This article was written two years ago and published on Hunter and Bligh. It has been re-edited and refined for publication here on Medium.
We have read books under sheltering oak trees, we have read novels in the open sunshine at the park, and we have lapped up reality in the confines of a silent library. But all that seems like yesterday, because it’s not just the printed book anymore. Nowadays we can navigate e-books on the train to Sydney; we can listen to biographies on a plane ride to Bali; we can even plot through an interactive multimedia article on “Australia’s first fake news story” during our lunch break. It’s a changing industry.
So where is it going?
“I worry that books will go the same way as music and other online content where people expect to be able to access them for free,” said author Felicity Castagna.
“I hardly get any sales from e-books and I have noticed that a lot of my books have been illegally downloaded and shared for free online, which means I don’t get any money from them.”
Felicity is the author of three books, winner of the Prime Minister’s Literature Award and currently teaches communications at both Western Sydney University and Macquarie University.
Felicity went on to say that the idea of the audience expecting free stories is making it more difficult for journalists and authors to make money from the craft.
“Which in turn means that we don’t get the high level of journalism that we used to, as more established writers aren’t willing to invest a lot of time in things where they don’t get paid,” she said.
“A lot of book publishers thought that they would get more sales through e-books, particularly in the young adult market, but this hasn’t eventuated. Most studies show that young people, in particular, are still much more interested in the printed book.”
On her last point, it’s true. In 2013, The Guardian reported that 62% of 16- to 24-year-olds prefer the printed book over ebooks. In 2014, the Daily Telegraph reported that “according to figures from Australia’s largest bookseller Dymocks”, 95% of Aussies under 30 prefer print over digital. Overseas in the US, the Los Angeles Times reported that a staggering 92% of college students prefer print books to ebooks in 2016. And in 2017, The Conversation noted that children in year 4 and 6 who had electronic reading devices tended not to use them for reading.
And it’s not just Felicity who has an animus indifference to electronic storytelling. Australian author John Birmingham spoke with New York Times’ and USA Today’s “bestselling” author Joanna Penn, reiterating the lack of profit in the industry.
“What I discovered really quickly was that writing e-books for trade publishers is a mug's game. Because you put as much effort into them as you do with a novel, but just because of the way the numbers fall, you don’t make a living out of it,” he said.
“In fact, to be truthful, you lose money writing e-books.”
But, animus indifference aside, electronic reading does have its perks. As Felicity notes, e-books can be easier accessed by people living in regional communities “where there are no longer bookshops”. And let’s not forget the biggest perk of all where you can carry a whole library in your backpack without straining your shoulders.
But all this begs the question: What is the future of the printed book?
I spoke with Dr Rachel Morley, a lecturer at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at Western Sydney University, and she’s not worried at all about the future of the paperback printed book.
“I don’t see the evidence to suggest that e-books and audiobooks have had as big an impact on the market as, perhaps, people might have anticipated — certainly not enough to make a noticeable difference in people’s reading habits, and certainly not enough to threaten the survival of the paperback book,” she said.
“I think there are still a veritable number of people who enjoy and value the paperback or the hardcopy book, and Malcolm Garrett’s famous cry, ‘the book is dead’, from 1991 still hasn’t rung true.”
But things have changed. The equations have changed. It’s not just printed words anymore. Perhaps looking back into history could help foreshadow the future?
“I don’t know that history can tell us where storytelling is headed,” said Dr Morley, “but I think it can tell us that stories are integral to the way we understand ourselves and each other, and that technology — whether in the form of pens and paper, pixels or sound — will always shape the art of storytelling, and the way we interact and communicate more generally.”
Whenever something new comes along, there will always be the ones who scream bloody murder and the death of it all. We saw it in 1993 when author Peter James published the first electronic novel on two floppy disks, with a journalist dragging his computer to the beach to make a bold statement against it. We saw it in ancient Greece during the invention of the printing press, where Johannes Trithemius said it would impact on the monks who literally wrote books.
“And we hear it now with worries about the effects of social media on literacy, attention spans and the imagination,” Dr Morley said.
“What history can tell us about storytelling then is that technology will, and does, shape storytelling and that this is almost always a good thing. It brings about diversity in storytelling, it expands the platforms, styles and spaces in which stories can be told and where they take place, and it generally leads to more inclusivity and accessibility.”
“The death of the paperback has been touted for more than 26 years. It’s still here!”
And despite the enticing future of digital storytelling, Dr Morley does note that many publishers are not capitalising on the new ways of storytelling.
“e-books also offer new opportunities for interactivity and for re-presenting content in interesting and challenging ways,” Dr Morley said.
“It’s quite old now but Al Gore’s book on climate change was a real game-changer in it’s use of sense-based technologies for enhancing engagement.”
Digital storytelling is not just words, it’s reading words among hyperlinks, YouTube videos and SoundCloud embeds, it’s instantly sharing that awesome podcast about clipping your toenails to your friends, it’s using your mouse or finger to do more than just scroll or flip the page.
“The important thing, I think, is the imperative to understand how to use these technologies in a way that enhances and amplifies the story, rather than distracting from it. They are technologies but they also need to be thought of as techniques and as a kind of reading/writing grammar that is not entirely dissimilar to the one we use to make sense of film and images — but which brings a different kind of sensation and feeling of immersion.”
“Storytellers need to be aware of this and of the way these affordances might be designed for impact and effect, not just for show.”
But there will always be something about the paperback book that really captures the essence of reading which we have seen over the last half-millennium.
“The paperback is portable and the materiality of the book invites a certain intimacy and sense of narrative immersion that I’ve yet to experience in other book technologies. Books are tactile and they have their own interactivity which I think is important to acknowledge,” Dr Morley said.
It’s also less distracting. You don’t see that banner on the side panel asking you if your insurance is up to date. You don’t see those pop-up notifications telling you your annoying friend sent you a message… for the twentieth time!
But then again, even the new ways of immersive storytelling has its perks; which makes the future of telling stories rather exciting.
“People are interested in stories; they crave them,” Dr Morley said.
“The diversity of the platforms and delivery spaces in which stories now come to us has opened up opportunities for innovation, and for the creation of new communities, new ways of being creative, and new modes for imagining and responding to the world.
“The important thing is to make sure that we, as a nation, both the people and the governments, continue to support storytellers — both internationally and locally — and that we work to seek out the innovations and the innovators.”