Monday, January 16, 2006

E-read all about it (The Observer)

The world of publishing stands on the cusp of the greatest innovation since Gutenberg. With cheap, portable electronic readers just around the corner, what is the future of the printed book?

Robert McCrum
Sunday January 15, 2006

Every year at the Booker Prize, there's an odd little ritual in which six 21st-century writers come face to face with the art and craft of the book as Caxton and Chaucer knew it. Before the winner is announced, each writer is presented with a sumptuous, hand-tooled, hardback edition of their novel. Once a reaffirmation of a venerable, but vital, tradition, in years to come this ceremony may seem as quaint as the presentation of Maundy money. All the signs are that the book as we know it may be going the way of the codex and the illuminated manuscript.

This is paradoxical. Rarely in Britain has the book trade seemed so vigorous. In 1990, 65,000 new titles were published here. Last year, the total had risen to a staggering 161,000, far greater, pro rata, than France, Germany or even America. Never mind the figures. Britain's literary microclimate is tropical in its fever and Elizabethan in its profusion. Book festivals from Folkestone to Edinburgh heave with visitors; book clubs and reading groups have become middle England's bingo; book prize news breaks ceaselessly. And that's not to mention the broadcasters, from The South Bank Show and Richard and Judy to Book at Bedtime. No genre of contemporary writing escapes the programmers.

If, on this evidence, you were tempted to call this a golden age of publishing, you should first talk to the publishers. To them, the IT revolution cuts both ways. It has inspired a boom, but it also threatens to turn the book world upside down. As Richard Charkin, president of the Publishers' Association, told The Observer: 'I spend four-fifths of my time worrying about technology.' In the near future, Charkin believes that book publishing will be unrecognisable.

The future might already be here. Microchips have transformed the music business (iTunes) and film and TV (DVDs). 'It's only a matter of time,' says Paul Carr, editor in chief of web-to-print publishing house the Friday Project, 'before this same type of functionality comes to the book world. The moment someone invents a portable electronic reader that looks [and reads] like paper and that allows books to be downloaded on to it, there will be an explosion of e-books.'

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