Anyone who has been on a plane, bus or train recently will have noticed a curious phenomenon that could not possibly have occurred even five years ago. Many travellers will be gazing, with glazed intent, at some sort of screen.
A few might be watching movies on computer-tablets or smartphones – but a great many will be reading digital books. In doing so they are part of a huge, far-reaching, revolution – one that is seeing literature delivered electronically rather than by ink on paper. The nation's largest book retailer now sells more e-books than printed tomes and literature's main trade organisation in the UK, the Publishers Association, has recently announced a "huge increase" in the value of digital book sales.
People who, only a couple of years ago, were saying: "I'll not have anything to do with those newfangled machines – give me an old fashioned book any day…" are changing their minds in droves.
Amazon says that for every 100 hardback and paperback books it sells on its UK site, 114 e-books are downloaded. Sales of its Kindle e-book reader have tripled every year since 2006 and now there is a plethora of similar devices, many of which are coming down in price. Estimates vary as to how many such devices will be received as Christmas presents, but figures compiled earlier this year by Book Marketing Limited showed that seven per cent of British adults received a dedicated e-reader in the last festive period.
That brought the total percentage of adults with e-book readers in this country up to 13 per cent, or 6.5 million adults. With e-readers now costing as little as £50, some trade estimates now put the figure at over 20 million come early next year.
In the meantime, paperback sales are down by nearly 25 per cent year-on-year, leading some industry experts to predict that the conventional cheap way to read literature could soon become as rare and fanciful as listening to music on vinyl discs.
In the first three months of this year, 11.3 million paperback novels were sold, compared to 14.9 million during the same period last year – and blame for the decline is placed fully on the increasing popularity of e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, Sony's Reader and tablets such as the iPad.
The basic logistics are hard to argue with. You can pack more than 1,400 novels onto the average e-book reading device – which is convenient if you're on the move. Then there's the fact that many reading devices are back-lit, which means you can use them in the dead of night without disturbing whoever might be sharing a dark room with you.
Perhaps more important in tough economic times is the fact that e-books are often, but not always, considerably cheaper than their printed cousins. But should we be welcoming literature's digital revolution? My own answer to that question would be a resounding "yes!"
Don't get me wrong, I love old fashioned printed books – anyone who has been to my house will known the place is lined with them. I've got too many – there are books tucked into crannies in this cottage I haven't touched in 20 years.
I like the smell, the heft and the feel of books – and I love the look of them on shelves and in bookshops.
But I'm such a convert to e-readers I have started to produce e-books of my own. Our rural backwater of a region is ignored by major publishers every bit as much as it is by major politicians – name me half a dozen West Country-based literary works that have hit the national stage in the past year or two?
The literary world is as madly London-centric as any other, if not more so. But now, people like me – and you – can produce e-books that would never have been published by an ever-more-tough-to-break-into conventional book trade. And they can be works that have a real and proper relevance to other people living in this region.
So far, I've produced a couple of collections of my newspaper columns (as an experiment, more than anything else, to see if I could do it), a collection of my old harbour series articles, another of my Christmas ghost stories and two crime novellas based on a fictional Cornish-based photographer I call the Cornish Snapper.
Now they're out there – on the big, scary, but highly efficient, worldwide web.
My argument is that they could be joined by hundreds or thousands of other West Country-based works of both fact and fiction – and we would all be a great deal the richer for it.
Not financially, I hasten to add – I'll only make a few pence on any e-book I sell. But that's not the point. What I like – apart from the convenience of e-books – is that they open up a new world which is inclusive to folk like you and me, rather than the previous status quo which has been exclusive.