Hype and Hoping

eBooks are everywhere. They romped gleefully through the London Book Fair, dominating all in their unstoppable zeitgeisty path. The Bookseller cannot stop writing about digital issues. Our dear broadsheets are even picking up on the story, reporting about the rise of digital here, here and here. Publishers, services providers, manufacturers, gurus, consultancies, warehouses, distributors, information vendors and, yes, readers pile joyfully into the gleaming future of the digital space. A utopian world of digital plenty is upon us. Undervalued for years, it seems that digital publishing is finding its place in the sun. Which is why I am worried.

Things are good- too good. Booktwo highlighted this recently by linking to two articles written by Times columnist and author Ben Macintyre. The first is a breathless panegyric to the aforementioned digital future dating from 1999. The second is a retraction, a statement that "ebooks will never be our friends", written in February of this year. In fairness to Macintyre the piece is much more balanced than the title suggests- he prophesies that people will read both on screens and in print.

Macintyre, it seems, learnt his lesson the hard way. That there is a lesson to be learnt here might be disputed: for many the digital revolution is assured, as certain as it is doomed for those who believe it will collapse. Amid the furore I think listening to Macintyre might help all of those, like myself, who have a vested interest in seeing digital publishing work.

All the noise surrounding eBooks might be detrimental if, for example, take up is slower than anticipated (and what is anticipated is not enormous). The constant media attention is welcome, but could inflate expectations over the short term and hence could harm the long term future of eBooks by scaring off investment before time and leading eBooks to be branded failures before they gain purchase in an uncertain marketplace. There would be no shortage of people lining up to say "I told you so" when, or if, eBook sales do not immediately shoot skyward.

My fear then is that we could be entering a hype bubble, a bubble that will be followed by the inevitable bust, i.e. people will assume eBooks have not worked out, just as people are now beginning to assume that they are the Next Big Thing.

So while all the discussion, the interest, the massed activity and the hopes are brilliant we should all acknowledge that this is the start of a long process, possibly a slow process and probably a difficult one. We should do this not in a spirit of negativity but rather with a sense of guarded optimism. This attitude safeguards the future, avoids the mistakes of the past and allows this exciting nascent media a chance to develop.