Appreciation of print: Angus Phillips, and the evolution of the book, revisited

Recently I posted a review (‘Turning the page’ 28 July 2015‘) of Turning the page (Routledge) by Angus Phillips. The book was published in 2014. Presumably the writing was done c. 2012-13. Book publishing doesn’t change as fast as some fields, so a book conceived so recently is likely to be pretty well up to date. Yet there has been some change, so I’ve been reflecting on how the book might need to look if it was being written now — or, if you like, what a second edition might require.

I think the answer is, in a nutshell, more on print — its resilience and its distinctive strengths.

Phillips’ book was developed as the ebook revolution finally took hold. It is, therefore, free of the type of ‘ebooks are coming’ prophecy that seemed to last, tiresomely, for a decade or more. Rather the stance is that ebooks, together with other forms of digital publishing, have established themselves as a major part of the publishing landscape.

Yet since Phillips wrote his text, the growth in ebooks has slowed and some commentators have suggested that ebooks have plateaued. I don’t find that argument convincing — in part for the detailed reasons advanced by commentators such as Michael Bhaksar in BookBrunch (‘The ebook plateau — what’s really going on?‘, 18 May) and Michael Kerin in The Bookseller (‘The ebook plateau?’, 9 April) and, more generally, because I can’t see why we should assume the future is linear: just as early predictions of stellar growth have proved wide of the mark because they projected sales growth in a straight (upwards) line, so predictions of a plateau are questionable because they too extrapolate a (flat) straight line. The truth is, we don’t know.

What we do know is that print hasn’t simply fallen off a cliff. Indeed, the Financial Times‘ Lex column recently published an upbeat note on Barnes & Noble (‘Barnes & Noble: a new chapter’, 18 July), observing that ‘suddenly a book chain with physical stores does not seem such an awful idea’. The many reasons for print resilience include (I think in ascending order) the following:

  1. there are particular genres and purposes to which print is well suited. In a previous post (‘Not the London Book Fair (II)’, 16 April 2013) I noted sports programmes, university prospectuses, and supermarket magazines as candidates;
  2. the availability of ebook editions has challenged publishers to think more creatively about physical production. One way of boosting the appeal of print is to enhance the production values — using better bindings, or head- or tailbands, or well designed typography, for example) — thus capitalising on what ebooks cannot offer. This hasn’t led to an increase in production values across the board — but it has led to more discussion, on a case by case basis, of how books should be designed and produced.
  3. the fact that book publishing isn’t a zero sum. It isn’t the case that each sale in one medium replaces a sale in another medium. One impetus behind the ‘ebook plateau’ hypothesis was the hope that this would be good for print publishing (along the lines of ‘Thank goodness ebook sales are plateauing, that means there’s still room for print). But print does not depend of ebooks stalling.

Overall, the dominant paradigm, at least amongst journalistic discussion of publishing, has tended to rest of the following assumptions:

  1. ebooks and print books are locked in a zero sum game;
  2. the story of ebooks and print books can be told through generalised trends;
  3. those trends can be approximated in the form of straight lines —

whereas, in fact:

  1. the total market is not static;
  2. the pattern is variegated;
  3. the future may prove non-linear.

My answer to my initial question (what might a second edition of Turning the page require?), therefore, is: an account of how the last couple of years has seen, against expectation, a greater appreciation of print.

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