Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Stephen Bayley

Why the printed book is about to undergo a renaissance

Stephen Bayley

Image: Brijesh Patel

April 11 2011
Stephen Bayley

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Anyone who says the book is dead knows nothing of The London Book Fair (which starts today) and the neurotic frenzy of anticipation and desire that attends it. Certainly, conventional publishing is getting a very thorough shake-down: its cloacal drains cleared after years of nasty blockage. Amazing, really, that such a quaintly fragmented trade endured unreformed for so long. There was a Darwinian hierarchy of authors, agents, editors, PRs, reps and booksellers, each with his own idea of what a book might be and with his own survival to defend. It was an expensive and wasteful process, made yet more ridiculous by trucking heavy boxes of middlebrow junk up the motorways of Britain.

But because of, not despite, a revolution, the printed book is about to enjoy a renaissance. True, e-readers will make middlebrow junk irrelevant, but e-reading is an unsatisfactory experience. E-reading is the equivalent of taking wine by intravenous injection: you get a debased general effect, but subtleties such as colour, taste, smell, packaging are lost. E-readers have a drably levelling effect on content. And besides, the printed book is still the most adaptable, modular, interactive data retrieval system yet devised. You can even store them to good decorative effect in places called libraries. My guess is that we are going to see more of these in the future.

Evidence from the US suggests that while the conventional bookshop is not to be resuscitated, sales of quality books in specialist fashion and furniture stores are booming. The book renaissance demands excellent design and production combined with imaginative and intelligent distribution. In a thrilling acknowledgement that the public is not moronic, there’s compelling evidence that people will pay for quality: Heston Blumenthal costs £100 and they cannot print enough. This might be expensive as a book, but as an ornament to existence it’s a steal.

Last month’s Pick Me Up event at Somerset House in London showed the way publishing is fast changing: this was a thronged riot of the energetic new generation of artisan printers and print-makers who have set up shops all over Shoreditch and Hackney, making the weary “executives” of old-school publishing look the plonkers they are.

I have an inside line here as my own son is of their number. He works as a very busy editor in a very 24/7, cross-platform, multi-channel, international media business. But he also has an interest in an East End business called Ditto which blurs distinctions between printer, editor and publisher. Soon Ditto will publish Duncan Fallowell’s How to Disappear: brilliantly written, uncategorisable, beautifully designed, precious and desirable. See it, touch it and you will want it. I promised myself I would plug the book of the future in an electronic blog, and there, I have done it.

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