Saturday, 6 September 2008

The Future of Books as Big Events

The big fear in the publishing world seems to be that books will go the same way as CD’s, rendered redundant by the wonders of the Internet. But maybe books will survive and prosper in the same way as blockbuster movies and pop concerts have.

Movies that you have to travel to and then pay to see should have been put out of business by television, by the DVD and by downloading, but still people flock to the multiplexes for the big screens and the social experience. Live pop concerts should have been destroyed by CD's and Ipods, but actually they have been fed by them instead. CD’s were just a way to listen to music, whereas books, like movies, live theatre and music, are much loved and user-friendly products in themselves.

That’s not to say that technology shouldn’t be changing the whole way we think of books, many of which do not need to be published in the traditional way. Business books, for instance, and topical academic works are often served much better by the convenience and speed of the computer download, (and the Kindle and the Sony Reader et al will take the concept to the next stage).

Peter James, now one of the world’s most successful thriller writers, has been predicting such things for at least twenty years and is finally being proved to have been both right and ahead of his time. His own enormous successes in the traditional publishing formats however, demonstrate that the book is still a long way from being dead.

What I believe the developments show us is that we have actually been publishing books the wrong way round, starting with the hardback format and then, if that is successful, republishing in ever-cheaper paperback versions. What if we turned the whole process on its head?

Imagine a writer has created a 70,000-word piece of work. We start by circulating it on the Internet, maybe doing some print-on-demand to test the market and build word of mouth. Maybe it will get no further, in which case it probably wouldn’t have worked as a book either, but at least trees will have been spared in the new process. If it does well, however, and shows that it has a potential market, it could then be published in paperback for a wider market.

If the paperback proves successful then beautifully designed, hardback souvenir editions could be produced as gift items and to be treasured on bookshelves for future generations. Hardback books would then be the equivalent of the great pop concerts that cater to demands that have initially been fed with downloaded tracks, videos on MTV, CD’s and all the rest.

There would still be exceptions like sure-fire hits, (a new Harry Potter for instance or a lushly illustrated companion to a popular television cookery programme), but I believe the vast majority of books would suit this route to market. It is as ridiculous to put a first time, unknown novelist straight into a glossy hardback, as it would be to book an unknown band into the O2 Centre.

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