The Future of the Physical Book: Playground for Innovation.

Today I happened to stumble across this Futurebook-based blog asking: Where do you see the future of the physical book? And I thought, you know, that’s a good prompt for a blog that’s been swamped with Edinburgh Book Festival for the last month, so here we go.

how to be bothPerhaps it’s my naivety in being new(ish) to the industry and soon to graduate from a publishing Masters, but I think the future of the physical book is solid. It’s actually quite exciting. And there’s two recent experiences as to why I think that.

Ali Smith, at Edinburgh Book Festival, noted that How To Be Both found the limitations of digital in innovation; her book has two narratives, but they’ve been released in both orders. You can stop a print run half way through and switch the text to keep it on the same ISBN, but on digital, to change it would automatically replace every copy already purchased. If someone was in the middle of reading, they’d open it to a new book.

In projects where there’s innovation to the form, digital is in fact rather limiting; in giving the readers a surprise, one of multiple possible explorations of the same book, digital has started to falter. How To Be Both offers different experiences of narrative based on chance, but as an e-book both versions had to be published and left it up to choice.

My other reason is S by J.J. Abrams. I bought it at the book festival and it’s a complete battle to read. It was part of a class on my MLitt, so I thought  I’d ask: how on earth do you tackle it?

It has a story, then it has annotations around all the pages, then there’s items placed throughout the book with their own point and story. The clash of narratives makes it a minefield to navigate, but here digital can demystify it all. And, you know, looking back at that cluster of text I thought, where’s the fun in that? I don’t want to strip back the challenge of the original book, even if it means I just flip around it mindlessly in a failed attempt to grasp its point. Either way, it’ll be fun.

The roundabout point, I suppose, is that digital cannot demystify the innovation of wild books without them existing in the first place. S can succeed in digital, in fact it’s probably cleaner in navigation, but if it had been launched purely that way, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Now, I do like digital as a field for opportunity. Sam Missingham took to the #SYPfest tag to talk about digital festivals. I’ll stop myself from delving into the multitude of reasons why I think this is indeed the future of publishing events (that’s a whole other ramble), the point I will pick up on is that in one post-event survey, 90% of people said that through the virtual festival they had discovered a new book. To quote Sam: “Job done.”

The physical book is a tangible object that people connect to, and digital has only bitten into it so far. After years of digital nipping away at the physical book, the limits are starting to appear in what it can actually do. Yes, it’s cheaper to produce; yes, it can be cheaper to purchase. Can items fall out of it that are integral to a plot? Can you randomly drop it and open it at a page? The physical counterpart bolsters digital’s push to accommodate more in literature.

I think it’s an experience, and when people are brave enough to try create an experience or try something new, the physical book is left with endless possibilities. In a broader sense, quality books will still be churned out regularly alongside their digital counterparts, and that will continue mostly as is. But it’s these anomalies that can really define the physical book’s future, going into more creative frontiers and being the real justification that the form is something needed and evolving. The most exciting point is that the best format-pushing ideas are yet to come.

Digital events will play into the realm of discovery, pointing people to authors and their books, highlighting those done a little differently. The point of publishing remains getting books into people’s hands, and that’s something that will continue for years and years to come. From plot to format, the physical book will hold the title as a playground for innovation, one quirky book at a time.

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