Reports of the death of the printed book seem to have been greatly exaggerated, writes author John Dean

RECENT years have seen a revolution in the world of books with the growing popularity of reading devices such as Kindle. Indeed, so popular have e-books become that some people have argued that the day of the traditional printed title is at an end.

Such predictions would seem to have been a touch premature, however, because the latest Nielsen’s Books & Consumers annual showed that UK consumers spent seven per cent more on printed books in 2016 than the previous year, driven in part by younger readers. In addition, shoppers bought four per cent fewer e-books, in line with a slowdown in reading device ownership.

So does that mean that the printed book has a bright future, after all? Yes, according to Steve Bohme, UK Research Director, Nielsen Book Research UK, who says: “It’s refreshing to see how books generally, and print books, in particular, are still appealing to younger consumers, both male and female, despite so many other forms of entertainment and information competing for their attention.”

The answer, for London Book Fair Director Jacks Thomas, is increased choice. She says: “Much has been said in recent years about e-reading cannibalising the sales of print books, so it is very interesting to see how this trend has reversed and how print is now very much back on the up. We live in a world where variety is everything and book buyers want to have the luxury of choice, to have access to titles in paperback, hardback, e-book or audiobook format, according to their lifestyle and preference.”

North-East writer Tracey Iceton, whose 2016 Cinnamon Press novel Green Dawn at St Enda’s is available in printed and e-book form, agrees that e-books and printed books can both thrive.

She says: “I see both pros and cons in the expansion of the e-book format. Books do have to carve out a space for themselves in this world of smart phones, apps and everything ‘I' and e-books are a way of keeping pace with technology. They have also allowed talented emerging writers to publish their work, find audiences and establish themselves.

“However, access to self-publishing via e-books has led to a dearth of poor quality writing flooding an already crowded market place and I don’t think they’ll ever replace traditional books. So often, when I tell people my novels are available on Kindle as well as in paperback form, I get the reply, 'oh, but I only really like 'proper' books'.”

Erik Empson, who includes North-East authors among his stable of writers at London-based The Book Folks and produces e-books and paperbacks, believes that technology is changing the publishing world in dramatic ways.

He says: “What I like most about the e-book revolution, if you can call it that, is that it is democratic. Almost everyone can produce a book these days and that represents something of a challenge to traditional publishing where a relatively select few could decide what is produced and made available to the public.

“The result is a rise in genre fiction, where more people can create the kind of worlds and characters that they enjoy and share those with others. That the savvy self-published author can also make a living out of this, is largely due to the opportunities presented by Amazon and other platforms.”

However, Erik points out that e-book technology alone does not guarantee success and that good marketing and quality products remain as important as ever.

He adds: “One of the downsides is that it does not necessarily mean that publishing has become more meritocratic. Sure, great books can capture the public imagination but often the visibility of certain books can come more down to how much is invested in marketing and so on.

“The myth of the garret-dwelling artist dedicated to pursuing an aesthetic ideal lives on only in certain quarters. As in other creative sectors, the artist must become entrepreneurial.

“I think the notion that the e-book would represent the death of the print book was always something of a false dichotomy and issued more out of the conservatism of certain constituencies and shareholders worried about profits than anything else.

“A residual belief exists that a book is only a book if it’s available in Waterstone’s. This is short-sighted. What readers want is good books that keep them hooked and transport them to different worlds.”

Technology can only go so far, though, and for many the experience of reading a printed book will always be the first choice.

Darlington-based children’s author Mike Watson, whose book Earth Strider was published in paperback by Thynx Publications, said: “All my life, books, in their traditional form have been a source of entertainment, pleasure, joy, inspiration, wonderment, reassurance, stimulation, satisfaction and comfort.

“I borrow books, I buy books, I am surrounded by them. Without books, I would feel deprived and with books I feel complete.

“I enjoy handling books, feeling their weight, admiring their dimensions and relishing the sheer pleasure of rapidly flicking using my thumb through the pages and hearing that beautiful, musical fan-like sound.

“Books on shelves, displayed in cabinets, regimented in bookcases, arranged alphabetically in libraries, gathering dust in charity shops, all these array of books, to me, are admirable.”