In the past fifty years, the space and place of the bookstore have shifted dramatically. The traditional physical space of the Indies, chains, market-stalls and superstores now create a common space with virtual stores, eReaders, and tablets. This is largely due to digital technologies that have removed problems of distribution and access as well as fundamentally called into question what it is that is being bought and sold and who owns that item being exchanged.
With the main focus being on the academic book the future space of bookselling conference discussed various questions regarding the transition from physical to digital in the book trade. Sam Rayner talked about the meaning of the bookseller as a merchant of culture who curates and distributes ideas and the question whether this role is still vital to the nation’s intellectual and cultural development? Robin Davis a bookseller of John Smith’s booksellers seemed to present an answer to Sam Rayner’s question by presenting a paper on the decline of bookselling as a profession and the estrangement of university educated specialists and enthusiasts from the activity of academic bookselling. His paper was supplemented by Alastair Horne (previously Cambridge University Press) who explored the relationship of University presses with their parent institutions. He talked about the changing role of the presses from being once protected from market forces by subsidies to be either considered avoidable expenses by those keen to cut costs or a potential source of revenue for institutions under increasing pressure to fund their own activities. In addition, the rise of open access publishing exerts similarly complex pressures on University presses. Gareth J. Johnson (Nottingham Trent University) explored recent developments in academic open access book publishing, asking why developments in open access book publishing have been rather sluggish compared to the publishing of open access journals in the academic field.
Presentations looking at the changing format of the book in the age of digitization and the implications connected with it included Maria Bonn’s (University of Michigan) paper on Scholarship on demand. She discussed the rapid development of digital and network-based delivery and distribution tools and services for text-based media that have enlarged the spaces of the academic book, moving it out of the scholar’s bookshelf, the library, and the retail bookstore. She argued that today scholarship could come to us online, in print, permanently ensconced, available at the moment of demand, and in parallel or complementary print and digital editions.
Another aspect regarding the use of books in their digital form was explored by Rebecca Lyle Skains (University of Bangor) who researched the use and usefulness of digital marginalia, especially in academic publishing. As many academic texts are now available electronically, from online journals to e-books she looked at the digital forms of marginalia such as comments, annotations, shares, likes and new marginalia tools such as ReadSocial. She argued that despite the natural tendencies towards discourses among scholars the practice to transfer this discourse in print into the digital realm has not caught on. The transition from physical to digital provided the connection between Rebecca’s paper and mine as I presented findings on the value of the book as the artefact in the age of digitization. I did this by looking at the importance of the book as a representative object and embodied cultural capital (Bourdieu). My visual examples were photographs of press conferences and meetings with George W. Bush in the white house where books had actively been staged in the background. Rebecca’s and my presentations started a lively discussion on different aspects of the digital transition of the book ranging from preferences of formats, sustainability of digital formats for future use, consequences of the proceeding displacement of the physical book and advantages and disadvantages of formats for different purposes. This discussion was supplemented by Eben Muse’s (University of Bangor) paper who challenged the definition of what we consider being a digital book or digital market space when the nature of the book has been destabilized by algorithms and databases and the distinction between the physical and the digital has been blurred beyond perception.
Even though the conference provided insight into the book market and especially the changes in the academic book market many questions remain unanswered. It is obvious that the discussion should go beyond the mere practical use of the book or the access of its content but needs to research what the book as an artefact means to our society in a practical and ideological/emotional sense. As such the conference was very useful for me. In addition, I made interesting contacts that offered me an ongoing exchange of ideas and research that are valuable for my thesis.