Amol Rajan: Why the tablet could be the book world's salvation

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The Independent Online

Two paradoxes dominate the modern media. First, many news organisations are struggling to be financially viable, despite the demand for journalism – not just information, but an edited version of the world – being greater than ever.

Second, the space and time afforded by the internet seems infinite, but the time that we want to devote to it is getting shorter by the minute. "I really want to know all I need to know" could be the slogan for the digital age.

Plenty of research suggests this flood of information is changing how we think. I spend all day reading blogs, tweets, and columns online, and have a permanent sense of guilt about not reading all the rest. It's certainly changed how I think – and I expect your experience is the same. We're reading but not absorbing. As the brilliant writer Andrew Sullivan puts it, with tweets, a logical extension of this process, "we are becoming pond-skaters on the lake of information".

All of which is meant to spell trouble for books. This is a painful time for the publishing industry. The format of a book – tens of thousands of words, in paper, between two covers – goes against the impulse of the digital generation. But the advent of tablet computers suggests that, though the internet threatened to kill the book, it could now be its salvation.

Amazon recently launched its Kindle Fire, a response to Apple's iPad. How could such devices save books? First: profitability. Many authors, such as the polemicist Sam Harris, are circumventing old publishing houses and selling short books online through new, digital publishers at a discounted price. Second: portability. The most appealing thing about tablets is how much information they can carry for how little weight. This is great for holidays and crowded shelves at home.

Third and most of all: a global audience. "My initial concern," wrote George Orwell in Why I Write, "is to get a hearing". His second concern was to get paid. As Sullivan notes, all authors want a vast readership and lots of money. In the age of tablets, they can have both, by cutting out publishing houses whose traditional expertise – nurturing authors, editing manuscripts, advertising in bookshops – are increasingly redundant.

Amazon already sells more eBooks than printed ones. Those of us who treasure second-hand bookshops and battered old tomes instinctively recoil at this; but even we should at least be grateful that, because of tablets, the history of the book has not yet reached its final chapter.



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