Monday, September 25, 2006

Chronicle of a death foretold

Book 2.0,Debate,Publishing

There’s been a bit of a creative block in these parts for a while. Half-formed thoughts. Unfinished articles. Sweaty, 5am thinking jags. Please ignore the elephant in the corner. He’s not really there. La la la la la.

The book is going to die. It’s over. Five, ten years. No more books. And we really, really need to start talking about this. We need to put in place structures for coping with this. For ensuring that authors survive, that our stories survive. I’m really not kidding.

All the publishers have absolutely no idea what is about to happen. They’re worried about Google Book Search, for Christ’s sake. Google Book Search is for indexing academic books, for redistributing academic information that’s needlessly locked up in physical locations, and whose freeing up will launch humanity on its next great evolutionary leap. Woohoo. Side effect: no more royalties for authors. No more fat advances. No more lunch money.

Also, in the mid-term, we’re going to see publishers die even before the book does. Hey HarperCollins, what does POD stand for? Random House, can you say Lulu? One of you guys, buy a POD Printer now, please, before it gets embarrassing. Invest in some tech. Start paying attention. Because one day you are going to wake up, Amazon is printing books, and you are out of a job. Oh, look: BookSurge.

We are a couple of years – quite possibly less – away from an eReader that looks like a book. It’s been so long coming we forgot it was about to happen. This whole I’ve-got-the-first-edition thing is really sweet, but do you actually use CDs any more? (Note: if you do, you’re really going to have trouble with the next bit.)

I was talking to someone about this the other day, trying to figure out where all that information now written down in books is going to go, how it will continue to present itself to us. I realised that this isn’t like the move from vinyl to CD, or CD to MP3, although it will initially appear as the latter. It’s the difference between chamber music and the gramophone, between the illuminated manuscript and the paperback. The book as we think of it now has really only been around since the 1930s, since Allen Lane. They’re not as permanent as we’d like to think. Books are about to go back to being written by monks, and the rest of us are going to have to find another way to read. A historical window is about to close.

I don’t know what I’m worried about, really. Well, the dole office. But aside from that. Should anyone apart from publishers be worried about this? You’ll keep getting stories to read. Authors will keep on writing. They won’t get paid much, but hey, they never did. In fact, there’s a chance they’ll get paid more, if they’re smart, but probably not.

We brought this on ourselves, to a large extent. For all our bleating, we’ve been substandard for a while. Cheap paperback editions, with glue that lets all the pages fall out after five years. A total disregard for quality, editorial or otherwise. A craven, backslapping literary culture. Oh well. Bye bye.

Is the format important? Will stories written for a screen rather than a page – even screens that look like pages – differ that much? There’s something bizarre and incredibly nineteenth century in the development of eReaders, a kind of cultural redundancy. We just need to get them to look enough like books in order to kill books, then they’ll look like something else. It’s just a design issue.

It’s 6am. I’m writing this on a computer. Later, I’m going to format it in XHTML and put it out on the internet for people to read. You probably don’t know me, and you probably don’t care. Salman Rushdie is going to really hate this next bit, almost as much as his publishers, but you’re not. Readers will be fine. Take hope in that.

I just want to smooth the transition. Make sure there are enough smart people in the right places so that we don’t lose too much on the way through. There’s enough of them on the web – we should be looking to the W3C, to web standards, to information technologists and engineers, to people who’ve been thinking about this for twenty years. You know, smart people. Not the ones thinking about in at quarter past six on a Monday morning. In bed.

Oh, it’s going to be fun. I’m looking forward to the first really good, genuinely collaborative novel, wiki-style. Chapters written by people on different continents, subplots by experts in their field. Proper editing. I can’t wait to be able to go travelling with five hundred stories on my eReader/iBook/USB SuperDonglePage thing, because I always take Moby Dick and I never read it. The best bit? Readers are going to decide what they’d like to read, not idiots in industry offices, or on lilac sofas. The first MySpace author phenomenon should be about next week. Please, God.

It’s the Frankfurt Book Fair it two weeks time. This should be funny. There’s going to be a man there who publishes books exclusively about angels. Who thinks he actually is an angel, or something. Everybody thinks he’s mad. In ten years time, he’s probably going to be the only one still in business. The angel people will still buy books. No one else will.

We’re going to start thinking about this. A lot. We have no idea what is going to happen, but, just like everybody else, we’d been quietly enjoying this whole internet thing, while pretending to ourselves that it was not going to completely destroy everything we were currently working on. Five years ago, I was studying Computer Science. I got a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence, and then went to work in dead tree publishing. I am an idiot. And, looking around, I’m not the only one. But I know what I’m talking about.

Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to see this through. Because we love stories, and we love great writers, and we just need to start separating that concept from your actual, paper books. Good morning. Hello. Wake up now.


UPDATE: Ultimately, this article provided the founding stimulus for, crossposted as Birth pangs of a new literature.

tags: Book 2.0 + Debate + Publishing | permalink | 8 Comments

I’m not sure about this – and I’m not sure about this in quite an obtuse, possibly irritating way:

Despite the often slapdash production quality of books, they’re still very handy. You can easily turn between pages, by keeping a thumb in between pages, you can pop back and forth between different parts of it; shuffling different windows around or even a relatively speedy ability to ‘flick’ between electronic pages would still not be as convenient.

If you lose a book while out, say drinking, something that happens frequently to me, it is annoying, sometimes intensely so, but rarely expensive.

Also I’m not sure the cd/ipod analogy works. Portable music has for some time been seperate from the medium it has been played on – the ipod and downloadable music is a natural progression. This is not the case with the book.

That said, I’m probably being foggy headed and unimaginative. Although there is one other reason why I hope the book stays around; I quite like them.

F Cyclonic

I think the admitted obtuse origins of your comment say a lot: we all know this makes sense; it just bugs us. But to answer your points…

Accessibility problems will disappear with advances in the technology, and new benefits will emerge. Imagine a reference book with an inbuilt search function, or a self-contained dictionary instead of a glossary.

People will lose them, sure, but people lose mobile phones and ipods all the time, replacing them immediately because their benefits outweigh the cost. And you’ll have backed-up all your books anyway, right?

You’re correct that it’s difficult to make the cd/ipod analogy – that’s why I prefer the chamber music/gramophone one. Music has been through a number of format changes in the past few decades, which has made such changes increasingly comprehensible to the user. Literature has made one or perhaps two in several millenia, so it’s going to be a lot more difficult.

I like books too, and I love my vinyl records, and I expect to always be able to buy both from the kind of second-hand stores that I love. But expecting the book to be the dominant format for much longer is like expecting vinyl to make a serious comeback.

And that’s my point: I’m not really interested in having a will it/won’t it debate about the future digitisation of the book. It is going to happen: let’s start thinking about how.

Even though I co-own and run a bookshop I think you’re dead right. The thing is, I’m not scared.

In our shop the market is for those people who love the physicality of the book and will buy 50+ books a year and cherish the way they sit on their shelves. There’s not many of these people around but just enough to keep our small enterprise afloat and no more.
Luckily there is enough small publishers out there who are still willing to scrape by in similar fashion to produce lovely things to populate our shop.

So, how do we survive? Buy a POD machine, make a beautiful environment for people to feel relaxed, create an informed and balanced selection for people to browse (I don’t think that will change. Customers love noodling in a bookshop) and make a space for people to share recommendations and passions. We won’t survive by attempting to turn into a 300 store nationwide chain filled with books that are sitting on shelves for no particular reason other than they are ‘D’ Core stock range.

Our service will become bespoke and I’m fine with that. But I don’t know what the big boys are going to do?

Yup, I think you’re right – it’s a wonderful thing that new technologies look likely to knock out all the big, boring guys while leaving room for all the small independents to keep making pretty things (and, in C&P’s case, places)…

Sorry to harp on about this, but it’s a music analogy again: little record labels survive producing vinyl that the hardcore lovers like, while the big guys get busted by mp3s…

I also think it’s a genius idea for an independent bookshop to buy a POD machine. While it will require remortgaging the shop several times over now, it will become affordable, and who wouldn’t want shop-specific boutique editions? Furthermore, if there’s an out-of-copyright book you want to stock, why don’t you call Lightning Source now?

[…] Welcome to This site was inspired by the following piece of writing on another site, There’ll be more here soon, but in the mean time, this should give you some idea of where we’re going: There’s been a bit of a creative block in these parts for a while. Half-formed thoughts. Unfinished articles. Sweaty, 5am thinking jags. Please ignore the elephant in the corner. He’s not really there. La la la la la. […]

Perhaps you should have titled your piece MAN BUYS RAILROAD IN KENTUCKY AND LOSES MONEY. Seriously, there are some books out there that have been made to last forever, all 10 million copies without a single page worth reading. Think back to the days when R. Crumb and Charles Bukowski put together flimsy chapbooks and handed them out to friends and family. Think of the Beats and how they fostered a creative community, and then look around and see how that is happening RIGHT NOW. It has been a long time coming. So it is up to you to use your ingenuity, to take a step forward: do not stand idle.

I think it is an excellent idea for an independent bookstore to buy a POD machine. Adam, are you on that? And why do we care what the Big Boys are thinking and doing anyway? Last time I checked, it didn’t matter. This is our revolution. This comes down to one thing: It’s that stories do matter and they always will. So figure it out. The comments above would be a good place to start. And, because I care enough to bother with this posting, let me know what I can do for you.

I think this guy has seen the future too…

[…] [fiquei assim um bocado para o parado após ler um texto sobre o futuro do livro, no short term memory loss – música, teatro, debate, literatura, cidade, rádio, tudo servido de forma directa e imprevisível, com um toque “caseiro” e alguns murros no estômago] Publicado por palmeira Arquivado em Livros […]