Tom Bonnick: 'Not simply books squashed into smartphones'

Tom Bonnick: 'Not simply books squashed into smartphones'

The day your children apply for jobs at "Simon&PenguinRandomHouseHachetteCollinsSchuster," Nosy Crow's Tom Bonnick muses, what will be the process that goes into the making and selling of books? Whatever it is, Bonnick tells us, his experience in the children's market makes him think that today's nerve-wracking industry alarms can be "as pathologically gloomy as they are ludicrously simplistic." Instead of focusing on supposed killer retailers and digital death stars, he takes heart "that children’s publishers have taken an industry-wide anxiety around digital and alchemised it into a celebration of print." Here is welcome encouragement: "Processes may change, but books are not going anywhere." -- Porter Anderson, associate editor

This week I’ve taken part in two events which — in most ways — really could not be more different, but both have left me thinking about the same subject: the future of the book.

On Monday night it was off to the Groucho Club to speak on a panel at one of Justine Solomons' excellent Byte the Book events, on the theme of book design in the digital age. I love being invited to speak at Byte the Book for two reasons: (1) if you’re speaking, you don’t pay for any of the drinks yourself, and (2) when you’re asked by friends and relations what you’re doing that evening, you can airily reply, “Oh, just off to the Groucho, darling”.

Each of the panelists was asked to identify the most important issue in contemporary design, and I — hopelessly out of my depth; the least design-y person there; with only the children’s market to speak about — grasped around for something inoffensive to say and landed on the ways in which digital and print exert subtle influence on each other.

I say “subtle” because digital still represents a tiny proportion of sales for the children’s market (even tinier once you’ve stripped out the YA being bought and read by adults), and so, to mind, is viewed largely as an opportunity to exploit, rather than a threat to mitigate, as it has been perceived by various sectors of the adult market.

And then, on Tuesday, no less glamorously, I gave a talk at a primary school in Euston for a careers day for a class of 8- and 9-year-olds. As I explained what a publisher does — choosing which books to publish, making those books the best they can be, having the books printed, selling them to shops and libraries, selling them to other countries, and then talking about them lots to readers — I found myself wondering how many stages of this process would still be relevant in 12 years time, when these children would be old enough to compete for work experience placements at (I’m speculating here) Simon&PenguinRandomHouseHachetteCollinsSchuster.

At first glance, every stage appears to be facing some sort of existential outside threat, either from the self-publishing outfits competing with the traditional gatekeepers to decide what is published and how, or in Amazon’s apparent determination to establish a monopoly in the retail sector, or from one of a hundred other new conditions.

But assessments like these are as pathologically gloomy as they are ludicrously simplistic. Processes may change, but books are not going anywhere. Only today, new research conducted by the National Literacy Trust revealed a huge increase in the number of children reading daily outside class — what the Trust characterizes as a 28.6-percent leap in a single year.

I find it hugely encouraging that children’s publishers have taken an industry-wide anxiety around digital and alchemised it into a celebration of print. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the last few years have seen a surge in the sorts of children’s books that demonstrate the unique qualities of the physical object: books like Maps, or Goth Girl, or Open Very Carefully, which feature lavish production values, unusual formats, and innovative finishes and techniques.

Children’s publishing has responded to the new digital market by enthusiastically communicating the values of print, and the effect has been a 9-percent rise in total print sales, a resurgent Waterstones championing children’s books, and a vibrant, exciting industry.

At Nosy Crow, we try to adopt the same approach in our digital publishing, too: that is to say, we look for the things that digital can do that print can’t, rather than slavishly attempting to replicate an existing product into an e-format. Our apps rely on non-linear and multi-branching narratives, and high levels of audio, animation and interactivity to tell stories — they are not, we are fond of saying, simply books squashed onto smartphones.

When we think about how the market will change, or where the future of reading lies, the whole industry could do with taking a leaf out of children’s publishing’s book: let’s be optimistic. 

Main image - Pixabay: PublicDomainPictures