Sunday, 25 January 2015

Mystery of falling book sales solved

The book in the 1500s

The book today: So much for 'progress'

THE star of the BBC production, Wolf Hall, for me was not any of the actors: it was a small illuminated book flicked through for a few seconds about halfway through the first episode. I can't have been the only one drooling over my tea and crumpets as the brightly-coloured pages on gobsmackingly gorgeous manuscript was tantalisingly held in front of the camera. The book was typical of 16th century tomes - and I look at our books today (even our digital ones) and think "What progress? I'd rather have the 16th century book thanks".

The last five years have seen off-the-edge-of-a-cliff sales falls for printed books. Game-changing drops in revenue for publishers which must have most of the staff brushing up their CVs ready for redundancy with the next four or five years. It's only people working in local newspapers who face bleaker job prospects.

Sure, some of the decline can be blamed on people switching to digital books but to me that scene in Wolf Hall showed in one image precisely what the problem was: Today's books are dull, dull, dull. Page after page of boring 9pt Times Roman text, black on white. And Kindle experiences are no better. Black and white text on an electronic screen is no more exciting than having it on a printed page.

We've taken the book for granted and are now paying the price. Why is it that publishers think we only want bright, colourful books up til the age of 10? Thomas Cromwell's book wasn't a child's book (although his daughter lovingly caressed it). What's wrong with some illumination? Why can't a book be also a work of art? And digital publishers surely have no excuse - coloured text, moving images... they could do so much more than their 17th century counterparts but rarely do so. (My thanks to Moira Briggs for pointing me to this link on how the Wolf Hall illumination book was made).

I'll leave you with another example from the time of Henry VIII (courtesy of The British Library). It's a musical score: the words and music for a canon (round) for four voices and I can't believe the combination of music, words and pictures has ever been equalled. If Apple produced this tomorrow as the logo for their musical download app, no one would bat an eyelid..