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The Future of Books


Stories were told, and knowledge shared, long before the Gutenberg press made books the common vehicle for this. Printed books brought democratisation of knowledge, taking facts and ideas outside the charmed circles of clerics, aristocrats, men. In 1620, English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon wrote that “typographical printing” had "changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world". In this change, things were lost as well as gained: knowledge not amenable to being contained in the written word was lost, and so were the memory skills of oral culture and the beauty of illuminated manuscripts.

Historian Steven Kreis suggests that the internet offers us the same democratisation of knowledge as the Gutenberg press brought. Again, this will entail gains and losses. I will focus in this article on gains and losses for books.

Bookshops are clear losers. The whole Borders chain has closed in the US, and in Johannesburg our own beloved Boekehuis is gone. Good bookshops challenge readers: put new authors in their hands, entice them into unknown areas, showcase writing which is quirky or bold or elegant or unexpected. Without bookshops, readers run the risk of having a wider choice of books available, but reading more narrowly. A greater danger is losing bookshops as praise-singers and activists in developing a culture of reading.

Bookshops have succumbed to the triple onslaught of e-books, direct book ordering via the internet, and piracy. Although these are all internet based, it would be simplistic to set up the internet as the villain.

Current innovation in the print-book world couldn’t happen without internet resources. The two fastest-growing areas in printed books are Publishing on Demand and Self-Publishing. The most delightful expression of this trend is in the Espresso Book Machine, which prints any book in its database, in four minutes, while you watch, for under 10 dollars. Such a machine could leverage limited connectivity in Africa by printing popular books where there is connectivity, and transporting the hard copies to where the connectivity is lacking.

What is popular in developing countries may well be books in the vernacular. In India, the advent of e-books has led to a boom in vernacular writing and reading. Vernacular publishing does more than simply cater to a niche market. Reading in one’s mother tongue is a potent contributor to conceptual development and abstract thinking. Work in the vernacular will provide a platform for more writers, attract more readers, and also deepen the national debate. This is an interesting and pleasing echo of the role of the Gutenberg press in encouraging the growth of the written word in European vernacular languages (think French, German, English) and the demise of Latin as a linguafranca.

At their best, e-books, or even e-comics, provide something that printed text alone cannot do. In Nigeria, blogger Bunmi John Oloruntoba produces online stories, in cartoon form, which allow crowdsourcing to add depth and context. Strangers add sounds, visuals and comments to his original text. Oloruntoba has reworked serious stories, such as those shortlisted for the Caine prize in African writing. His interactive comics carry these stories to a new generation of readers.

Innovations like this will attract young readers to stories on their mobile phones. Soon they will be able to follow books in serial form on their smartphones, the way an older generation devoured new chapters of Charles Dickens in news-sheets. With 6 billion mobile phones in the world, and counting, that’s a lot of potential readers.

Publishing figures tell us that books are not an endangered species. Bookstats estimates revenue from book sales in the US in 2011 at $27.2 billion. Nielsen figures give 149, 800 books published in the UK in 2011 and 2,385,100 for the rather quaintly labeled Rest of the World (70 countries). Books are here to stay. The future surely lies with a combination of e-books and print. E-books offer better range, accessibility and cost. Printed books are alluring, durable, shareable, tactile and, most important for the developing world, readable without batteries. The internet will complement, not replace, Gutenberg’s technology.

Our compelling need here in South Africa is for a new generation of storytellers. It is for citizens with the vocabulary, concepts and style, in whatever language, to carry on a classy and constructive national dialogue. All kinds of books are our allies in this endeavour.

Dr Gillian Godsell
Guest Editor


Dr Gillian Godsell - Academic, writer and radio presenter

Read more about our guest editor.




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