For hundreds of years, publishing's primary product has been very clear – the book. Sure, there are magazines and journals and pamphlets, but the book has reigned supreme as a method of organising and presenting information. The inexorable shift towards digital platforms threatens to change all that – is it enough to simply transpose the book onto an electronic device, or is it time to rethink the entire structure of what we do?
In their review of 2011, The Bookseller said that trade publishers had made around 10% of their monthly revenues from digital over the year. Quite clearly, the printed book is still very much the primary product (at a ratio of 9:1). And the digital products that they did produce were almost all e-books that more or less reproduced the print book on a Kindle or iPad. So, perhaps I'm making a lot of fuss about nothing.
But, it's a process of acceptance. A couple of years ago, publishers were nervous about e-books, now they routinely release one for many of their print products. Who's to say that this won't continue with enhanced e-books, apps or whatever we can expect down the line? Digital used to be a specialist discipline in publishing companies, a department quite separate from editorial, sales and marketing. But, like a virus, digital is spreading into people's job roles and becoming a key part of what they do. For publishers to survive, it must also become a key part of what they sell.
I'm interested in where the tipping point lies. Will it be when sales of printed books and digital products are 50:50? Or will the complexity (and new opportunities) of digital products force the change earlier than that? Numerous startups are snapping at the heels of publishing, keen to nose their way into a multi-million-pound market. Yet, publishers themselves still hold a considerable cachet and brand presence. Just look at Amanda Hocking's decision to traditionally publish her e-books – she has no need financially to do so, but she craves the credibility and editorial rigour that comes from the print book process.
So, what happens if digital products do become the norm? In some ways, we will be freed, liberated from structures that have changed little in centuries. Different kinds of content could be organised in different ways, rather than squeezed into the shape of a book. For instance, I work in reference publishing, and most people have never read reference books from cover to cover, but use contents pages and indexes to find what they need. So it makes sense to structure entries into many cross-referenced chunks. Stories may evolve in a similar way, with shorter, more episodic "chapters" and perhaps the ability to follow a narrative from different viewpoints or via different media.
On the downside, losing the book's structure may also mean losing a key part of how we understand narrative. Years of "the novel" have unconsciously trained us to recognise a well-constructed story, and any move away from that risks reader fatigue. With our busy lives, do we really want to spend time constructing story from an all-you-can-eat buffet? Or would we rather it was laid on for us by a trained chef?
In the meantime, perhaps the book and digital content can coexist. Publishers can go on doing what they do best, which is delivering big, editorially-complex products to high quality standards. Startups, meanwhile, can produce wildly innovative stuff like Zombies, Run! which is an app that enlivens your daily exercise with an interactive audio book narrative. This is high concept at its finest – the zombies are coming and you need to literally run the hell away from them! Whether this leads to a rise in stress-related heart attacks remains to be seen...