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Thursday, 30 June 2011

Print and digital - a happy future...

I had a fantastic trip down to London on Monday. With a bit of time to kill before meeting Stephen Jones and Nick Cain at the St Pancras Hotel (what a wonderful building that is), I spent a very indulgent hour wandering the exhibits in the British Library.
After the meeting I made a quick dash to Marylebone to Daunt’s bookshop, before heading over to Bloomsbury for a lunch meeting – after which I had scoot around Foyles before heading off to the airport. Some day!
Now, despite steeping myself in all manner of printed books, the main topic of my conversations throughout the day concerned digital editions. As the head of digital development at Birlinn I am in the process of digitising a large proportion of our list, while I am also constantly looking at ways to adapt our existing books, and new books that we commission, for interactive use in the digital world. Beyond that I have also set up a new digital publishing company – Polaris Publishing Limited. Polaris will seek to combine the very best of traditional book publishing with the creative freedom that the digital world now affords, commissioning strong content that can succeed both in physical print and in the digital environment. You can read more about our plans at
It may seem a contradiction to lobby the merits of eBooks and apps and yet glory in beauty of the printed book. Yet I strongly believe that they can both co-exist and succeed together in the future. Indeed, having an active interaction between all the editions is one of the founding pillars of Polaris’s planned products. I love books in all forms and formats and I do not believe that the development of e-readers, tablet computers and smartphones, which promote eBooks and enhanced digital editions, sounds the death knell for traditional printed books in any way; instead, publishers and book readers should appreciate that we are in the early days of an incredible new era for books, one that is surging with public interest for both print and digital editions.
And so after a day spent browsing a mesmerising quantity of books and revelling in atmosphere of the British Library, Daunt’s and Foyles, I sat on the tarmac at Gatwick waiting for Easyjet to carry me home and I began to wonder – if I had a bookshop, and there was no limit to what I could do with it, how would I design the layout and how would I run it? Now, Daunt’s in Marylebone is possibly my favourite ever bookshop. So that’ll be my starting point (although fans of Daunt’s will say that it is sacrilegious of me to suggest that it can be improved upon).
My thoughts wandered to JK Rowling’s wonderful emporium in Diagon Alley – Flourish & Blotts. Gold-embossed books the size of paving slabs in the window, stacks of books piled on tables, shelves crammed to bursting, display cases full of mysterious old editions…
The best bookshops are atmospheric – just as the best books are. They have personality, quirks and beauty. So what else would we have?
Dickensian lamps burning outside… reading retreats with comfy armchairs and log fires (with guards!)… first editions, a rare books section, signed editions… a dedicated section for lectures, readings and events. There would be a digital area where books (using augmented reality) are literally brought to life, where enhanced content can be accessed, browsed and purchased.
The children’s area would be fun and magical; there would be a story-reading corner and, without wanting to make it some kind of hideous Disneyland hybrid, motifs from books would be brought to life both physically and digitally. The lamp from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could perhaps stand in the centre of the section, or Wendy’s House from Neverland; the roots of the Faraway Tree might curl out beneath some shelves, Bilbo’s round door could be set into a wall and open into a secret little section; maybe on top of shelves or hidden in little nooks one could feature cameo characters… the rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Pooh drifting off on his giant blue balloon, Harry catching the Snitch, Mr and Mrs Twit standing on their heads… Augmented reality could be used to have the Gruffalo scurrying around the place, to allow Aslan to roam the floor, to allow Tintin or Asterix to step from behind a bookshelf and tell of their latest adventures. Too much? Maybe. But if I had gone into a bookshop like that when I was a child, I would have insisted that my parents took me back time after time after time. Many of the concepts are gimmicky, of course (and would be abhorrent to James Daunt and his clientele), but the written word remains at the heart of it all, and that is what would be bought, taken home and cherished by the patrons of the shop. I just think that it would be incredible fun to work in and run a place like that.
What would yours be like? I’d be interested to hear – or to hear what your favourite bookshops are. I’d also like to hear what your thoughts are on the future of the print book in the world of e-literature and apps. The beauty of the new developments in technology is that in many ways the only limitation to what can be achieved is imagination; and in the world of literature, there is no shortage of that. So, if you could do anything with a book, make it interactive in any way that you could imagine, what would you do?
Speak soon.

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