Speaking at the Cartagena, Colombia edition of the Hay Literary Festival in January, acclaimed US author Jonathan Franzen struck a blow for print when he insisted that, for the serious book reader - or "a literature-crazed person like me" - the 'analogue' format was always going to be preferable to its upstart digital competitor, the e-book. Printed books, he went on, were part of the "concrete world", whereas e-books just weren't "permanent enough".
While this may have prompted some among the self-regarding literati to ditch their Kindles, Kobos and Nooks, it is also an indication that the book sector may be developing into a two-tiered market, where the ‘serious readers’ – those that like to sit down with some James Joyce, for example – continue to buy printed books, while the consumers of mass-market fiction download new releases to their e-readers.
If this situation should arise – and many believe it already has – it would represent a massive upheaval in the way books are bought, sold and produced. However, print need not necessarily give up so easily on the mass market, provided it can improve upon the job it is currently doing. And anyway, the distinctions may not be as clear cut as they initially seem.
The growth of the e-book market has undeniably been astonishingly fast – last year, for every 100 hard- and soft-cover books Amazon sold, it sold 105 Kindle downloads – and launching an e-book-only title is now relatively common.
And print inevitably suffers as result, as Kate McFarlan, managing director at St Ives’ book printing operation Clays, notes.
"The volume of physical books being printed and then sold is coming down by about 6.5% and the publishing world is predicting that the major decline,
certainly for the next 12 months, will continue. I’m not bucking that; it’s a fact of life," she says.
MPG Books chief executive Tony Chard attests to this trend. "E-books are eroding the print market," he says. "The reality is, people don’t want to take five books on holiday; it is more convenient to use a Kindle."
And this is not just about fiction sales. E-books have also taken market share in academic circles, where students are often required to have access to a number of weighty tomes. Chard says: "The jury is out in the academic market, but we do expect it to erode 10%-20% over the next three years," he says.
But if Franzen is correct, the migration from print to digital will be more from the less serious, mass-market readership. And that’s a theory others are coming on board with too, including printers.
"E-books are winning in genre fiction," says McFarlan. "Crime, romance and thrillers – what I call a throwaway read: you read it and chuck it away. People are doing that on their Kindle now, rather than buying an actual book."
If this trend continues, publishers will be left with a much smaller customer base that demands a high-end product and that would necessitate a completely different business approach and production capability than is currently the industry norm.
But McFarlan is not a wholesale believer in this market shift. She knows print will lose some mass-market work, but she’s confident that it will retain much of the rest. "E-books are having the most success at the extreme ends of mass-market reads – and obviously online access to serious academic work as well – but the bit in the middle is still owned by the printed book," she says.
"There’s also an element of people reading the e-book, then thinking: ‘I like that so I want to own and keep it in print’."
And this cross-platform consumer could also be a cross-genre consumer – just because you like a bit of Jonathan Franzen or Julian Barnes, it doesn’t mean you won’t also appreciate the less critically acclaimed work of, for example, Dan Brown or Danielle Steel.
And there are other issues. Waterstones PR & events manager Jon Howells explains that children’s books and publications with intricate illustrations do not translate well to the e-book format and so print has an advantage. Admittedly though, it is difficult to imagine Franzen was thinking of a five-year-old tucking into The Very Hungry Caterpillar when he talked about the "literature-crazed".
There is also a price factor. Electronic books are almost always less expensive to buy than their printed counterparts, in spite of the fact that, unlike printed books, they are subject to VAT. So, in economically tough times, it is perhaps inevitable that readers will opt for the lower-priced e-books. Whether this means the trend will reverse as the economy improves remains to be seen.
So the idea that the book-buying public can be easily divided along clear-cut lines into ‘serious’ or ‘mass-market’ readers, does not reflect the reality of the situation. That means, for a publisher, targeting a particular type of consumer is extremely difficult. And some question why book-sellers would want to target just a section of the reading public anyway. They argue that the printed and digital formats should not be rivals but rather complementary platforms, and that there is room for both to enjoy mass appeal.
"How many people have an iTunes library and still buy CDs of the music they particularly like?" asks Francis Atterbury, partner at Hurtwood Press. "The answer is: a lot. I think it’s the same situation for books. I think technology is here to stay – it’s convenient and easy."
So in this market future, publishers would do better to remind themselves of exactly why print is so cherished and focus on delivering that, rather than hoping to profit from a high-spending niche.
It is easy here to get caught up in the slightly romantic notion of print’s "permanence" that Franzen talked of, but Howells says there is something in that.
"You are buying an object that will stay with you for a long time. A physical book reminds you of reading it," he says.
While this is true, those with e-readers will argue that a digital book is just as permanent and just as capable of staying with you – after all, people buy a book to read not look at and what really ties a book to our consciousness and makes it stay with us are the words within it.
Print’s primary advantage is its ability to deliver the reading experience in a more attractive and enjoyable way than an e-reader – and that gives it an edge. Novelist Victoria Fox, who has published in both print and digitally, and who is of an age when you’d think an e-reader would be the medium of choice, certainly sees print as the more engaging choice.
"A printed book is interactive – you hold it, you love it," she says. "A hardback is a handsome thing; a paperback sings of the thumbs that have riffed through it or the places it’s been."
She admits, however, that this may be because we are living in an age where the ‘analogue’ product – the printed book – is still regarded as the dominant technology, one with which millions of people around the world are familiar and comfortable. This may not be the case for much longer; electronic screens are increasingly replacing paper in our schools, libraries and bookshops, and will become as familiar and comfortable a reading platform to future generations.
"The sceptic in me asks if future generations will not embrace a Kindle or a tablet in the same way. For us, they are not a patch on the ‘real thing’, but then, is that just an age-old unwillingness to let the ancient order go?" she ponders.
In order to keep readers coming back to ink on paper, print needs to provide an experience that cannot be replicated by a screen and to do that it needs to heed the advice of Julian Barnes, who, in his 2011 Man Booker Prize winner’s speech, implored publishers to create something "worth keeping" rather than relying on an outdated romance of print’s superiority. That means ensuring the highest standards of design and production for every product and pushing those design and production processes ever further – one bad experience could see a reader convert permanently to the digital format.
Howells certainly believes that there is a need for print to step up its game if it is to retain its audience: "We need to keep hold of those who treasure books as much as reading," he argues.
He says that he has noticed an improvement in design standards over the past two years and believes this is a great way of achieving some loyalty. He says a good example of what printers and publishers should be looking at is the collaboration between designer Coralie Bickford-Smith and Penguin Books to bring classics such as Charles Dickens’ and Jane Austen’s works into the 21st century by designing attractive and exclusive covers.
This was something Waterstones was seeking to highlight last Christmas when it used tables at the front of stores to promote what it called ‘Beautiful Books’. McFarlan too says "there is almost a revival of desire for the book as a beautiful object. The printed book is now a high-end product".
In shifting to a more beautiful product printers and publishers have to be wary of falling into the trap of getting greedy and producing high-quality books for high profit margins. If print is to continue to attract a wide audience, commercial considerations have to be thought out or printed books will become a cottage industry catering to the rich only.
Waterstones Howells thinks a "few pounds" onto a price would be a justifiable cost for a better looking product, but then Barnes’s Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending proved that a book can be, in Barnes’ words, a "beautiful object" as well as being sensibly priced.
And the truth is that books do not need to be expensive to look good, thanks to the advances in print technology. The quality of digital print is higher than ever before and production speeds and costs mean that print-on-demand is a model that even mass-market titles can adopt – bringing production, storage and distribution savings. Meanwhile, the cost of applying special finishes is becoming ever cheaper as inline processes and low-cost ‘cheats’ for things like gold foil effects become possible. Going forwards, it will be crucial that print maintains this level of development so that better and more affordable print products can be manufactured, if print is to remain competitive.
Bound to sell
Just as important to the future of printed books is what happens in the bindery. Atterbury says good binding can often be overlooked, but that if there were ever a need to have books better-made and longer-lasting, the time is now. He says the rise in e-book sales means that publishers should focus on the importance of binding to ensure the printed book’s permanence, physically and in terms of market longevity. He believes there is a need for publishers to select binders and publishers depending on the quality of the products they make.
"If you pull a print book down from the loft in 20 years’ time, there’s a good chance it will fall to pieces. Well, that’s not permanent is it? You might as well have an electronic one," he points out.
The problem is that so many people now buy books through an online shop where it is impossible to get a feel for the finish on the cover or investigate the binding.
That means publishers and printers don’t just have to concentrate on how they are producing printed books, but also how they marketing their wares to bookshops and to the reading public. This means developing promotional campaigns that celebrate the look and feel of a book, as well as the words printed within it.
So while Franzen’s comments may not represent the reality of the situation, they should at least act as a spur to the printing and publishing industries to take a look at what they are doing and who they are doing it for. The likelihood is that, as with other areas where print and digital converge, the two media find a level of co-existence. Nevertheless, print will have to do more and say more to ensure it maintains its position in the books market.
Penguin Books: Clothbound classics
Designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, this range featured well-known works by authors such as George Eliot, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, each bound in an intricate and individually-designed cloth cover. The covers were intended to pay homage to the iconic orange spines that were for so long the stamp of Penguin Books, while better engaging a modern readership.
The Sense of an Ending
The cover of 2011 Man Booker Prize-winner Julian Barnes’s book was designed by Suzanne Dean, creative director of Vintage Publishing. She said she wanted to create something that captured the essence of the book and was "arresting and original". After 20 or more mock-ups, Dean created the final version by painting the title in ink and then smudging and fading it to reflect the themes of disintegration, time and memory.
The Everyman Library
Last year, the Everyman Library, which was originally founded in 1906, celebrated the 20th annivesray of its modern relaunch. It retains its classic designs but encompasses the intricate high-standards of using Smyth-sewn, full-cloth cases with two-colour case stamping, decorative endpapers, silk ribbon markers and European style half-round spines for its hardback classic poetry collection
This publisher makes use of decorative endpapers to create matching designs for its of reprints of neglected 20th century classics by mostly female writers. Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages, for example, uses endpapers based on a dress fabric from the 1930s, while Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cooking incorporates a pattern drawn from a piece of block-printed cloth at it the top and bottom of its pages.