I first saw it behind the Chairman’s left ear. Being still here at Frankfurt for the Book Fair I am spending my life on exhibition stands, literally measuring it out in coffee spoons, as the poet has it. But as my gaze went beyond the ear of the great man, it encountered the slogan that heads this piece. Then I realized it was his company screen saver, and once I was attuned I realised that I had been seeing it on stickers all week. Who is doing this? Is some Gutenberg Protection Society at work? And if the time has come to “Save the Book” then where do I stand?
The Chairman was no help; he said that some people wanted it, and some people thought that digital had “gone too far”. But no indication of who some people are or whether he was one. So I was left with a sense of puzzlement and resentment. If you promulgate a slogan like this, it cannot be because you just thought it was a good idea in the bar – it means you think that the book is threatened. And nothing is more threatening for the book than people thinking it is threatened. Prophecies are usually self-fulfilling. And I live in a house gloriously crammed with books from room to room, yet I work with digital futures and ideas. Do I have to choose? I resent that idea hugely.
Technologies change, and people change, but no law of nature says that formats must stay the same, or that you cannot enjoy using several at once. Did cinema die when television arrived? Or radio? Is it wrong to watch a film in a plane? Or listen to the radio on a computer? I have therefore sent in an order for some stickers of my own. I am starting with “Papyrus will never die” and once that has sunk in I will move to “Codex will never die”. When we have whole populations in the mood for this I shall produce my ultimate sticker, “Data will never die”.
Meanwhile, as well as chairmen we have had launches and networking. I dutifully went to Frankfurt’s first Digital Night in a club in the Hirschgraben. Reminded me of First Tuesday in 1999. Everyone spoke at once, the beer was warm and you could not hear the speaker, Joe Wikert, from ten feet away. And there were launches for Beagle, the new eReader that downloads from a smartphone, and for BookShout (excellently covered by Laura Hazard Owen in PaidContent: http://paidcontent.org/2012/10/10/bookshout-pulls-users-kindle-nook-books-onto-other-platforms/). This cloud-based environment, fully endorsed by a growing tranche of major publishers and backed by Ingram, is clearly seen here as a way of breaking the awful power of Apple and Amazon over the book trade. Which takes me back to the beginning of this piece yet again.
I have been a reader for well over 50 years and have recorded the title and author of every book that I have read in that time. I could be said to be an ardent consumer. The only awful power that I have experienced in that time has been the tyranny of publishers (and having been one myself I can testify from experience!). How often do I complain about the lack of an index or a bibliography? How often do I lament the scattering of muddy black and white images in even the most recent books? Or the unleaded 9 point Caslon Old face which is giving me a headache? Or the lack of generous margins or the ability to associate footnotes with what I am reading rather than keeping my thumb in the back matter?
In the network the publisher could give me options. All of these complaints could be rectified. I could have an index, have larger type (and not just within the limitations of the eReader that I am using). I could associate video and colour images – and, if I wanted to, I could send my version to my friends or get Ingram to print a version for me. If publishers would give me a license. But publishers are stuck in the commodity stage of human development. They want to sell little paper packages that are all identical. They do not yet feel the force of the first lesson of the network; “When everyone is connected to everyone, the power of one becomes more dominant than ever before in human history”.
Personalization and mass customization will come, even to the book industry. BookShout ia helpful, even as it asserts the inalienable right of the individual to play the content she bought on the device that she currently favours. And the Book in its broadest sense is already in irreversible retreat. The Phone Book, Yellow Pages and the Directory have already gone (swiftly pursued by declining newspapers and magazines). The Textbook is seldom now a textbook, being interactive, shared and, in the best instances, updated in real time. Huge extensions of the fiction market have taken place in Hockings and Locke territory – the 99 cent dramas produced via Amazon to give reading to smartphone and tablet readers on public transport, in seeming emulation of the demand cycle of Japanese commuters over the past decade – but popular fiction is not growing and literary fiction remains a loud noise in a small space, as it ever was. Predictably serious non-fiction will be the next area to feel the weight of change – and if it leads to the creation of better books then that is all to the good.
And Frankfurt could become a place to visit in the network as well as on weary feet. Meanwhile, I just have the energy for one more slogan for a sticker “Support the digital network – bringing more books to more readers than book marketing managed in the last 100 years!”