The Future of Books

25 February 2016

Jet packs. Time travel. Still repaying my HECS debt. The future is a strange and scary place that most Arts students like myself prefer not to think about.

Come with me, dear readers, on a daring journey into tomorrow.

A staple feature of the 20th Century household, the humble book has long been a popular vessel for informing, entertaining and enriching oneself. There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting down with a cup of earl grey and reading John Howard’s Lazarus Rising or the equally lyrical The Day my Bum went Psycho by Andy Griffiths.

However, as with many things, the internet is dramatically changing the book industry. Online retailer Amazon now commands over 40 per cent of the world book market. Amazon has put significant downward pressure on the price of books because they consider them to be gateway products to more expensive items. According to research firm Nielsen, the average book purchase in America is now approximately $9.30, which represents a 40 per cent decline in value since 2009.

The other factor driving down book prices has been the emergence of ebooks. Whilst not growing as quickly as many predicted, ebooks now account for around 30 per cent of global book purchases. By avoiding the cost of printing and delivery, ebooks cut the cost of literature to unprecedented lows.

“Goodness, how will Andy Griffiths make a living?” I hear you ask. The future of book publishing will likely hinge on the ingenuity of writers to maximise their readership and profit margins.

One technique has been for authors to self-publish work online, thus taking the entire profit for themselves rather than sharing it with a publishing house. With the proliferation of digital technology, publishing companies are no longer as necessary as they once were. Experts predict that the successful digital self-publishers of tomorrow will market to a clear target audience (Liberal party members, tween vampire lovers, poo-joke enthusiasts) who will generate online hype and share the book with others.

Take, for instance, neurosurgeon Lisa Genova’s recent novel Still Alice about an Alzheimer’s patient. It reached number five on the New York Times bestseller list and was made into a major feature film. Tired of being rejected by cautious publishing houses reticent to taboo subject matter, Genova self-published her book to instant critical acclaim and commercial success. Many writers welcome the disruption of the publishing house monopoly, hoping that writers may be able to push boundaries further than profit-driven corporations will allow. However, for every story like Genova’s, there are many who struggle for attention in the online sphere, meaning the future will almost certainly be extremely volatile for hopeful writers.

As for the content, we will likely see an increase in the use of multimedia content in ebooks, with the incorporation of videos, interactive content and comment sections. This, along with the proliferation of online forums, will require writers to be more receptive to the demands of readers. The fact that readers can share their opinions online opens writers up to a barrage of scrutiny. Imagine Andy Griffiths facing the music for the severe lack of racial diversity in his beloved children’s books. Why are the poos always brown, ha?

Collaborative projects are also likely to take over what was once a very solitary craft, as technology provides greater interconnectivity between texts and authors. Fans also have greater capacity to interact with and reshape literary works rather than reading them in a passive or purely receptive manner. The prospect of literary mash-ups and more creative variants of fan fiction sprouting from the bourgeoning digital meme culture suggest that literature will be a far less one-way medium in future. We will likely see an increase in the production of digital fan fiction such as fan-made movies, illustrations, music and comics. Cue the illustration of John Howard’s autobiography with grumpy cat memes.

On that note of optimism against an otherwise bleak publishing landscape, I will leave you with the mental image of John Howard soiling himself on the road to fiscal conservatism, perhaps a poetic metaphor for our sordid literary future. You’re welcome.

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