The Future of the Book – Dead or Alive?

This post was contributed by Megan McGill, who will be starting Birkbeck’s MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature this summer. Follow Megan on Twitter

Is the book dead? Is the eBook in decline? These are some of the questions that prompted talk at ‘The Future of the Book’ panel on Wednesday evening, chaired by editor of the Writers’ Hub, Rebecca Rouillard. Speaking were Adam Freudenheim of Pushkin Press, Emma Wright of The Emma Press, and Dan Kieran of Unbound. The talk was both engrossing and informative, making the process of editing down eight pages of handwritten notes incredibly difficult. The topics discussed were wide-ranging, from the competition between physical and digital books, the relationship between a publishing house and its readership, and techniques for broadening your audience, giving an insight into the inner-workings of publishing to an audience who may not be, certainly for me personally, that knowledgeable on the topic. It certainly achieved an important closing of the gap between publishing houses and readers that Wright discusses later.

We must first discuss one of the most common questions asked to publishers: books or eBooks? EBooks have proven a massive success for international audiences recently due to the eradication of a need for postage costs; however it’s hard to translate the illustrations of a physical book into a scrolling-screen format. This is problematic with today’s books, with publishers raising their design game over the past five years, experimenting with design, paper, and illustrations as a way to reinstate the importance of physical books. Wright explained how she designs her publications to look purposely handmade as a way to remind the reader that it’s an object made by people, and therefore straying away from the corporate looks many houses have taken up.

Forming this personal relationship between the reader and publisher is becoming increasingly more important, especially when it comes to the provocative subject of the price of books. There’s been an enormous downward focus on the price of books recently; you only have to look at online marketplaces to see this in action. Books prove a better value for money than seeing a live sports game, or going to the cinema, but this pressure to keep their price low still seems to be imperative for many businesses. This doesn’t have to be the way, however. Unbound prints the names of its pledgers in the back of the books they helped fund as a way to show the direct relation between the book and the reader. Kieran explained how the public no longer want to be passive consumers like we saw in the culture of 1990s, but are seeking more enriching personal experiences.

This connection with readers also helps you to know, and therefore grow, your market. This is incredibly important for Wright specifically as she tries to sell poetry to the vast market of non-poetry readers. As a reaction to the erotica boom sparked by 50 Shades of Grey, the Emma Press published an anthology of mildly erotic verse. It’s all about knowing what’s popular and what people want in order to interest new readers, but still keeping to your own way of doing things to maintain your niche.

Did the speakers have any predictions for the future of the book? The eBook boom is levelling off, said Freudenheim, so both print and digital need to be focused on. The physical book isn’t going anywhere, with the majority of publishers still getting 80-5% of their sales from them. For Kieran the importance lies in the use of networks for both publishing houses and authors. Knowing your audience and getting them excited about your releases is the new way of selling books. People will always read and write, it’s how we sell it that will change.  Professional publishing has so many advantages and the majority of successful self-published authors end up becoming professionally published for their subsequent works because of all of these advantages. Large publishers frequently get bad press, but the good aspects of the way they work are truly beneficial. These are the aspects that need to be kept in any development of the industry if it wants to have a rewarding, and successful, future.

Thank you to all of the speakers who took the time to come and teach us about the industry and how many different forms it can take today. I learned so much and am inspired by the stories they told of their personal experiences taking what they’re passionate about and turning it into something new, and rewarding.

The speakers were:

Adam Freudenheim, Pushkin Press. Formerly Penguin’s Publisher of Classics, Modern Classics, and Reference. Now focuses on his passion, translations, discovering popular works from abroad unknown in the UK.

Emma Wright, Founder of The Emma Press. Previously worked for Orion’s eBook division. Now commissions, illustrates and edits books with her friend Rachel Piercey. Press specialises in poetry anthologies, postcards and pamphlets, soon to be releasing their first non-poetry pamphlets of short stories, essays, and plays.

Dan Kieran, Co-founder of Unbound. Unbound is a platform for authors to have works crowdfunded, but also to communicate with their audience. Inspired by the old ways of selling books in the eighteenth century, where readers subscribed in advance for a book.

Learn more about Unbound by clicking here and The Emma Press by clicking here.

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