'm dyslexic and I find e-books a thousand times easier to read than paperbacks. Right now I've just finished Oliver Twist - which I read by starting at pg. 1 and continuing through to the final page.

    And that's something,Mr Makinson, I've never been able to do before. Don't knock it - being able to read straight through a classic is an amazing experience!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    By no means a necessary cause for an outrage - however I, personally, shall not be trading in the traditional smell of the paper nor the feel of turning a page, for a mechanism that could fail any time. Id rather rely on a good old fashioned book any day, and they shan't need charging up any time soon for running out of electricity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I prefer to use my own imagination in conjunction with the author's: the idea of having an author's work interpreted (and interrupted) for me is just rubbish: nothing can come close to what my own mind can create. This is why films made from books are often a disappointment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    In one way I am pleased about e-books, as like with computers and music production, it has made the medium more accessible to more people. Prices are cheaper and reading a book is a lot more, well, I hate to say it 'convenient'. There surely is a market (as has recently been shown by the 'Wasteland' app) for more interactive versions of books but there is still nothing like a proper paperback....

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I have shelves full of paper based books, a kindle full of ebooks, and an iPod full of audio books.

    Once I was so engrossed with a book, I didn't want to stop for a long drive for work, so I bought the audio-book version. On arriving, I purchased the Kindle version, to continue reading it on my phone in boring meetings. What I need is a multi format version so I only buy it once!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    When I read a book, I do not want anything to interupt the narrative, not even end notes. If I want to know more I will check it out afterwards.


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