Is the writing on the wall or will there be a happy ending?

September 29, 2006

Public apathy to reading rather than technology is the main threat to print's primacy, writes Harriet Swain.

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

This year in the US, Sony unveiled its Reader - a handheld device for electronic books that lets you hold "a library's worth of reading material in your pocket". The device, the size of a thin paperback, can store hundreds of books in its memory and uses new technology to make text easy on the eye. Unless you are an unusually dedicated reader, you won't even need to change the battery.

And for most Americans, such dedication would be unusual. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts published a report into reading habits in America. The report, based on a survey of 17,000 adults, found that less than half of US adults read literature (defined as novels, short stories, poetry and plays) - a decline of 20 per cent over 20 years. While adults aged 18 to 34 used to read most, they now read least. The NEA predicts that if the trend continues, "literary reading as a leisure activity will virtually disappear in half a century".

So where does this leave books, and the publishers, authors and librarians who produce and look after them?

This question will be addressed at the Fourth International Conference on the Book being held at Emerson College, Boston, at the end of October. This year's conference has taken the theme of "Save, Change or Discard - Tradition and Innovation in the World of Books" in recognition of the profound changes in the book industry being wrought by technology.

"Everyone feels we are at a turning point," says Angus Phillips, director of the Oxford International Centre for Publishing Studies and a speaker at the conference. "We're just not sure what direction we're going in."

For now, despite the warnings, books appear surprisingly safe. More are being published - 160,000 new books and new editions were published in the UK in 2004 - and in many ways technology is having a revitalising effect, Phillips says.

The Blooker Prize, awarded for the first time this year to celebrate books that started life as blogs, is a demonstration of this. The winner, Julie Powell's Julie and Julia , sold more than 100,000 copies before it won the prize. At the same time, advances in technology will soon make it feasible to print on demand, so very small numbers of titles can be produced economically. This is likely to breathe new life into specialist markets, including academic ones.

Yet some speakers at the conference will warn that the traditional book business is under threat. Small bookshops are struggling to survive in the face of competition from superstores and the internet. The credibility of book-reviewing journals and award committees has been challenged by internet rankings based on sales. And even the way some books are written is being changed by the ability of readers to interact with authors, comment on their work and, eventually perhaps, introduce alterations via the internet.

Some technological developments threaten even the privacy of reading. Michael Lesk, professor of library and information science at Rutgers University, will discuss the implications of online retailers such as Amazon keeping track of what you read. This service is used to provide recommendations of other texts you may be interested in - a potential boost for book sales - but it also offers more sinister possibilities. Many services for online reading can, in principle, watch you as you read each page, Lesk says, assessing how long you spend viewing specific pages, the order in which you view them (whether you sneak a look to see what happens at the end) and the time of day you read. This is in stark contrast to the tradition of library borrowing records being private.

But Phillips and Bill Cope, professor in the department of educational policy studies at the College of Education, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who organised the conference, are optimistic that technology offers more opportunities than problems for publishing. In the introduction to a book of essays from the previous conference that is being published to coincide with this one, they argue that it will be possible to use digitisation to integrate print, the internet and electronic books into "a single publishing ecosystem - one that is easier to access and in some respects enhancing, rather than displacing, traditional publishing".

Phillips says the book is likely to remain in good shape for the foreseeable future "because reading a novel is an experience you cannot get from any other medium". And there are more practical reasons. Whatever the attractions of the Sony Reader, it is unlikely to be quite as resistant to the elements as a paperback. As Phillips points out, will you take your e-book to the beach?

The Fourth International Conference on the Book, October 20-22, Emerson College, Boston. Details:

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