Technology rarely takes prisoners and it crushes – virtually – everything in its path. In the past 15 years technology has seen off almost all physical manifestations of music and film, replacing them with downloads and streaming services. Newspapers are endlessly under its cosh as its fake promise of endlessly free content lures people away from newsprint into a digital world of sometimes dubious merit. And it has mortally wounded countless bricks-and-mortar businesses and concepts we used to take for granted.
How many people go into travel agents any more? Does anyone even remember the speaking clock?
But there is one old school technology that is fighting back and, despite a few early setbacks when it seemed to be tilting at windmills, the book seems to be winning the war against the machine.
For hundreds of years books have been remarkably resilient at halting the advances of technology. While music was hopping like a Whirling Dervish from cylinders to vinyl to cassettes, to CDs, to mini-discs to ones and zeros stored on your computer’s hard drive and then on to something even more ephemeral in the form of streamed content, the book has stayed largely the same since Miguel de Cervantes first had a novel notion.
But it faced, perhaps, its greatest threat just over a decade ago when Amazon. com’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, asked a simple question: “Can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?”
Then he answered his own question or at least thought he did. For almost a decade after 2007 his Kindle – and other e-readers – were the shiny new things and many people (including Pricewatch, for the sake of full disclosure) presumed the technological advances heralded the end of the book as we have always known and loved it.
But the tide has turned again. Last year the book trade in Ireland was boomier than an Irish bank at the height of all that madness back in the day. The rise and rise of the printed book here is part of a global phenomenon. According to the most recent figures from Nielsen in the UK, more than 360 million books were sold there last year, 2 per cent higher than in 2015. There was a 4 per cent rise in sales in actual shops while ebook sales fell by 4 per cent, the second year in a row sales declined.
Nielsen put much of the bounce in print sales down to children’s fiction. Another reason the positions have been reversed is price. Amazon used to charge a lot less for its digital versions than it did for its printed ones but ebook prices have climbed in recent years and now often cost the same and, in some instances, more than physical copies.
US courts are at least partially to blame or thank as a couple of years back they gave publishers – and not Amazon – the right to set prices for ebooks. And publishers set them high.
While climbing prices are rarely good news for consumers, they just might be here. Certainly, the resurgence of the book is good news for everyone, or at least anyone who values the immense and invaluable work authors all over the world put in to their craft, all too often for far too little reward.