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Future of the book

A printed book has sensual qualities: But what do they count against the smart design of electronic reading devices? Consumer lifestyle issues are touched - and the book industry's survival issues.


Let's start with a little imagination. It's Tuesday, October 10th, 2034, and the world is eagerly awaiting the upload of Daniel Kehlmann's new novel. Fears that the server of the website of his literary agent, which feeds the book into the network, could collapse under the onslaught of curious people, as last time, persisted in the run-up. The now 59-year-old writer has lost none of his appeal to the public, and the fact that he published his new work, a historical grotesque entitled "Siegfried Alexander's Jerks", on the eve of the traditional Frankfurt e-book fair, shows that Kehlmann knows what he owes the industry.

Scoffers claim that the title of the new novel is reminiscent of the two publishers under whose wing the then young man rose to become a bestselling author. But if it is actually a sentimental tribute from the author to his beginnings, then it is not without a bitter aftertaste. Siegfried Unseld, had he seen the departure of his young star from Suhrkamp to Rowohlt-Verlag in 2004, he would probably never have got over it; and Alexander Fest is known to have been struggling with Kehlmann's decision to self-publish his books via the Internet for a decade and a half. To be more precise: Kehlmann has reserved the coveted first edition of his texts. First edition, however, nowadays means e-book; because digital is the trump card.

For Fest and its Rowohlt publishing house, secondary use remains in antiquated offset printing. Even with this, you can occasionally earn a nice penny, provided you observe the changed rules of the game for the sale of printed works: It is still possible to publish some of the books as a uniform edition, as was once the rule. Individual satisfaction of needs, however, looks different. Therefore, another part must be available as loose sheets on fine paper so that fetishists can have unusual bindings made by the bookbinder manufacture. (This is basically a very old phenomenon.) Finally, we should not forget the so-called personalized editions, in which the customer individually determines the typography, illustration and cover photo. Here, with the individual book, offset printing, which is only profitable from a larger print run, is ruled out as a process. For very small print runs, print-on-demand (PoD), a book production facility with digital printers that work in a similar way to photocopiers and can produce on demand and on demand, is the method of choice. The customer can take responsibility for this on their own. All he needs is a text file with the new novel. The digital printer takes care of the print-ready set. And what else do publishers have to do with the individual book? Good question.

Now to the reality. Today, in October 2009, Daniel Kehlmann has absolutely no desire to go to the self-publishers, and the autumn fair beginning these days in Frankfurt is still called the book fair, not the e-book fair. [1] Your guest of honor is China. The Middle Kingdom is so much regarded as a rising great power that augurs have already referred to the 21st century as "the Chinese century". So do we have to look to the Chinese to spot trends that will determine the future? If this is the case, the following message [2] gives the book market pause for thought: In 2008, the number of people in China using electronic reading devices (e-readers) to read books rose to 79 million; that is an increase of 34 percent compared to the previous year. Young people who read texts on smartphones or other portable playback devices should be an indispensable part of the streetscape in Shanghai. Well over eight hundred thousand titles are available in electronic format, i.e. as e-books. Those 79 million consumers correspond to 5.8 percent of the Chinese population. These are dimensions from which Germany [3] is still a long way off.

Now we know, of course, that it would be wrong to imagine the future as a linear continuation of developments in the present. Markets grow by leaps and bounds. Phases of euphoria are followed by calming and saturation, combined with stagnation or an ups and downs. If it were different and the future of the Chinese e-book market had to be extrapolated from the growth rate for 2007, then we would have to for the 21st century assume a marginalization of printed works. That would not be without irony insofar as China, where printing was carried out with movable, albeit non-metallic, letters long before Johannes Gutenberg was once again assuming a pioneering role: Back then, in the 11th century, the Chinese pioneered book printing that was brought to maturity in Korea . [4] Today, however, they appeared as the gravediggers of printing on paper.

Even then, however, if you don't want to go that far, the rapid increase to 79 million Chinese e-book readers remains a haunting fact. Trying to belittle it as something specifically Chinese doesn't help. An initial suspicion that the Chinese characters are particularly well suited for reproduction on e-readers, and this explains the boom, has not been confirmed. A small private survey that the sinologist Helwig Schmidt-Glintzer, director of the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenb├╝ttel, conducted among Chinese acquaintances at our request, showed that the Chinese appreciate e-readers out of technical curiosity, out of playfulness, as a fashion accessory and of course as a database that can hold many thousands of pages of text. They welcome the fact that the text can be accessed using search functions and conveniently plundered for your own purposes using copy and paste. They are grateful for the dictionaries with which e-readers are equipped as standard, because the many thousands of characters in their script pose problems even for experienced readers. In addition, the fact that people in China are not so strict about copyright and that the reading devices are a medium for digital pirated copies may also be added. In summary, however, it can be said: European or German book publishers cannot keep the e-book boom at bay with cultural relativism. The Chinese motifs for electronic books are the same as elsewhere, with the exception of nuances. And so the temptations and dangers are the same.

The Chinese example is instructive. How old books and young technology come together becomes clear. There are competing offers for a changed buying behavior, for different modes of reception, for forms of production and distribution. An eye guided by a carefully composed double-page book glides ahead reading differently than looking at a display. A multi-volume reference work on the shelf presents knowledge differently than an electronic file or a radio link from the e-reader to Wikipedia. Apropos reference work: Which range of lexical information the present tends to have has been decided after the economic disaster experienced by the 21st and probably last printed edition of the "Brockhaus Encyclopedia". Other questions are still open. The current copyright stands at odds with the light-handed downloading of a bestseller from an online exchange that offers the book free of charge despite the copyright: Where is the legal development going, does it strengthen the authors or the pirates? A printed book has sensual qualities: But what do they count against the smart design of a cell phone that is suitable for reading? Consumer lifestyle issues are touched - and the book industry's survival issues. What will happen to the printing industry in the age of electronic publishing? How can bookstores participate in the sale of e-books?