The Gathering Storm

“Readers can’t survive on e-books alone. The rapid rise of e-books and online sales of printed books pose threats to bookstores, the book publishing industry and the rise of new authors.”

These strong words come from the mouth of Richard Russo, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and author of Interventions, which is to be sold (quite pointedly) in physical form only, and not as an e-book.

Fair enough. If an author doesn’t want their book to be sold in electronic format, I’d say that’s between them and their publisher. But refusing to publish electronically as a form of protest against the e-book is a different matter entirely, and when someone like Mr. Russo makes such strong statements against e-books in general his words expose an undercurrent of hostility in the publishing world, and a developing schism between ‘them’ and ‘us’ — the two factions being ‘the establishment’ and ‘the rebels’, or ‘legacy publishing’ and ‘indie publishing’.

This is, in fact, an old, old story. There is nothing new to Mr. Russo’s objections. This has happened in art and music, more recently in film and television, and in all of those cases a compromise has been (or is slowly being) struck between the ‘traditional’ way of tightly-controlled and paid-for media, and the ‘progressive’ method of open access and emphasis on community.

I understand the concern of people like Mr. Russo. They see the old way of life being overtaken by the new way, and with it everything they have known and been comfortable with.

But change is the oil in the wheels of progress. Without change the arts would stagnate. There would be no innovation, nothing new, nothing exciting. There would be no talking pictures, no colour images, no radio, no television, no plays, no books.

This …

Once upon a time someone suggested printing books rather than transcribing them by hand, and throughout the academic world hands were wrung as people deplored the devaluation of the written word. “But how will people value what is written down if any grubby engineer with oil on his hands can knock out so many books in a day?” You can imagine the cries of indignation.

At this point I would like to make a little differentiation. I do, in fact, agree with Mr. Russo on one of his points: that online sales of printed books pose a threat to bookstores etc. This is to do with an aggressive marketing model that is all to do with a company’s bottom line and nothing to do with nurturing new talent. Online selling of printed books pushes prices down; it changes the value of the printed book.

I take exception to e-books being lumped in with this. E-books do nothing to change the value of printed books — they are simply another medium through which to enjoy a writer’s output.

The market sector I can see being affected by e-books is the paperback market, simply because they both occupy the same ‘convenience’ niche. I fully expect paperback books to take a hit from the e-book revolution.

Hardback books, I think, are made of sterner stuff. The endurance of books in their physical form relies on the presence of value in something other than the words they contain — those of us who love books know the thrill that can only come from sniffing the pages of a newly-cracked volume, or the sight of a shelf-full of matching titles. As e-books cannot offer this, they will never completely replace printed books as artefacts of personal and emotional significance; as hardback books are already seen as objects of desire in their own right, as well as being a receptacle for the written word, I see them having a long and happy existence.

… or this?

In the end, the future of books lies in the distinction between the value we place on the author’s words, and the value we place on the object itself. Online (and supermarket) sales of discounted print books cheapens both; e-books, however, do away with the object, valuing only the author’s words, and so leaving space in the world for the books themselves.

Online sales of music are on the up-and-up, drowning out sales of CDs and LPs, but people still go to live concerts because nothing can replace the emotions that are felt in that place at that time.

Online downloads of films are burgeoning, courtesy of iTunes, Netflix and LoveFilm; DVD sales will suffer, but people will still go to the cinema for the experience.

Nothing has really replaced theatre, interestingly. I believe this is for the same reason: the experience. Ballet, opera, drama, musical — they will all endure because there is more to them than the content alone.

Don’t get me wrong — I understand Mr. Russo’s position: he loves physical books, and doesn’t want to see them disappear. But I doubt they will be disappearing any time soon.

In closing, let me reply to Mr. Russo’s concerns:

Online sales threaten bookstores: I agree. Online sales by outlets such as Amazon drive down the price of the items they are selling, and the independent bookstores can’t compete on price. They must survive by offering other services, and by emphasising the human aspects of their business such as specialist knowledge and genuine recommendations.

Online sales threaten publishers: Again, I agree — but my sympathy is limited. Publishing is, after all, a business, and in business one should expect competition. Money will always be the bottom line, so no-one can blame the online retailers in this respect. And anyway, publishers can rest easy that without them the retailers cannot continue to sell books.

Online sales threaten the rise of new authors: Definitely. New authors are a risk, and in an increasingly competitive environment publishers will not touch risk with a long pole. But again, we must remember that traditional publishing is a consumer-led business. Consumers will follow the path of least resistance, in the case of book-buying this being the cheapest path. New authors must find other ways to get their work out there.

Which leads us to …

E-books threaten bookstores: Not in the slightest. As I have already pointed out, physical books and e-books are different products and different services, catering to different needs. Those who want convenience will buy e-books; those who want an experience will buy physical books (probably hardbacks, as an enduring object).

E-books threaten publishers: I disagree. Publishers should (and can) embrace the e-book revolution, using it as a way to expand and enter different markets. The only publishers who will be threatened are those who hang on to the notion that e-books are not ‘proper’ books. This is an elitist and backward-thinking view, and can safely be ignored.

E-books threaten the rise of new authors: Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the ease of self-publishing means that there are more avenues than ever for new authors to get their work read. It is up to them to make it readable, and to market it, but beyond that the world is their oyster. If they need to deliver it for free, then so be it; but they must have the courage to do this.

My last words: Please do not lump together e-books and online, discounted sales of physical books. The only people who will lose out are those who refuse to change with the times, or who think that traditional publishing is somehow a magic ticket to wealth and success.

There is a storm gathering. The way in which words are delivered is changing. Traditional publishers, and people like Mr. Russo, are standing in the rain with tinfoil hats on, refusing to take them off because they’ve never had to before. I put it to you to take your hats off to the e-book, embrace the power of words, and watch where the lightning strikes.

You can bet it won’t be on the Kindle.

Happy reading,

Edwin.

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