Bibliophiles the world over can rest easy — news of the book's death continues to be greatly exaggerated.
Book-lovers have made little secret of their fears about the future of the printed word. Amid surging sales of iPads and Kindles, not to mention Google's plan to digitize all books everywhere, some have dared wonder if good old-fashioned books can survive the latest technological onslaught.
'It could possibly be even a renaissance for writers and publishers as opposed to a doomsday scenario.'—Lynn Henry, Doubleday Canada
The latest news from the front appears encouraging for those not yet ready to scroll through Shakespeare.
Publishers attending an industry meeting Friday at Montreal's Blue Metropolis literary festival sounded an optimistic note that traditional reading isn't ready to be crowded out of the market just yet.
"I think the book will be around for a while," said Lynn Henry, publishing director at Doubleday Canada, whose stable of writers includes Linda McQuaig, David Adams Richards and M.G. Vassanji.
In fact, much of the talk at the publishers' forum was about how the digital world could serve the printed one. The audience, for example, heard talk of an app to sell short stories, and of online networking tools to reduce distribution costs.
"People are feeling quite hopeful about what can happen with digital books," Henry said in an interview.
"It could possibly be even a renaissance for writers and publishers as opposed to a doomsday scenario."
Lost in much of the hype surrounding new reading technologies is just how firmly entrenched the book has become as a cultural touchstone. In North America, the book industry is estimated to be worth more than $25 billion annually.
"When something is that present it doesn't just wither and die instantly," said Andrew Piper, a professor in the English department at McGill University who specializes in the history of the book.
Instead, said Piper, it is the role books play in our lives that is likely to change. He pointed out that the printing press didn't render handwriting obsolete, and he said digital reading interfaces are likely to prompt a shift in how books are used.
"[iPads and Kindles] are certainly going to keep becoming more popular, but that doesn't necessarily mean print will disappear," Piper said in an interview. "It just means it's going to do different things."
Writing on the wall?
Publishers readily acknowledge that the ways people read have changed dramatically in the past few years. And while the book's future may be more secure than some predict, the industry isn't counting on hardcover sales to keep it afloat.
"Going forward, we're making sure electronic books and printed books are able to come out at the same time," said Doubleday's Henry. "We're putting systems into place to make our content … available in whatever format people want."
If the advent of the digital reading experience hasn't obliterated the printed one, it is likely to affect how readers approach old-school books.
"Next-generation e-readers will increasingly move away from their reliance on things like the page as the primary interface," Piper said.
"That's when you're going to have a real tension between books and digital readers, because the page has been for centuries the way we've understood the interface of reading."
The impact of this change, according to Piper, may be no less than a reordering of how people understand ideas.
Whereas the linear narrative imposed by the two covers of a book helps to order ideas in a particular way, new media are accessed more like a database.
"When you begin to think of the world not in a linear sequence of cause and effect but as a series of associated non-hierarchical ideas … there's a value encoded in that," says Piper.
"All ideas become equal. There's no inherent structure to ideas."
'A huge shift happening'
Digital books could go so far as giving readers the option of ordering the text in whatever form they want, something Henry admits has unnerved some of the literary writers with whom she works.
"There is a huge shift happening once we go down this path," she said. "It's like every single e-book automatically becomes postmodern just by virtue of it being digital."
Such weighty implications about the changing nature of reading help Piper put gloomy predictions of the book's death into perspective.
"When you get caught up in all the news, you feel like this is the big one," he said. "You feel like Gutenberg had just walked onto the world stage one more time."
Using the long view of the historian, Piper said the book's current transformation is less significant than the change wrought by the printing press.
"On the one hand, it really feels like knowledge is being reorganized very dramatically right now as we move from a kind of paper print system to a digital system," he said. "On the other hand, it also feels like it fits within a series of micro-changes that happen every 50 to 100 years within media history."
Piper takes part in a panel discussion on the future of the book at the Blue Metropolis festival on Saturday.