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Future of books in the age of the Web

By Caroline Michel

Books will confound all predictions and survive the electronic age in much the same form in which they exist today and have existed for hundreds of years.

LOUIS LUMIERE, who gave the world its first cinema in 1895, declared that "the cinema is an invention with no commercial future" and promptly got out of the business.

Later, once Lumiere had been proved profoundly wrong, it was predicted that movies would kill live theatre. So would radio. All three were supposed to perish with the advent of television. TV itself was going to be all but destroyed by video recorders. Recorded music — from the gramophone to the iPod — has been repeatedly diagnosed as a virus that will put an end to live performance. And, as we all know, the internet spells Armageddon for everything.

Books hold a unique distinction in this pathetic history — they are the only creative industry to be threatened with extinction by every one of the others. This kind of doom-saying about publishing goes back to Socrates, who predicted that the commercialisation of literature would mean the end of conversation.

Today, the growth in new technologies has sent the Jeremiahs into overdrive. The music industry has been struggling with the delivery of online music ever since the first incarnation of Napster. The film industry has been threatened by illegal online distribution of its products. Book publishing has its very own potential Napster crisis in the growing practice of book crossing — a free exchange of books tracked on the internet. Google has announced plans to put online the contents of some of the major libraries of the world. The effects on sales of out-of-copyright books could be considerable. Amazon is soon to launch "Search inside the Book" in the UK, which will allow you to electronically riffle through millions of pages to find the exact book you want to buy. These and other developments will, at the very least, make the practice of reading books off a screen, rather than on a page, more familiar.

But — like accounts of the demise of Mark Twain — reports of the death of the creative industries have always been greatly exaggerated. The response of related industries to technological change is instructive. Napster has been reborn in a new legal form selling digital music alongside Apple, Microsoft and others. More and more customers are prepared to pay a small charge rather than find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Over the course of a decade, most consumers who were first baffled and then amazed by new technologies are now demanding them as a right. One possible outcome in publishing is that we will sell books in digital form direct to consumers. For the industry, the computer revolution offers great advances in distribution and delivery as well as sophisticated marketing tools, demographic analyses and digitised databases.

But despite state-of-the-art tools, marketing experts and retailers can only tell you what people liked last time around. They cannot, and never will, write a brief for the next bestseller.

As with our fellow creative industries, there have been criticisms that we have become increasingly reliant on the blockbuster. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, "Blockbuster dependence is a disease. It sucks the talent and resources out of every other part of the industry."

Blockbusters, however, are only a danger if they distract us from the fact that tomorrow's bestsellers need our attention too. Or, more particularly, if we lose sight, in an industry based on originality, of the fact that you can only sell sameness for so long.

If the creative industries survive, or even prosper, it is because they have always kept sight of the fact that we, unlike other industries, deal in continuously renewed originality.

Today, somewhere in the world a new book is published every 30 seconds. When I first heard this last statistic I was encouraged and impressed. Then it occurred to me that it was unlikely that all these new books were being read at the rate of one every 30 seconds. Which means, as we all know, but seldom admit, that more books are bought than are ever read.

Mr. Colman — the man who invented and marketed the mustard that bears his name — once said that he made his fortune, not from the mustard people ate, but from the mustard that remained on the side of the plate when the meal was finished. This may seem an unprepossessing analogy but I like it because of what it says about the nature of books and the people who buy them.

The person who buys a book either reads it or hopes to read it, but the look, the feel, the smell, the physical presence of books is a pleasure in its own right, and persuades him or her to buy it, however constrained their reading time may be.

The sensuality of books has, I believe, been a major factor in their survival in the face of all the alternatives that have laid claim to people's time and money. I know that books will confound all predictions and survive the electronic age in much the same form in which they exist today and have existed for hundreds of years. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

(Caroline Michel is publisher of HarperPress. This is an extract from her speech given at the Guardian World Book Day Forum on March 3. To read the speech in full, go to www.guardian.co.uk/books)

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