The Book is Dying… Again – Doom and Gloom at the Guardian

Ewan Morrison, who proclaimed the death of the book as we know it six months ago, is back at the Guardian. Since the book steadfastly refuses to die, Morrison is now declaring electronic self-publishing a bubble that will burst any moment now. And once it bursts, it will destroy publishers, writers, the book and culture as we know it.

The problem with Morrison’s article is that the few good points he makes, e.g. that the flood of free books is not going to be helpful in the long run, are buried under a load of rubbish. Indie publishing is a bubble and prices always go up during bubbles. Only that e-book prices have gone down, ever since indie publishing exploded. Okay, then e-reader prices have gone up. Only that e-reader prices have gone down drastically as well. Ah well, then all of those aspiring writers are buying e-readers they don’t really want or need. Except that I doubt that those millions of e-readers sold during the Christmas season were all bought by aspiring indie writers.

The real kicker, however, is this:

And what has happened to all those new authors who were told they could make money from epublishing? Well, they are working entirely for free (on spec) on the promise of those big 70% royalties on future sales. They write their books, they blog, they net-network and self-promote; they could put in as much as a year’s work, all without payment. So much writing-for-free is going on that it upsets the previous paradigm: people start to ask, why should any writers get paid at all? Why should “professional” writers get a wage or advance, when I’ve had to do all this work on my self-published ebook for free?

I guess it’s been a long time since Mr Morrison did the query and submission game, since – newsflash – early in their careers most writers work on spec and for free, often writing book after book without ever selling one. If they do sell, it’s often to magazines that pay in contributors’ copies only. And yet they keep writing. So if all that didn’t discourage writers (and it probably did discourage many, we just never hear about them), then why does he think low e-book sales numbers will? At least they are selling and making money, even if it’s only enough to go to the movies once per month.

I think the real issue her is – and it becomes clear in the bit about questioning advances – that Ewan Morrison sees his own business model under threat here. It becomes even clearer in the following bit:

The now ex-self-epublished authors decide not to publish again (it was a strain anyway, and it was made harder by the fact that they weren’t paid for their work and had to work after hours while doing another job – and they realised that self-promoting online would have to be a full-time job.) They come to see self-epublishing as a kind of Ponzi scheme – one created by digital companies to prey on the desires of an expanding mass of consumers who also wanted to be believe they could be “creative”. They also become disillusioned with their ereaders, which are now out of date anyway. And so they return to the mainstream publishers to look for culture.

Those damned indies, how dare they think they can be creative? Don’t they know that creativity is only for officially anointed “professional” authors? Well, they will get theirs and see where real culture is coming from, namely from publishers. And they’ll throw their e-readers away, too, because no indie writers ever actually use them to read.

It gets even sillier from there on, because Morrison apparently thinks that the government (Which government? The US government? The UK government? Some other government?) will bail out publishers. Uhm, sorry to burst your bubble, but they won’t. Governments bailed out banks, because they feared that the collapse of a major bank would trigger other collapses and threaten the entire economy. Sometimes, governments also bail out other industries and businesses, because they are big employers or somehow deemed of national importance. Hence, the coal mining and steel industry in West Germany was supported long after it ceased to be viable, while shipyards were left to die, because they were located in small states with too few voters to count (yes, I’m still bitter about that). Hence, the Schröder government bailed out a construction company with thousands of employees (mostly men, too, and men are important) and the Merkel government seriously considered bailing out Opel (it’s a car company and cars are important), while the department store chain Karstadt would have been left to die, even if it had thousands of employees (mostly women, though) and a lot more people shopped at Karstadt than ever owned an Opel. And let’s not even talk about Ergee, manufacturer of the only socks and stockings and tights that were not scratchy and therefore of utter prime importance and still left to die, because Angela Merkel apparently never suffered from scratchy stockings or – being East German – thinks that scratchy stockings are an immutable fact of life. So if all of these companies – and Ewan Morrison could certainly make his own list – were not bailed out, why does he think that publishing companies will be? In the big scheme of things, books are considered a lot less important than banks, coal mines and steelworks, shipyards, department stores, construction companies and non-scratchy socks.

So Ewan Morrison’s supposed concern for those poor indies duped into thinking they could be creative is really just concern for his own job. Not that I don’t sympathize with him fearing the loss of his job and income, but it’s not my problem.

For more doom and gloom from the Guardian, here is an article about the Digital Book World expo (apparently a sort of Frankfurt Book Fair for e-books) and the future of books (at least author Richard Lea believes that there is one). Richard Lea also quotes Neil Gaiman who believes that traditional publishing will be gone in five to ten years, but that it won’t mean fewer books or even fewer good books. Now I don’t actually think that traditional publishing will vanish. The so-called big six are backed by huge media empires and companies like Bertelsmann or Holtzbrinck or Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp don’t just die. Though Neil Gaiman hits the point that Ewan Morrison is missing.

“You don’t write books to make money,” he said. “You do it because this is what you love doing.”

Also at the Guardian, there is an article about Jonathan Franzen warning that e-books are corroding values. Before you get your hackles up, what Franzen apparently means is that printed books are more permanent than e-books and that he prefers print. I actually agree with him on that point.

The oldest print book I own was published in 1873. The oldest print book – well, magazine really – I ever handled (in the university library) was published in 1686. It was still perfectly readable, once you got used to the blackletter font and unusual spellings. On the other hand, I doubt that any current e-book, including my own, will still be readable and accessible in 140 years, let alone in more than 300, at least not without constant formatting updates.

John Scalzi responds to Jonathan Franzen and points out that print books aren’t necessarily permanant either. Again he has a point, though I’d still bet on a mass market paperback to be accessible longer than an e-book file, unless the format is constantly updated. I don’t know where the thing about the allegedly bad quality of mass market paperbacks from the 1970s and 1980s comes from, because I own several mass market paperbacks from that time and while they are a bit battered and yellowed, they are still readable and will last at least my lifetime. I wouldn’t bet on them lasting more than 300 years like that magazine at the university library or more than 200 like those volumes of ghost stories I did a paper on. But then I wouldn’t bet on most e-books lasting that long either.

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6 Responses to The Book is Dying… Again – Doom and Gloom at the Guardian

  1. Pingback: Gloom and Doom post over at Pegasus Pulp | Cora Buhlert

  2. Estara says:

    *nod* I think readers will have to keep uptodate with formats – PCs these days don’t have reading capabilities for floppy disks either – but Winword still allows reading of old documents and saving them in the new formats – badly formatted though.

    People will make money from developing software to easily convert into current formats – but the story will stay the same. Shakespeare is still published in new editions again and again. Some writers will be popular enough to be re-published – for the rest the reader will have to do the work: I like Project Gutenberg because they address that already.

    • Cora says:

      I still have floppy discs with Wordstar files lying around somewhere. Lotus Word-Pro can still read them and so I’m gradually going through those old files to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. I’m also gradually converting my Word Pro files to MS Word, because Lotus Word Pro hasn’t been updated in a while either. The good thing is that I am rediscovering plenty of old stories I barely remember writing.

  3. Pingback: Responses to Jonathan Franzen | Pegasus Pulp

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