As most book-lovers know, it’s never been easier to buy and read a book.
E-readers are now being sold with free beginner libraries of 500 or more classic novels. Additional titles, both classic and contemporary, can be purchased at far below hard-copy prices and down-loaded near-instantaneously to dedicated readers, computers, tablets and mobile phones. Whatever your literary fancy can be at your fingertips within seconds.
Great news for those of us who despair when faced with an unexpected chunk of free time and no decent reading material. But what does all this digital accessibility and flexibility mean for the hard-copy books we know and love? Is this the end for our three-dimensional, dog-eared, dust-gathering friends?
Well, it appears that reports of print’s demise have been, with apologies to Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.
A panel of four insiders at the recent Perth Writers Festival – author/editor James Bradley, The Australian’s chief literary critic, Geordie Williamson, author and Time magazine book critic/lead technology writer, Lev Grossman, and writer/reviewer/blogger, Angela Meyer – has concluded that the advent of the digital age in publishing is cause more for excitement than mourning. And I choose to rely on its collective wisdom.
Addressing the topic ‘The Death of Print’, the panel ranged from the nature of a ‘book’ to changes in reading habits, education and critical thought, from what history teaches us to new marketing methods, from the influence of form over content to the economics of publishing. It was an absorbing and enlightening discussion. So, a quick taste here with a strong recommendation that you read the transcript of the whole session via the link below.
Bradley said the publishing industry was entering a period of massive change similar to the seismic shift from which the music industry had just emerged, stronger, fresher and re-energised.
“It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, but it’s also really liberating,” he said.
“What happened in the music industry, about 10, 15 years ago, is that two things happened. First of all, the means of production got democratised, people started being able to make their own music, distribute their own music, and the old business models got broken by piracy and digital distribution.
“Now, those two things did dreadful damage to the industry, to the institutions that supported it. But what they actually engendered was a kind of wave of creativity that went through music and it’s incredibly exciting.
“People started making music, sending their own music around, and what’s come out the other end is a really vibrant industry that doesn’t look anything like the old industry. It’s a really vibrant culture that doesn’t look anything like the old culture. And that’s actually beginning to happen right now (in publishing).”
Which is good news, or bad, depending on how reliant you are upon the traditional infrastructure.
“There’s all kinds of new things being written and there’s all kinds of mutations of form and there’s all kinds of experimentation in terms of distribution, in terms of what’s being written, and it’s actually incredibly exciting,” Bradley said.
“I feel like there is a kind of energy underlying the scene at the moment which is actually very interesting and I think it compares interestingly to the absolute exhaustion of literary publishing.”
Williamson agreed, saying global publishing houses had brought about their own demise by relying too heavily on convention and not responding to changing market conditions as nimbly as smaller, independent publishers.
“I think it’s fair to say that there have been some very good results from this shake-up,” he said. “The corporate consolidation of global publishing, which was a feature of the landscape in the ‘80s and ‘90s, kind of reached its total. It was just one monolithic organisation.
“It, I think, inculcated in its staff a kind of a tendency towards publishing more, getting it out more quickly, taking it back off the shelves if it didn’t sell, of elevating authors’ first books to kind of stellar positions on the back of the strength of the amount of money they were given, which was unfair to those authors when, say someone like Graham Greene, where the water didn’t start running clear until his fifth book.
“Global publishing has often been conventional and this shake-up allows us to return to books that are odd, that are different, that are wrong-box. So, as the barriers break down, I think we actually will see good books and there will be a return to coterie publishing, the kind of publishing we had before corporate consolidation.”
Williamson had some concerns about a headlong rush into digital publishing, the most worrying being the possible loss of the editorial oversight provided in the analogue process. But he believed we were experiencing “a brief period of historical co-existence which is ending almost as we speak”.
Grossman challenged the predicted brevity of this co-existence. For perspective, he pointed to the last time a new book technology arose, the transition from scrolls to the codex book form we now use in the first century AD.
“What I want to stress is that the scroll didn’t go away,” he said. “Scrolls, very little in use now, but it stuck around as a major form of the book for at least a millennium and a half and probably a bit longer, which is a way of saying that I don’t actually think a revolution is going on here.
“The rise of a new book technology does not mean the death of the old one. In fact what will happen is the whole book ecosystem becomes more complex, becomes more bio-diverse.
“These two forms – the codex book and the e-book – will co-exist in a more complex ecology but they will co-exist, I think, in a positive way. There will actually be some synergy. The strengths of both will come to the fore. But I don’t see this as a revolution at all. I see it as something more positive and, I think, more interesting.”
That said, he did not agree with using technology for its own sake.
“Just because you can embed video in a book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea,” he said. “I do not believe that such a thing as a good enhanced e-book has ever been produced. That animal does not exist. I suspect that it never will.”
Meyer also anticipated the peaceful co-existence of digital and print books and rejected any suggestion that younger generations would forsake print for new technology options. She cited recent statistics from the UK book trade magazine, Bookseller, showing strong support for print books among teenagers.
Of those surveyed, according to Meyer, 41 per cent had read a book on a computer, 17 per cent on a mobile phone, 13 per cent on an iPad, and 9 per cent had read on a dedicated e-reader. When asked, all adults and children surveyed said they preferred print books ahead of any other form, including e-books and magazines.
“I think people get really worried that (young people) are just going to forget about books,” she said. “I don’t think it as dire as that.
“People want to use their imagination. That’s why they read. They don’t want to click a thing and find out exactly what the character looks like.
“And you look at what teenagers are reading and they are reading massive fantasy novels and things like that. Their attention spans, it might be changing, they might be taking breaks and tweeting about the book as they are reading it but they are still reading the book. They are getting through it.
“I do feel, maybe I’m an optimist, but I feel there will still be this hunger for lengthy narratives with no interaction and pictures.”
On that, all four panellists seemed to agree. But will that narrative still be in a ‘book’?
Transcript of PWF session ‘The Death of Print‘
- Angela Meyer’s take on the session at LiteraryMinded
- More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival