Skip to Content


Is this the future, and do I like it? Pt. 1

30 November 2011

2:29 PM

30 November 2011

2:29 PM

Veteran SF writer and devout Luddite Ray Bradbury has finally bowed to the inevitable and
Farenheit 451 to be
reproduced in a digital format. Bradbury’s hand was forced by contractual reality: his publishers refused to re-sign him
without digital rights.

Surely print must now be damned if even Bradbury has to consort with his Devil? To mark the occasion, we have commissioned two posts about the brave new world of
the eBook. Here, Paul Torday, author of the award-winning novel
Salmon Fishing in the
, tells of his latest digital foray.

Where will this end up?  

This December,Breakfast at the Hotel Déjà Vu, a novella I have written, will
become available only as an eBook. The format will be for use on a Kindle, the electronic digital book reader marketed by Amazon. No print version will be published, at least for now. Why?

The publishing world is going through a period of profound change. Sales of Kindle eBooks in the last quarter of 2010 were just ahead of sales of paperbacks on Amazon. By May 2011 sales of Kindle
eBooks exceeded both hardback and paperback sales on Amazon. Other electronic readers such as the iPad or Sony Reader are also growing their markets. The graph appears to be moving sharply upwards.
So publishers — including mine — are experimenting with this new medium. Many new print books published — and certainly all the books that get into charts — now have an
eBook avatar. But another market is emerging: books that exist only in digital form. This sector too is apparently growing rapidly. A lot of self-publishing goes on here, inspired by
exemplars such as John Locke, the U.S. author who became the first self-published writer to sell a million
eBooks on-line. Now published authors are turning to this medium too, using it as an additional channel to reach readers they might not find otherwise.

The eBook began in 1971 with Project Gutenberg, an ambitious mission to digitise all that existed in print book form. At first it concentrated on out of
copyright works in the public domain. What began as the ultimate archive has become a hot new market: the instant book, downloaded in seconds onto your iPad, Kindle or laptop. Like
Frankenstein’s monster climbing off the slab, nobody quite knows where this is going. What is clear is that it is a trend that cannot be stopped or reversed.

In the first quarter of 2011 eBooks on all platforms took a 2.5 per cent share of all books sold in the UK. This is nowhere near the penetration that has been achieved in the United States, but the
signs are that the UK market is catching up fast.

So far, I haven’t read much about eBook piracy (via file-sharing), which has brought the music publishing industry to its knees. It may still happen, but publishers of books appear to be
going with the trend of digitisation rather than ignoring or fighting it. So maybe prices of eBooks won’t collapse to zero, and some sort of value chain will survive. Speaking as someone
whose earnings come mostly from writing books, I certainly hope so. When rock groups lost their revenues from CD sales, they went back on tour and made their money that way instead. I can’t
see myself reading the first page of my next novel to an audience of twenty thousand at the O2 Arena.

Digital book sales continue to grow. When we see the final numbers for 2011, they will no doubt have grown again as dramatically as in 2010, at the expense of print book market share. I cannot
believe that the printed book will ever disappear, though. I’d hate to see more bookshops close. I’d hate to see good publishing houses go under. That’s not what I expect to
happen. I think in the end sales of digital book downloaded onto iPads, Kindles or other digital devices, will find their level. I own a Kindle but I wouldn’t dream of using it at home.
It’s for when I’m travelling, or on holiday. Then, its convenience and ease of use make it a winner. You just can’t argue with it. Like the mobile phone, the digital reader will
soon become indispensable for people on the move, and not just a gadget for technophiles.

If you can’t beat them, join them. Authors and publishers who embrace this change will learn how to cope with it. Those who ignore it will risk being stranded. I hate saying this, because I
am and always will be an old-fashioned booklover. I like the physical object. I like well-designed, well-produced books. I can’t see these ever being wholly supplanted by Kindles or iPads or
other ‘crossover’ tablet-like devices with book apps. Maybe the market will evolve in ways that surprise us.

It looks and feels as if eBooks are reaching not only regular readers but another audience as well: the children of the age of downloads, those who might never have read a page of print if they
hadn’t first been hooked on reading from a screen.

I believe that the market for books in any form will expand as a result of digitisation, and literacy will increase. Maybe this new channel will encourage the emergence of new authors, and new
types of writing. I hope so.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments


The Spectator Comment Policy

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.