The inexorable rise in Kindle e-book sales over the past few months should be seen as the canary in the coalmine.
So said Malcolm Morrison, chairing last week’s Melrose Literary Society discussion on E-books and the Future of Print in the town’s Corn Exchange.
Introducing a panel of speakers – a writer, a book-seller and a print journalist – Mr Morrison asked whether, in an age of electronic publishing, we were coming to the end of a long love affair with the book.
Digital publishing, he said, may be a bigger and more profound invention than print. Could we imagine a world without books – no libraries, newspapers or bookshops, with printed books mere art objects, as old fashioned as the long-playing record or the film camera? How much will have been lost when the book as we know it has gone?
Panel member Thomas Ogilvie, of the Main Street Trading Bookshop in St Boswells, felt that independent bookshops such as Main Street Trading would survive the twin threats of giant book-selling chains, and e-publishing.
The bookshop, whose reading group discussions already feature on the pages of TheSouthern, gives individual service and advice for local customers the staff have come to know, with the added attractions of coffee and cakes.
The physical, hard-copy book rather than ephemeral e-books appeals to those who value not only their tactile qualities, but the shape and look of words on a page, said Mr Ogilvie.
He asked what would happen to the content of e-books if any of the three enormous e-publishers went out of business, warning of the threat to permanent knowledge and the exchange of developed ideas in a virtual world.
In a week when his former newspaper The Scotsman launched an iPad app, journalist Bill Chisholm from Jedburgh warned against reporting inaccuracies when cost constraints forced journalists to produce news from their desks, rather than going out to investigate stories and check the facts for themselves.
A recent Scottish Parliamentary Committee to which he had given evidence recognised the invaluable and historic roles of local newspapers in representing communities’ views and holding decision-makers to account on local issues.
At a time when Scottish political independence is under renewed debate, and citing the example of the recently established Jed Eye paper, Mr Chisholm believes that printed local newspapers were essential in supporting a healthy, pluralist and participative society.
A writer herself, third panel member Dorothy Bruce of Westruther felt there would be little opportunity for writers who did not embrace the new digital technology. She acknowledged the difficulties of self-editing and publishing without the help of a professional team, but recognised that readers now want an experience wider than that of the printed page.
Suggesting that writers may need to offer more than text, such as 3D images, sound, music, video, a range of interactive possibilities, and extensive links – all of which could already be offered on an e-reader – she felt that, for readers, the choice is not print or digital, but, instead, which books of the millions now available they can have at the press of a button.
One focus of the discussion that followed was the fear that both newspapers and books would be in the hands of two or three enormous world-wide publishers, controlling both cost and content.
The meeting agreed that readers must engage in crucial decisions about digital technology, and not leave them to technocratic elites and publishing giants.