I was fascinated to read about Gerry Johnson's speech given to the delegates of the Retail Week conference. In it he said that booksellers must ready themselves for a digital revolution, similar to the one experienced by the music industry.
I read his comments the morning after addressing the Society Of Young Publishers where I said the complete opposite. This may surprise you, coming as it does from someone who works for a web-to-print publisher, but I really don't think digital media will have anything like the impact on the book world than it has in the world of music.
Allow me to qualify that statement with a bit of a history lesson. The music industry has experienced three revolutions, of sorts, in the past 30 years. The first was the invention of the Walkman, the first time that personal music became truly portable. This brought on the mix-tape culture, people making their own compilations on cassette to play on the way to work, while jogging, or while rollerskating along a Californian beachfront in shorts and legwarmers. Next was the onset of the compact disc. CDs made music (supposedly) better quality, processed it in small units, and, after a short while, encouraged people to convert their entire collections from vinyl to the new format; for a decade or more people were buying the same albums for a second time as they updated their music libraries. The same thing has happened in recent years with video collections converting to DVD. On a point of order we should note that many musos have argued as to the superiority of vinyl over compact disc all this time, but most of those are just pissed off that they can't roll their joints as efficiently on a CD case compared to an LP cover. And the third, and most recent, revolution has been the onslaught of digital media. In a few short years since it really appeared, many of us have converted our entire music libraries to digital files and store them on a little machine no bigger than a fag packet, and often smaller. At the moment most of us still own the hard copies as CDs but I cannot imagine that our children or our children's children will be all that bothered.
Now, the reason for that little digression was to point out the major difference between the digital revolution in music compared to what I believe will be more of a digital evolution in books. Each stage of the audio revolution has been about making music smaller and more portable; but books are already portable. The changes in music format and delivery allows us to listen to a wide range of music on the same journey; so we could have a slice of John Coltrane followed by some Flaming Lips and then a bit of Satie - the mix-tape mentality. We don't need the same sort of flexibility with reading; you don't fancy a couple of chapters of Lee Child and then want to tackle a few pages of Proust and then delve into some metaphysical poetry all on the same train journey. Well you might, but you would be a bit odd. The vast majority of readers, when making use of the portability of a book by reading it on the go, will tackle one book at a time. This, I believe, is a crucial difference between the two media. Music has become portable over the past three decades, books have been portable for all of that time, and a long while before that.
For digital media to change the face of reading and books within six months of the tipping point, as Johnson suggests, would mean vast numbers of us eschewing paper books for eReaders and online material. Perhaps this will happen one day, though I doubt it, but it certainly won't happen within six months of E-Day, or whatever it is that will prompt the change.
Having said that, I do think that digital media will have a dramatic impact on certain areas of publishing and reading and that could be a fairly swift process, perhaps over the next couple of years. A few examples:
COOKBOOKS. Printed books are, to be honest, quite an impractical format for cooking. They don't lay open at the right page without some medieval contraption holding them open; they get covered in goo; and the pages containing your most used recipes end up sticking together with the residue of dozens of meals. They are ripe for a digital takeover. It will not be long before we are cooking and baking away while looking at a screen. A little flip down flatscreen will descend from beneath the kitchen cabinet, you punch in the word 'FISH' and up come all the fish recipes. You select 'BREAM' and the relevant ones pop up. You press 'NIGELLA' and two of her bream recipes appear before your eyes. You choose the one you want and then the instructions appear step by step on screen, with video to show you the tricky techniques and her mildly pornographic commentary urging you along. I love cookbooks, you've seen my cookbook shelf, but the future of cooking at home will not be in the printed form; it will probably be some version of the above, and we are not that far off seeing it.
TRAVEL. Why carry a travel book around when the entire content can appear in an easier format, and searchable to boot, on your mobile phone or PDA? The travel publishers have been exploring this technology for some time and have struggled to get bookshops to show any interest. GPS technology will enable you to press a button while standing in a market square in Prague and immediately get a list of all the decent restaurants within a 5 minute walk. Again, this is not far off and sales of travel guides will decline as more and more people opt for the digital lifestyle.
BIG FAT HARDBACKS. A couple of years from now, when you purchase a hefty volume of history or biography, or even fiction, your book will come with a digital keycode. That code will unlock an online version of the text for you to download to your eReader. This then makes even the heaviest volume portable. Imagine you have just spent £30 on a new biography of Nelson that weighs in at 800 pages. It is bloody heavy. It sits by your reading chair and you tackle 30 or 40 pages with a cup of cocoa before bedtime. Next morning you pop your eReader in your bag and pick up from page 41 on the train into work. That night you revert to your preferred, but heavy, hardback and carry on from where your eReader left off. This is a concept which I first heard from Rob at Snowbooks and is one I am actually looking forward to seeing. Again, this isn't far away.
These are just three areas where digital content could make a significant difference to the way we read books. So, I am not disagreeing with Johnson entirely. I just think he is being a bit alarmist.
Although, to be completely fair, his comments were largely aimed at book retail, and here he has a very good point. The Voice Of Doom he may be, but he is absolutely bang on the money, or lack of it. He is quoted as saying:
"We have witnessed the internet drive down demand for large bookstores. We wouldn't contemplate opening a 15,000 to 20,000 sq ft store, because even if the market will support it now, it won't in the future."
And he is quite right. In my earlier post, They Just Might Have To Settle For Less, I pointed out that, although retailers are obsessed with market share, the high street stores are just going to have to accept a share decline as readers shop online and in supermarkets more and more. There is nothing they can do about it. Sure they can start their own websites, but they are going to struggle to catch up with Amazon and Play who are already miles ahead in that area.
Large bookstores are indeed a thing of the past. Show me a book superstore now and it is odds-on that it loses money. Do not be surprised if your favourite multi-floor bookshop closes down in the next few years. They are very expensive to run and extremely difficult to justify.
So is Gerry Johnson the Voice Of Doom? I don't think so. When it comes to book retail he is certainly the Voice Of Reason, alarming though his comments may be. I do not think we will see the 'revolution' he suggests, at least not from the publishing side, but the bookshops almost certainly will.