I have spent much of the past six months thinking through how digital impacts this business, as part of the process of programming The Bookseller’s publishing conference FutureBook 2015 (the show preview is here, if you wish to check out the results). Digital land is a strange, often bewildering, sometimes exhilarating, occasionally frustrating, and intermittently quixotic environment. It is a place full of hope, but also one where failure is accepted; it is one where agitants must be relentlessly cheery, social and positive, but also doggedly gritty. In this world, one needs to be a streetfighter, but with the demeanour of an angel. We must love the e-book alongside the printed book and make as if their relationship is not complicated.
The recent history of digital is well known. The computerisation of the book business began in the late 1960s—the ISBN, TeleOrdering, BookScan (née BookTrack), database publishing and the CD-ROM were all harbingers of digital’s entrée into books—but it was not until the creation of the World Wide Web, the arrival of Amazon in 1995 and the roll-out of an acceptable e-book format (and platform) in the late '90s that digital took over, and some saw that—along with the inevitable disruption—there was a sudden and enormous opportunity. It is important not to understate this. To borrow the words of Molly Flatt, the tech and culture journalist who is hosting the BookTech track of the FutureBook Conference, “there is no such thing as ‘the digital future’. There is just the future . . .”
In heading down this road I am acutely aware that not everyone follows—or wants to follow. I do not blame them. For years, while e-book sales were in the ascendency, those who had awaited the disruption danced the jig fantastic, while those others caught in so-called “legacy areas” feared for their fortunes. But the print revival we have witnessed this year, the return of shoppers and confidence to the high street, and the use being made of social media to drive offline sales has shown that the reality is actually—like some of my favourite whiskies—blended.
Like many (and certainly all of the more than 50 speakers at FutureBook), I believe the hard work is only just beginning. By this time next year there will not be fewer mobiles in the world; there will not be fewer videos uploaded to YouTube; or fewer e-books published; or fewer tweets sent into the ether. There will not be fewer authors—and there may not be any more readers. Yet the key digital challenge arises from none of these points: it is how to keep the business—by which I mean everyone from agent to bookseller, from scout to librarian—together at a time when digital impacts us all differently.