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Books and newspapers: The digital revolution

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  Window on the world. Photo copyright Mike Evans. Leica M240+Summilux 50mm, f/5.6 at 1/1500s
Window on the world. Photo copyright Mike Evans. Leica M240+Summilux 50mm, f/5.6 at 1/1500s

According to research by the Literacy Trust, schoolchildren in Britain who read on electronic devices are less likely to be regular readers, are three times less likely to enjoy books and one third less likely to have a favourite book. This flies in the face of my received logic: That people in general read more and enjoy reading more when they move from a physical library to an e-reader. I will need convincing that the LT’s straw poll is valid.

Advocates of traditional printed material, both books and newspapers, have been waging a rearguard action for several years. All the signs are that they are gradually losing the argument; just occasionally someone comes up with off-the-cuff statistics which purport to prove that a printed book or broadsheet newspaper is ultimately preferable to a soulless electronic version.

I have spoken to many people who genuinely prefer the heft and feel of a book. Equally, I know dozens of friends who have completely moved over to a Kindle, iPad or smartphone for their daily consumption of words. In ten or twenty years, when e-reading has become the norm, people will look back on these early years and wonder what all the fuss was about. Paper books will still be available, particularly glossy illustrated tomes, but most novels, manuals and educational material will be read almost exclusively electronically.

When I hear someone maintain that printed books are the best, that they would never countenance flipping the pages of an iPad or Kindle, I feel somehow sorry. I know that in a few years a majority of them will have given in and become the sincerest form of believer, the convert.

Radio, no way. Television, pah!

I can remember when traditionalists would not have a television in the house; when the radio was perfectly adequate and you could do useful tasks instead of sitting on the sofa. A few years later these same individuals were refusing colour sets because monochrome was more traditional and perfectly adequate. Roll on thirty years and they were adamant that e-mails would never supplant letters. Why would anyone need electronic mail? So impersonal. Yet now there is hardly one of them who isn’t @somewhere.com. They have embraced email dot, com and sinker and have conveniently forgotten their earlier reluctance.

It was ever so and will be always so when it comes to new technology. Printed books were inferior to illustrated monastic copies; telegrams were an intrusion; the telephone was even worse and totally unneecessary. Even radio met with strong resistance back in the 1920s, and then television was the usurper and radio was all anyone ever needed.

The adoption of ereaders and sales of ebooks is on an unstoppable upward trend, despite the cost of electronic books being sometimes higher than printed versions. Governments have placed artificial restrictions, such as the imposition of 20 percent tax on e-books in the UK while printed books remain tax-free.

Publishers inflate the cost of ebooks (which cost nothing to produce and distribute and which are never out of stock) in order to protect their traditional printing and distribution model. If we lived in a sensible world, electronic books would cost one tenth that of printed books and at least ninety percent of the proceeds would go to the author and not to the publisher, printer and local bookstore.

Traditional model

Ah, but what about the ability to give, lend or sell printed books when similar advantages are denied to buyers of electronic downloads? Some opponents of ebooks suggest that when you download from Amazon you are not buying but, instead, merely renting on a long lease. To an extent this is true. But it is valid only in the context of an antiquated distribution system where authors and publishers have no control over their intellectual property once a physical book is sold. You can lend it to all your friends who get to read it for nothing and pity the poor author.

If we forget the traditional model, there is great appeal in the principle of every reader paying something to the author. In the long term authors will benefit from the move from printed to electronic books. Already there is an increasing trend to self-publishing, something that was virtually impossible in the days of print. The upfront costs were prohibitive. Eventually middlemen of all hues, from publishers to bookstores, will be squeezed out and the author will take a bigger slice of a smaller retail price.

    The iPad edition of  The Times   is now reliable and easy to use but it lacks any ability to share , link or bookmark, even for own consumption. Like all newspapers it attempts to cater for all tastes and interests and much of a day
The iPad edition of  The Times  is now reliable and easy to use but it lacks any ability to share , link or bookmark, even for own consumption. Like all newspapers it attempts to cater for all tastes and interests and much of a day’s edition goes unread

Grubby newspapers

In the same way that the book distribution model is doomed to extinction (as has already happened in the music industry), newspapers are facing many of the same problems. Traditionalists are still wedded to their grubby, inky broadsheets but not for much longer. The internet is providing increasingly strong competition, not just from electronic versions of traditional newspapers but in the form of web-based newspapers, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks.

People are now used to getting their news in a more personal and tailored fashion, which is both a good and a bad thing. It promotes choice but it also breeds parochialism. I can think of some acquaintances who are not in the slightest interested in the wider world and prefer to live in their own carefully constructed electronic world of friends, hashtags and Likes. This, ultimately, leads to prejudice and intolerance.

Newspapers are now having a tough time. More and more are hiding behind paywalls which, ultimately, can be counterproductive. The papers in the world with that have the highest profile and are most quoted are the ones that still allow free web access, including RSS support.

Here in Britain we see a clear distinction between those papers in front of and those behind a paywall. To read internet comment you would think there were only three newspapers: The Telegraph, The Mail and The Guardian. That’s because you can read them online, link and share to your heart’s content. The Telegraph is currently attempting to construct a paywall and, if successful, the result it will also disappear from isight.

Living behind the wall

News International’s The Times has already disappeared from view behind its lofty wall. Once called The Thunderer because a well-penned editorial could bring down a government, The Times is now barely a whisperer. I subscribe to the paper because I am on an old and good-value contract of £2 a week for seven editions, including the Sunday Times.

It is unequivocally worthwhile at this price but I am ready to cancel if an increase is suggested. For one thing, I find it incredibly frustrating to be unable to share or link, even for my own later consumption. The only way to grab a quote for sharing is to do a screenshot; and there is then no chance of linking back to the article. I tolerate it because it is cheap and a good read, but it is ultimately frustrating and unworthy.

There is another reason. Newspapers cater for all interests and, as such, contain a great deal of gash information that you would not consider downloading given the choice. I don’t like sport, for instance, so sports sections are the first to go. In fact, out of a typical edition I read the news (skipping lots that doesn’t appeal) and the business sections and not much else. Some people, I know, read only sport, but that is a matter of choice that is denied to the buyer of a general-interest newspaper.

Rock and a hard place

While arguing the benefits of free distribution, I can accept the problems faced by the newspapers. Traditional advertising is drying up and the internet is taking the lion’s share of revenue, spearheaded by Google. Our newspapers are between a rock and a hard place. If they remain visible and quotable they risk losing revenue. If they hide behind a paywall, their international presence and awareness will dwindle.

On the other hand we need newspapers, not only to provide the vehicle for the collection of news but also to offer impartiality and responsibility. If our news consumption is confined to the irresponsibilities of Twitter and other social networks we will see the rise of minority prejudice and downright lies will be accepted as fact. We need our newspapers and periodicals for informed comment as well as for news.

Revolution is all but won

We live in interesting times as the printed word is supplanted by the digital. I am in no doubt that digital downloads and internet-based news sites will eventually kill off the inefficient and costly (not to mention environmentally unfriendly) print industry.

Production costs will be the killer while, at the same time, digital media becomes cheaper and cheaper once unfettered by monopolies and government meddling. Despite all the current naysayers, whatever their motivation, we are already in a digital world. The revolution is all but won.

by Mike Evans, 23 May 2013

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