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Fast forward into the digital future

8 January 2007

Publishers are fast-forwarding into the digital future and the American firm Simon & Schuster is just the latest to announce the setting-up of a digital warehouse, to be developed by its parent company, CBS Corp. CEO Jack Romanos called it: 'a place to securely store and safeguard our content while making it available for known and emerging forms of digital commerce will be critical to keeping S & S competitive in the publishing and information marketplace.'

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the Publishers' Association's annual conference provided a dramatic clash between different views of the future. Futurologist Roy Hammond predicted that e-book downloads will account for 5% of total publishing revenues by 2011, rising sharply after that. Many would think that quite a modest forecast, whilst others doubt that e-books will ever come to anything. He did however see a long-term future for the traditional book, especially fiction titles because they are linear - ie they are read as narratives and do not benefit from being searchable for information.

His co-speaker John Sutherland, former Man Book Chair and academic, took a surprisingly gloomy view: 'When stars die they say there's a terminal moment when they go supernova and burn with a brilliant incandescence before they disappear altogether. I think of that sometimes when I go into bookshops. There are now so many books and they're all dirt cheap. And also, because of the Net, they never go out of print... Is implosion the next step?'

Hammond also expressed doubts about the future of bricks and mortar bookshops, arguing that: 'Retail outlets are (already) turning into showrooms for people to look at products before they order online. I would be very worried if I had a large investment in a traditional book retailer.'

So it looks as if the book business is all set to burn itself out and also to shift online so fast that bookshops will rapidly become a thing of the past. Let's hope that the futurologists are wrong and that we all have a little longer to browse in bookshops for books we'd like to read, books that still look like the books we grew up with and like to read.