If Dickens had been alive today then he would have been writing for television. How many times have we heard that? Dickens bringing the Cybermen to the London workhouse. Little Nell the new companion of Dr Who. If Russell T had been alive in the ninetieth century then he would have written vast, wordy novels and they would be issued in serial parts. It’s possible.
Books themselves, of course, change their form. In the nineteen-eighties publishers were convinced that the paperback as we know it was finished. CD-Roms were the future. Or if not those then electric books. Hand-held readers the size of boxes of washing powder were predicted to be in the briefcases of the entire population before the decade was out. Hasn’t happened yet.
Books do, however, have fashions in the way they look. The nineties saw super-glossy covers with lots of reflective silver. Paperbacks were throw-away. Hardbacks were the Rolls Royce you kept on the front room shelf. But not forever. “Set of hardback books, excellent condition, unread. £10.” That was a For Sale card I saw in a local shop window. Does anyone ever respond?
Innovative publishers have tried almost everything to make their products move. Books appear with CDs as inserts (soundtrack of the book, while you read hear what Nick Hornby heard while he wrote). A while back a London small press published titles with coat hangers bound into the spines. “Solve your storage problems overnight. Hang your books in the wardrobe with your shirts.”
To mark themselves out from the pack publishers have bound their books between pieces of wood, samples of carpet and metal sheets. None of these innovations have ever proved effective. Paper stays best. Flexible, manipulable, light-weight, cheap.
But now that bookshops themselves are under threat publishers are casting around for ways to mark their products out. Free gifts. Coupons in the back that win you holidays. Entire editions published only on the web. iTune iBooks read by the author. But most see the future as involving downloading. And once the reading machine problem has been solved then this will all be upon us. Bought your reader yet?
Meanwhile expect to see print on demand machines appearing in your local store. Books will be ordered up from a central database containing everything in the known universe, printed and bound in shop and then sold to you five minutes later. This is not tomorrow, this is today. The implications for small, niche and minority publishers are enormous. Nothing will ever go out of print. Everything will be always totally available. Books will be as vast as they need to be. Editing will end. Editors will become as passé as lamplighters. I’m not inventing this. This is round the corner.
The above first appeared in an earlier form as an Insider column in the saturday Western Mail (#56)