Beyond the Book?

The iPad mini, released a few weeks ago, is the latest hand-held device to spark debate about the future of print and the publishing industry. Timely then, that the Society of Young Publishers chose the theme ‘Beyond the Book’ for their annual conference, held on 3 November at the London College of Communication. In a series of debates and seminars about interactive and social reading, self-publishing, and cross-media collaboration, the conference explored how digital technology is changing the face of the publishing industry.

The conference was largely attended by young publishing students and graduates just starting out in the industry. Newcomers to publishing, already a competitive market, are now faced with the extra – albeit exciting – challenge of trying to find a place in an industry that doesn’t quite know where it is heading. What is certain, however, is that digital technology will play a dominant part in its future. It is interesting then that in spite of all the forward-thinking sessions on offer at the conference, two of the most popular seminars (one organiser told me), were a print production workshop, which explored the relevance of the printing press in the digital age and invited participants to have a go on the college’s own printing press, and a talk I gave on ‘Beautiful Books’.

The latest e-readers are shinier, sleeker and sexier than ever before, but there is something undeniably alluring and romantic about the printed book. It is a tactile and private experience in a way that digital, interactive reading can never be. In the opening debate on the ‘game changers’ of the book publishing industry, it was posited that one of the challenges faced by digital publishing was matching the printed book’s success in making the ‘interface’ – the reader’s physical connection with print – disappear. Digital reading devices have lots to offer readers, but part of the magic of the reading experience is that you can lose yourself completely: a good book can engage you so entirely that you are no longer aware of its physical presence. This is difficult to replicate when you read from a piece of hardware that encourages interactive reading, clicking on images to animate them or links which allow you to jump from one passage to the next.

I found the discussion around ‘interface’ particularly intriguing, because at Folio, of course, the aim isn’t to make the reader’s awareness of the physical book disappear, but to celebrate it. My seminar looked at how fine books might fit in to publishing’s future. Readers can now get almost anything they want instantly on an e-reader, so when it comes to buying a physical book they’re looking for something more. Careful attention to typography, page design, paper and illustrations is becoming rare, and therefore more desirable and valued.

Our edition of The Handmaid’s Tale was particularly, and deservedly, admired by the seminar attendees

It’s fair to say that my audience was responsive, and eager to get their hands on the Folio books I’d brought with me – the lure of print in action. My favourite piece of feedback came from one young woman who stayed behind to chat to me about Folio: ‘Everything you said resonated with my soul!’ It’s comforting to know that, whatever the future of the book might be, the next generation of publishers are as in love with print as we are.

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