The change affects which books have a chance of breaking out: bestsellers flourish, but midlist books that might have been discovered while browsing in a bookstore are worse off, because consumers cannot easily stumble upon them while shopping on the internet. To continue to bring in customers bookshops have changed their look, and increased the space they assign to nonbook products, like stationery, cards and other gifts. A bookstore is defending a very specific lifestyle, where you want to take time out of your day and write or think or read, says Sarah McNally, owner of a bustling independent bookshop in Manhattan. There have been two casts of villain. First came the large chain stores in the 1980s that wounded independent booksellers and put many out of business. More recently Amazon, an online retailer that started with books in 1999 and now claims to sell everything, has ensured an ongoing wave of closures. Amazon is believed to control nearly half of total book sales and around two-thirds of e-book sales in America. In Britain its grip on the e-book market is even stronger.
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This has proved especially helpful for smaller publishers, such as university writing presses, says John Ingram of Ingram Content Group, a book distributor. Analogies with the music and newspaper businesses have proved flawed. The music business collapsed in part because the bundle it was peddling fell apart: people wanted the right to buy one song, not the whole album. Books are not so personal easily picked apart. The music business also suffered because piracy was so easy: anyone who buys a cd can extract the music it contains in digital format in seconds, and can then share it online. Creating a digital file from a printed book by scanning each page, by contrast, is a nightmare. The fate of newspapers has been driven by the decline of advertising—a business publishers (which sell books to readers, not readers to advertisers) were never. Where the publishers do their selling, though, is changing a lot. The biggest change of the past decade is the decline of physical bookshops, which is good neither for publishers nor the booksellers whose doors have closed. Borders, a chain of American book shops, and Weltbild, a german one, have gone under.
Perhaps more unexpected than the flourishing of the book is the health of some publishers. When the music and newspaper industries were ravaged by the internet over a decade ago people feared the same fate would befall publishing. I thought I would say to people, im what used to be called a book publisher, says Dominique raccah, the boss of sourcebooks, an independent publisher. But the volume of book sales has stayed steady, and publishers are still, for the most part, the people producing the books that sell. Revenues are down slightly because e-books are a significant part of the market and their prices are lower; but costs have fallen, and thus profits are still there to be made. Publishers used to guess how many books to print and ship and then pay for unsold copies to be returned to them—sometimes as much as 40 of the print run. Print-on-demand systems—digital technology at the service of physical books—reduce risks by enabling publishers to print smaller batches tnt and then fire off more copies quickly if a book sells well.
You do not need a dedicated e-reader to read an waiting electronic book. The multipurpose tablet devices which are replacing e-readers let you read books and—crucially—buy them whenever you like. Some forms of book benefit a lot. Heavy readers of genre fiction—romance, your thrillers and science fiction—were early converts to the cheaper, more portable alternative. Other sorts of book have remained more stubbornly in print form, for various reasons. Physical books make better gifts; many people still want bookshelves in their homes. Parents who feel that their children are spending too much time with screens go for printed books as an alternative, which means a new generation is growing up in contact with print.
There are a number of reasons. One is that, as Russell Grandinetti, who oversees Amazons Kindle business, puts it, the print book is a really competitive technology: it is portable, hard to break, has high-resolution pages and a long battery life. Technology companies that are used to consumers flocking to snazzy features and updates have found it surprisingly challenging to compete with a format of such simplicity, and consumers are uninterested in their attempts to. All most want is the ability to change font size, which is attractive to older eyes. Experiments with reinventing the presentation of books—by embedding sound and video inside e-books, for example—have fallen flat. Sales of e-readers, the most popular of which is the kindle, are in decline. In a few years time, a recent report by Enders Analysis, a research firm, predicts, we will look back at e-readers and remember them as one of the shortest-lived of all consumer media devices.
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Now all those barriers are gone. Even the most gloomy predictors of the books demise have softened their forecasts. Nicholas Carr, whose book the Shallows predicted in 2011 that the internet would leave its ever-more-eager users dumb and distracted, admits people have hung onto their books unexpectedly, because they crave study immersive experiences. Books may face more competition for audiences time, rather as the radio had to rethink what it could do best when films and television came along; the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen slightly in the past few years. But thesis it has not dropped off steeply, as many predicted. The length and ambition of a bestseller such as Donna tartts The goldfinch—864 pages in paperback—shows that people still tackle big books. And they are willing to cart them around, too.
The much ballyhooed decline of the physical book has been far from fatal. I thought everything was going to change so much more quickly and so much more radically, says Ellie hirschhorn, chief digital officer at Simon schuster, a big publisher, who had predicted in 2010 that half of all book sales would be e-books by 2013. Instead, last year e-books accounted for around 30 of consumer book sales (not including professional and educational books) in America, the largest book market in the world and the country where e-books took off most quickly. In Germany, the worlds third-largest, e-books were around 5 of consumer book sales last year, according to Pricewaterhousecoopers, a consultancy. The growth rate of e-books has recently slowed in many markets, including America and Britain. Publishers now expect most of their sales to remain in print books for decades to come—some say for ever.
What is the future of the book? It is much brighter than people think. In which deaths foretold do not unfold. Almost as constant as the appeal of the book has been the worry that that appeal is about to come to an end. The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, a bookshop unlike any seen before—underlined those fears.
In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage. Historically books were a luxury item. Having become cheap enough for the masses in the 20th century, in the 21st century digital technology and global markets have made them more accessible still. In 2013 around.4m International Standard book numbers (isbns) were issued, according to bowker, a research firm, up from around 8,100 in 1960. Those figures do not capture the many e-books that are being self-published without an isbn. Many of those self-published books are ones in which traditional publishers would have had no interest, but which almost-free distribution makes worthwhile: do you feel like checking out some Amish fiction? The size of the text, as well as the size of the niche, becomes less of an issue, too; short stories and novellas are making a comeback. Before there used to be too-big-to-carry and too-short-to-print, says Michael Tamblyn, the boss of Kobo, an e-reading company.
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Books like de Officiis have not merely weathered history; they have helped shape. The ability they offer to preserve, transmit and develop ideas was taken to another level by gutenberg and his essay colleagues. Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as On the Origin of Species; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeares plays. Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupils progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.
Many are worried about what such technology means for books, with big bookshops closing, new devices spreading, novice authors flooding the market and an online behemoth known as Amazon growing ever more powerful. Their anxieties cannot simply be written off as predictable technophobia. The digital transition may well change the way books are written, sold and read more than any development in handout their history, and that will not be to everyones advantage. Veterans and revolutionaries alike may go bust; Gutenberg died almost penniless, having lost control of his press to fust and other creditors. But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just tree flakes encased in dead cow, as a scholar once wryly put. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.
in the huntington Library in San Marino, california, its home since 1916. Few physical volumes survive five centuries. This one should last several more. The vault that holds it and tens of thousands of other volumes, built in 1951, was originally meant to double as a nuclear-bomb shelter. Although this copy of de Officiis may be sequestered, the book itself is freer than ever. In its printed forms it has been a hardback and, more recently, a paperback, published in all sorts of editions—as a one off, a component of uniform library editions, a classic pitched at an affordable price, a scholarly, annotated text that only universities buy. And now it is available in all sorts of non-printed forms, too. You can read it free online or download it as an e-book in English, latin and any number of other tongues.
It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. No one will ever book write anything more wise, he said. The books words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis. Cicero probably dictated de Officiis to his freed slave, tiro, who copied it down on a papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn. Within a few centuries some versions were transferred from scrolls into bound books, or codices. A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine. The lush edition in your correspondents hands—delightfully, and surprisingly, no gloves are needed to handle it—is one of the very first such copies.
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In which something old and powerful is encountered in a vault. Fingers stroke vellum; the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper, but richer, almost oily. The black print is crisp, and every latin sentence starts with a lush red letter. One of the books early owners has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to passages worth remembering. In 44bc cicero, the roman Republics great orator, wrote a book for his son Marcus called de Officiis (On Duties). It told him how to live a moral life, how to balance virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact. Not all his words were new. De officiis draws on the views of various Greek philosophers whose works Cicero could consult in his library, most of which have since been lost. De officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall.