The print book is a physical entity, a product and requires certain optimal conditions for its continuance.
In a review of Keith Houston’s The Book – A Cover to Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time, Erik Spiekermann a typographer stated that reports of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated. In The Book, Houston tells us the fascinating history of the book that is 2,000 years old moving from the early cuneiform tablets and papyrous scrolls to the hardcovers and paperbacks of today. Along the journey, paper, ink, thread, glue and board from which books are made tell their own story, along with writing, printing, the art of illustrations and binding.
Can we say “the print book is dead; let’s proceed to the funeral”, as Voltaire once remarked about the Holy Roman Empire, neither holy, nor Roman and not even an empire and wanted to give it a burial?
Perhaps, not yet but as we enter the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, we need to pause and ponder over the print book’s future.
The print book is a physical entity, a product and requires certain optimal conditions for its continuance. The first stakeholder is the reader for without readers, there would be no books. Then there are publishers, printers, booksellers and distributors who are all involved in producing the book and getting it across to the reader. Profound changes have now affected what had been for years, a relatively smooth process, now without its difficulties, and have changed it drastically. The first sign of change was for some bright young graduates from business schools and newly recruited into publishing to declare loftily that the book was a consumer product. As if during its entire history, it had been anything but that.
But what was even more important were the implications behind the declaration. It was decided to apply the rules of consumer marketing and consumer behaviour to books. The book as a product was to so designed that it had to “visually appeal” to the consumer. The first change was to the cover. It had to be eye-catching. Who best to decide this? Not the author or the editor who laboured so hard over the book. It was the bookseller who was the arbiter of taste and preference. Marketing managers of publishing houses would take a couple of draft cover visuals to prominent bookshop chains and it would be the latter who would decide what the cover would be. Never mind if the visual did not quite reflect the theme of the book.
The second was the pricing of the book. Both the publisher and the distributor wanted healthy margins. Again stepped in the marketing manager. The consumer would not be interested unless given a discount. So a discount now had to be factored in and with the expectation in margins, the result was that it drove up prices. The book was still comparatively, a low-priced product compared to other consumer products in the market and it was realised that it would have to sell in far greater quantities if it was to realise higher returns on the investment. So quantity discount terms were fixed for distributors who would order in bulk. Retail booksellers too now got into the act. Just as for other products on offer you could get deals like one plus one or two plus one, dealers began to offer one plus half. On the first purchase, you could get the second book at half-price.
Did all these strategies help to sell books in greater quantities? Not really. The strategies were based on a fundamental misconception, the nature of the product being marketed. A prominent publisher once asked ‘how do you sell books?’. The answer ‘why, with your hands, of course!’ may not be so obvious for hand-sellers have now become creatures of the past. It was forgotten that books were products of the intellect and that for a book to sell it had to appeal to the mind. Its content had to engage with the reader and the reader could be both finicky and choosy. He may not be allured by a second book at half-price at all, it was choosing the first that bothered him.
Technology has been described as a disruptor and developments in technology disrupted both the model of publishing and its process. Digital technology helped to produce the electronic book or the e-book and while it answered some consumer requirements, it disrupted the world of the print book. The first casualties were multi-volume reference workd and journals publishing. Works like the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary will no longer be available in print form.
Technology marched on. The introduction of Print-on-Demand machines (POD) resulted in print runs being shrunk to a hundred copies or ten copies or even one copy! This has affected professional publishing. Medical reference works are published as e-books with users downloading specific chapters as per their requirements. Those who want print copies can avail of the POD process.
We had earlier spoken of “enabling conditions” for print books. Among them were bookshops where books could be accessed. The last few years have just witnessed closure of to many prominent outlets in major cities. Most booksellers cited online-sellers as a reason for decreased footfalls. Book reviews and notices in the media too helped to increase the visibility of the book, but we have seen shrinking space to books in the print media and books are conspicuous by their absence in both the audio and visual media.
While e-books have affected print runs of the book, they also led to devices in which to read them.
Jeff Bezos’ introduction of the first version of the Kindle at the Jacob Javits Center in New York in 2007 was only the first of a range of such devices. Apart from e-readers, even mobile phones and wristwatches are now being pressed into service as reading devices.
Even in our educational institutions where it was felt print books were secure, profound changes are taking place with e-books, online learning and animation along with hand-held devices and robotic learning.
The jury is still out on what will be the format of reading for our children’s children. The effort has so far been to “match” the reading experience of the print book with that of the e-book. Efforts are underway now to give a reading experience on a device that can go “beyond” that of the print format.
We may well need to rephrase the earlier formulation and say “The Book is Dead. Long Live Reading!”
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books