Devices such as the Kindle and iPad are changing the way we think about books – but who will control the future of reading?
Books have come late to the digital party, but change is now happening at such a furious pace that even conservative members of the trade are starting to realise that their industry is being snatched away from them before their eyes. The undisputed leader in the race to sell digital books is Amazon. Its Kindle e-reader was a late entry into the race but it used its redoubtable marketing muscle to gain a 76% share of all digital books sold. It could have been much more but for the arrival of the iPad, which now has a 5% market share, though rising fast.
Traditional booksellers such as Barnes and Noble (which has just released a new Wi-Fi reader) and Waterstones are still in the race, but it looks as though book distribution is being sewn up by existing digital giants. Is this what we really want – a series of walled gardens controlled by corporate giants? Why hasn’t a horizontal model emerged in which networks of readers and authors can interact and buy and exchange favourite works on a global scale? Where is the Facebook of books?
This vertical model, of course, brings terrific benefits – having a virtual library of thousands of books you can read when and where you want. I do it a lot. But there are also very disturbing side-effects. Do we want reading, which ought to be a truly communal experience, migrating into a handful of digital silos, each imposing their own rules about what we can read, where we can read it and making it impossible to lend a book if you don’t lend the device as well? Some publishers even ask you to state that you won’t read the book aloud.
Amazon doesn’t just own Kindle. Its tentacles have spread out into a series of worrying monopolies. Instead of using its formidable base in selling traditional books to build up a similar position with second-hand books, it purchased the biggest existing seller of second-hand books on the internet, Abebooks.com. Instead of building up its own presence in audio books, it purchased Audible.com, which had over 90% of the audio market. It also bought a 40% stake in Librarything.com, one of the admirable online book clubs, which has just released a kind of mobile public library in the US and Ireland.
There are lots of interesting experiments in the online book world, including Nick Cave’s novel Bunny Munro, sold as a multimedia iPhone app; Google’s massive scanning of out-of-copyright books; the now venerable Gutenberg project, which has over 33,000 out-of-copyright books uploaded by volunteers; and numerous bookclubs not to mention the Guardian’s own. The video book publisher Vook.com has just celebrated its first anniversary. I loved Tim Wright’s geo-tagged retracing of Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey in Kidnapped. And still to come is 24Symbols, which aims to be the Spotify of books by streaming them for free over the web (with adverts paying) as well as traditional paid-for downloads.
If we are yearning for something to take books from “them” and give them back to “us”, we have to look a bit into the future to start-ups such as Etherbooks.co.uk, which currently offers short stories to your phone at 59p a pop but has ambitious plans to expand into a global horizontal model. Its founder Maureen Scott has a long history of involvement in disruptive start-ups. Quoting the mantra “Content is king, but context is queen”, she sees the literary future as networked, multi-platformed and inclusive – mainly through the mobile phone. Down with silos, up with communities – especially the community of writers, bloggers and fans. She sees the site as a forum for stories that will all be curated to maintain standards.
It is clear that the revolution in books is only just beginning. The interesting thing is that the product itself – the book – is not threatened, only the way it is read. It is pretty clear that more books will be read in future as out-of-copyright ones are reprinted and 18-to-24-year-olds, the drivers of mobile adoption, take to reading on their phones and other devices. More and more books will be read through dedicated e-readers (which can be read in daylight and on the beach) and backlit ones such as the iPad, which can be read at night.
No one knows where all this will end up, but it will be nowhere near as revolutionary as the change from reading scrolls to reading books in the middle ages. The e-reader revolution merely lures the same people to read books in a different format. The move from scrolls to books turned an immobile activity enjoyed by a tiny minority of educated people into a mobile phenomenon that would eventually be enjoyed by all. The unanswered question remains: who will control this revolution in knowledge, them or us? The answer, literally and metaphorically, is in our hands.