There is a goose that lays golden eggs. Yet, its flesh is so tasty that sooner or later, people who aren’t getting their share of the gold, will say to one another — “why don’t we take that bird to the chopping block and have ourselves a feast?” It’s not their goose and they didn’t spend money feeding it. They have nothing at all to lose.
Good morning, or maybe, good afternoon. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but newspapers all around the world are going out of business right about now. The Rocky Mountain News has bitten the dust, The Boston Globe is slashing wages and even the world-famous New York Times, the “grey lady” herself, is predicted to phase out its print edition a few short years down the line. Journalists by the score are losing their jobs because they can’t compete with the lower quality, but free information that lives less than a click away. Nor, as Rupert Murdoch is learning, can online revenues make up for eyeballs lost in the real world.
“But books are different,” I hear you say.* “It’s all very well for gentlefolk to read a few headlines off the screen, but War and Peace would burn the eyes right out of their sockets…
A few years ago, you’d have been right about that, but these days the arrival of e-ink devices, such as the Sony Reader and the Amazon Kindle, mean that electronic reading causes no more eye-strain than paper. Indeed, if your peepers are beginning to age a little, the fact that you can increase the print size at will, might allow you to leave your glasses in their case all the way to Napoleon’s defeat at Moscow.
There are other advantages that make a compelling argument for the imminent rise of ebooks. Here are just a few:
1) some of these devices can hold thousands of books at once. This is handy if you want to carry around a whole law library, or take 17 novels away with you on holiday
2) some of them access the internet directly so that the user can buy a book while on the train, or sitting up in bed, or out for a walk
3) the title you want is never out of print or out of stock
4) some devices allow you to take notes
5) all of them will let you upload your own documents from work
6) school books weigh nothing and never go out of date
If none of the points above represent a compelling reason as to why you would want an ebook reader, then rest assured, there are thousands willing to take your place in the queue. Once they become the majority,** the publishing game will have changed forever and woe betide the writers, publishers, editors and book-sellers who don’t find an online berth for themselves before that day comes.
A Rising Tide of Tosh
We’ve all had the experience of spending our own sweet, sweet money on awful books. Books that we’ve flung at the wall, or abandoned in train stations, or given as gifts to our enemies. But even terrible books have to meet certain standards before they can be published. Somebody loved them enough to purchase the rights. And that same person only did so after a process that weeded out a thousand books that were even worse. Imagine that! Just close your eyes and think about how bad some of those rejected books must be. Try to picture them in a pile next to the one book that was chosen. This is important, because, that column of purest tosh,*** is the future of fiction.
You see, when electronic books take over, printed novels will become a bit of a rarity. I don’t believe they will ever die out completely. There are still specialist shops, for example, where you can buy the tiny number of vinyl records that the music corporations still produce. However, in the same way that most people these days listen to songs on CDs or mp3s, most readers will find their thrills on e-ink devices and a large amount of fiction will only ever appear in that format. After all, cut out the book shops and the printers, distributors, buyers, returns, warehouses etc. etc. and it will be cheaper to produce an ebook than a pbook by orders of magnitude.
Indeed, in many cases, the production of an ebook will cost precisely nothing. After all, anything you write on a word processor is already a document capable of being read on an electronic reader.
Once upon a time, the public would never have come across a writer’s work without the intercession of a publisher. A rejected author might shake his fist at the gods or smash a bit of furniture, but in the end, the manuscript would be retired to the sock drawer for the nourishment of mice and beetles.***
These days, however, the rejectees have another outlet for their frustrations. They can sell the book through their own website or even on Amazon, where it will compete with, and distract from, more professionally produced work. The authors can also give their novels away for free, and a great many do.**** That is, of course, their right and none of my business. But I can’t help thinking about what is happening to journalism right now as it tries, and fails, to compete with free sources of news
The Death of Reading?
This is dangerous territory for everybody involved in publishing, from the authors right on down the line to the person who stacks our books at Easons. It’s not just that we might all lose our jobs. There’s a very real possibility that the hobby known as “reading for pleasure” could become a thing of the past. A reader’s investment of effort in a book, is far greater than the three minutes it takes to sample a pop song. In a world chock-full of free, but pitiful fiction, the average novel will be a waste of time, an insult to the intelligence and an advert for every other form of entertainment out there.
Except, of course, there’s rarely such a thing as a completely random read. Most of our books come recommended from friends or reviewers we’ve grown to trust, or they’ve been written by a favoured author. We’ll still have such voices to listen to in future: the modern internet is already well-populated with heroic bloggers who sacrifice their own sanity wading through dung so that we don’t have to.
Instead of agents and publishers, we authors might end up submitting our work directly to the famous taste-makers of the day. Indeed, many of our current industry professionals, in particular, editors, might well find that their opinions are still be in high demand.
But what I can’t yet see, is where the money is to come from in this scenario. And I do believe, that the very best fiction, like great journalism, needs to be funded. Professional writers have more time to dedicate to their art; editors add enormous value by taming a manuscript and so on. Yet, in the end, none of us will keep our jobs unless we can find a way to succeed where the newspapers have failed: we must convince the public that our services are worth paying for.
For now, I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. Hope to see you on the other side 🙂
*I have remarkably large ears.
**Which they will when schools start to make use of eReaders.
***This is not to say that all rejected books deserve such a fate, and we are all familiar with stories of spurned genius, but please understand that I’m speaking in generalities here. Also, some novels fail to find a publisher, not because of low quality, but because the potential audience might not be large enough to justify production costs. However, it is also true that the vast majority of what lands on a slush pile is pretty much unreadable.
****But since the ebook market is still so small, the effect is negligible for the moment.