Monday, September 25, 2006
Chronicle of a death foretold
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.