WHAT WE ARE THINKING: The demise of the printed book?

Article published on November 8, 2015.

I was in my local IKEA recently and, having made my way through The Labyrinth, I descended through the Floor of Marketplace to the Great Hall of Warehouse. Having travelled this way more times than I care to remember, I was struck by a subliminal observation: Billy bookcases weren’t displayed where they have been since the store opened. As you turned the corner into the big open space there they would normally be, facing you in various door and veneer combinations with piles of flatpack boxes below. Gone.

Which set me to thinking: this international chain does not move a prime product without good reason. Designed 30 years ago by Gillis Lundgren, IKEA only recently trumpeted that they’d sold enough Billy bookcases to go from the Earth to the moon and back – or some similarly impressive statistic.

Now that’s a lot of sales so why have they disappeared? Could it be that the coming of the electronic book is further advanced than we realized and that Billy sales have dropped off the shelf (sorry)? As the old saying goes, ‘books do furnish a room’ so what will we do when there are no books any more – frame our old Kindles and e-readers as new technological advances give salesmen a new product to talk us into?

Watching Men in Black on TV the other night I smiled wryly when Tommy Lee Jones held up a small disk, explaining to Will Smith that it was the latest music format and that he’d have to buy The White Album again. That was filmed in 1997 before the advent of the iPod – would that scene have survived if it were to be re-filmed now? I doubt it. And if music can change that quickly . . .

So what about books – you know those things made out of cardboard and paper? The most expensive form of insulation known to man, I’ve heard them called but I paid for ‘em and I don’t want to get rid of them. They mean so many different things to me – even the ones I haven’t read.

Predicting the future is a game for mugs and hedge fund traders so I’m not going to draw any alarming conclusions. Suffice to say, change is upon us and you should enjoy your addiction while it lasts. Support your local library, support your local bookshop because if Amazon, Apple and google get their way then browsing display tables, picking up books, reading the blurb and feeling how it sits in your hand will be a thing of the past.

Anyway, I’m off to IKEA tonight – you never know, they may just have run out of stock and those bookshelves will be back in pride of place. Hope so.

Guy Pringle

Posted November 2015 but actually written in 2011. Coincidentally, Waterstones (no apostrophe) recently announced the withdrawal of Kindles from most of their stores due to falling sales, the book trade are riding the wave of a substantial rise in the sales of printed books and IKEA have their Billy bookshelves back where they used to be.

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