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Vol. LXV, No. 21
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
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Senior Editor at Princeton University Press Ponders the Future of Books: Digital vs. Print

Ellen Gilbert

The push-pull of Princeton University Press Senior Editor Fred Appel’s talk about “The Future of the Book” with the “Lunch and Learn” group at the Princeton Jewish Center last week was evident in the day’s headlines: amid much fanfare, the New York Public Library was celebrating its 100th anniversary, while a headline on the front page of the New York Times’s Business section declared that “E-Books Outsell Print Books at Amazon.”

The Canadian-born editor, who is in charge of commissioning books in anthropology, music, and religion for the press, began his talk on a modest note. Describing it as “a capacious topic,” he wondered if he had been guilty of “chutzpah” in suggesting it. “I’m not sure if I’m qualified to talk about the future of the book,” he mused, despite the fact that during the next hour his account of the history of the book and its prospects for the future proved that he was more than equal to the task.

In response to the big question of whether or not digital devices will replace good old-fashioned books, Mr. Appel’s response was simple: “I just don’t know.

“If I did,” he added, “I would be making a lot more money.”

Nevertheless, he admitted, he needs to think about these questions for his job. The New York Times article, by the way, corroborated Mr. Appel’s perception about current uncertainty both within and outside of the publishing industry. Reporting that, since April, Amazon sold 105 books for its Kindle e-reader for every 100 hardcover and paperback books, including books without Kindle versions and excluding free e-books, the Times writers also noted analysts’ warnings that “people should not exile their bookshelves to storage quite yet.” According to Forrester Research, they said, e-books account for only about 14 per cent of all general consumer fiction and nonfiction books sold.

Mr. Appel said that he became interested in scholarly publishing during the process of turning his PhD dissertation (in political science) into a book. He cited a YouTube piece called “The Medieval Helpdesk” as a knowing take on the challenges of the electronic environment. In it, a bewildered monk gets assistance on how to open, return to, and save the information embedded in a brand new piece of technology: a book.

Engaging members of the audience with questions both during and, particularly, after his talk, Mr. Appel wondered why the codex eventually triumphed over the scroll. “It’s easier to use,” correctly noted a listener.

“It’s not clear how long electronic media will last,” said Mr. Appel, musing about the future. Calling to mind people’s memories of family members who sat on the couch and regularly read, he cited the book’s “proven durability.” On the other hand, he noted, a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts indicated that there is a discernible decline in reading for pleasure among American adults.

Suggesting that “we expand our concept of what a book is,” Mr. Appel reported that e-books now account for five percent of Princeton University Press’s sales, compared to nearly zero percent just two years ago. He projected that that amount will be 50 percent in about five years. Whichever device comes out on top, and whether or not the IPad or the Kindle will prevail, he added, e-book sales have “skyrocketed.” As a result, there’s “a lot of head-scratching” going on among writers and publishers about the disposition of backlists, contracts that may not refer to e-books, and other legal and logistical questions.

Despite a world that appears to be committed to multitasking, Mr. Appel’s heart seems to be with printed books. They are, he said, “a very jealous medium” that “requires your undivided attention.”

The Jewish Center’s Jess Epstein Lunch and Learn Princeton Scholars Series will resume in the fall.

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