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Parallel Lines: can technologies co-exist?

The BBC’s World at One news programme has been running a series of interesting interviews with book trade notables, allowing them the opportunity to consider the state of the business.  At this quiet time for book news, trade papers and bloggers have been picking up and sharing their comments.  To give you a flavour, here’s The Bookseller on Kate Pullinger (these are exciting times, think “storytelling” rather than “book”);  James Daunt (booksellers will be OK if they do a better job than Waterstone’s has been doing and the publishers raise their production standards);  Victoria Barnsley (hold tight for the digital revolution and a world of “frenemies”), and here’s blogger Paul Carr on Graham Swift (we’re all doomed).

Of this group, Victoria Barnsley is the real change-maker, and her predictions for a digital future assume that change is going to substantial.  50% of fiction sales may be in digital formats within two years (up from what, 8-10% at present?  No one really knows).  Amazon (which Barnsley believes controls 90% of the online market in physical books, and 70% in eBooks) is a direct and powerful competitor for HarperCollins, and its advances into publishing are a significant cause for concern.

50% by the summer of 2013, eh?  On that basis:

– Amazon’s share of the total fiction market might hit about 60% (35% eBook and 25% pBook)

– Waterstone’s fiction share will drop to somewhere between 10-15% (many shops will have to close)

– Supermarkets will drop below 10% (supermarkets will seriously destock books in favour of other products)

– Everybody will be piling in to try and share in the eBook gold rush, though it’s hard to see in the short/medium term who can provide a comparable service to Amazon’s.

I’ve been trying to imagine a world in which the physical book and the eBook co-exist as fiction channels.  I’m struggling to think of other instances of old and new technology happily co-existing when both deliver the same fundamental offer.  If the difference between the two formats is sufficiently distinctive, then perhaps there is a future for both, but I can’t imagine Bernard Cornwell, Clive Barker or Cathy Kelly having dual lives for very long – the simple economics of book production will count against them.

Now, I appreciate that the printed book has been around since Gutenberg – this isn’t the Sony MiniDisc that we’re talking about, this is a technology entrenched in every aspect of our lives.  And yet, and yet.  Let’s take a look at music and video technology.  Well, you knew I would.

1905: the market for recorded music is split between gramophone records, and Edison cylinders.  Despite massive manufacturer and consumer investment in cylinders (which provide better and more consistent sound reproduction), the market chooses discs, and the cylinder is effectively dead by WW1.

Early 1950s: long-playing records are introduced.  The 45 rpm single directly replaces the 78 rpm disc.  The first Elvis Presley singles on Sun sold at least as well at 78 as they did at 45, but by 1958 the 78 rpm disc, dominant for half a century, is all but finished.

Late 1960s: the market splits between static music (records) and portable music (8-track cartridges, quickly superceded by cassettes).  Each fulfils a different role, at the limit of what technology can achieve.

1980s: CDs are introduced in 1983, and supplant LP records by the end of the decade.  Audiophiles and DJs cling to the format, but as a consumer product the disc-and-stylus are over, after 90 years.

1990s: CDs progressively supplant cassettes, as the challenges of managing lasers in a moving environment (car stereos, personal stereos) are overcome.

Late 1990s: MP3 downloading starts, initially a wholly illegal activity.  Following the launch of iTunes and the iPad, the cassette is killed off, and CDs decline towards extinction.

Each time new technology is introduced (and we could have gone down the Betamax/VHS/DVD/streaming route instead), early adopters are followed by mass market acceptance; there then follows a point at which a significant proportion of the market has to be disenfranchised.  Retailers and manufacturers don’t wait for demand for old formats to decline to zero, but move the market along.  Once 70% of your album sales are on CD, it’s time to drop LPs (having progressively stripped back range and commitment over the previous couple of seasons).  As downloads form an increasing part of the singles market, retailers progressively gave up on CD singles.  Dixons always makes great PR play on its killing off old technologies, as this press release on CRT TVs emphasises.

The venerability of the book format counts for little – particularly when the true comparison for eBooks is with the mass-market, popular fiction paperback.  Penguin launched in 1935, but the mass-market explosion dates from the 1950s.  60 years isn’t a bad innings for a format.  Paperbacks have little or no parallel existence with hardcovers – the former eliminates the latter from the market.  Why should mass-market paperback fiction continue in a supporting role to eBook formats?


Finally, a thought on “storytelling”, as mentioned by Kate Pullinger.  eBooks can do everything (tactile objections notwithstanding), that paperbacks can do; but they can of course do much more, as the “pure” eBook elides into apps, participative content and a hundred other variations.  Stories can be told through acting, music and visual art, and new technology can bring these elements together in new ways.  We have a new technology that can replace the paperback.  Why on earth would it not?

Last word to The Observer, which ran this editorial yesterday (and appears to believe there is only one eReader on the market):

Popular Kindle reading has reached a tipping point.  The average UK shopper now spends £4 per month on ebooks and 53% of Kindle users say they are now reading more books than ever before.  Better still, grumpy bibliophiles are falling in love with the Kindle’s sleek, reader-friendly lines, its lovely facsimile of the printed page and, yes, its literary chic.

Pictures: Cylinder player: http://www.cylinder.de; Goldfinger: Wikipedia; Rebecca: retrobookshop.com; Christie: bearalley.blogspot.com

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2 Comments on “Parallel Lines: can technologies co-exist?”

  1. Andy Adamson says:

    While I agree with the overall direction of travel, I’m not convinced by the timescales. Looking at Supermarkets in the Music market, they hold at least 40% of the physical market (up to 80% on particular titles) and that physical market at over 60% is still substantial.
    The one advantage books have is that paperbacks in supermarkets are so cheap. For most readers of popular fiction and some other genres like biography this is an easy purchase and the book is disposed of at the end of the reading experience. It’s hard to see these readers spending £100 on a device when they spend less than this on books in a year or two.
    I do see a two track market for some time. I agree that the hardback market is doomed and areas like literary fiction will also migrate quickly (with occasional premium priced editions released as collectors items), but for the mass paperback market, my timeline extends close to the end of the decade.
    This of course is bad news for book specialists and better for supermarkets. The only way I can see an alternative to this would be for the pricing structure on physical books to be reviewed. However, i don’t think the industry is brave enough to do that.

    • Thanks Andy. I don’t disagree with you on the “close of the decade” as a timescale for the demise of the fiction paperback. We’ve had a few years of new technology (eBooks) failing to take hold, and then explosive growth on the back of the Kindle/Kindle Store, and, to a lesser but still meaningful extent, the iPad and smarter phones.
      Mike Shatzkin is propounding the theory that Amazon will move towards free Kindles – a similar model, I guess, to the free phone or the cheaply priced Sky box that ties you into subscribing to a service. I think this is perfectly feasible.
      I’ve been writing a proper article (as opposed to a blog entry) about the French book market. It’s price-controlled, but one attractive feature is the prevalence of cheap, A-format editions of popular fiction retailing for around €6. We could do with a little more of that, and it might help to even out the supermarket/bookshop difference.
      I see that the Notting Hill travel bookshop (“Hugh Grant’s”) is closing. Last week, Christopher Robin’s bookshop in Devon made the same announcement. It will take some years, but I’m afraid that bookshops won’t survive on gifts and art books for long, once mass market fiction has transitioned.