Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Books... the last chapter? No, it’s the sequel!

I was just about to turn off the TV and curl up in my warm unicorn stable last night, when an Imagine programme called “Books - The Last Chapter?” came on, which you can watch on the BBC's iplayer HERE. That title made half the glitter fall off my horn, I can tell you! I immediately started worrying for my poor author, and what she’s going to do for the next 20 years of her working life if books are truly about to close and never open again.

my author rescuing old books at Hay-on-Wye
In keeping with the doom-laden title, there were depressing pictures of large, boarded-up bookshops, followed by three representatives of the publishing industry gloomily discussing their roles in the digital age. You can look up their names, but let’s call them Bigwig Publisher, Bigwig Agent, and Bigwig Author. All three looked worried, even when the author declared that authors would still need publishers in the digital age (“and agents!” shot Bigwig Agent in a telling moment of sheer terror). “And agents”, Bigwig Author added, though it wasn’t clear exactly what kind of agent he was talking about.

Bigwig Publisher agreed, and seemed to see her role mainly as selection, i.e. bringing the best books by the best authors to readers - or maybe she meant the most profitable books? Strangely, there was little discussion of promotion, which (in the unicorn’s humble opinion) is the main thing authors will need from publishers in the digital age... the original definition of “to publish” being “to make public or generally known”. Of course, publishing budgets are limited and not every publishable book can have a big promotion, so maybe what Bigwig Publisher really meant by her statement was promotion for the selected few? Those selected few authors will quite obviously still need publishers.

So let's examine the less glamorous side of publishing. My author’s ancient dictionary lists a second definition of “to publish” as “to issue copies of a book for sale to the public”. This might have been the case when print runs were hugely expensive, but that definition went out of date with the arrival of print-on-demand years ago, and with ebooks it’s possible to publish in this sense of the word without actually printing a single copy. So if, in future, all a publisher offers an author is issuing copies of her book for sale to the public, then in theory that author does not really need that publisher any more. Authors still need editors, of course, but there are other ways of getting your work edited than under contract to a publisher – hiring a freelance, for example - so these authors are free to choose.

And what about readers? There followed an interesting history of books, starting with Homer’s "Iliad", hand written on scrolls and carried by Alexander the Great on his epic journey to India in a large box, which he'd have read by scrolling – i.e. rolling one end while unrolling the other. The history quickly moved on to the printing press and the bound paper book we know and love, with physical pages that you turn by hand. And finally to the screen, where we read by er… scrolling… and then on to the Kindle, which has electronic pages turned by pressing a button. These days, we don’t need a box and a mule (or a unicorn) to carry our favourite book on our travels. We can carry our whole library in our pocket... from a reader’s point of view, what’s not to like?

But do not panic! Judging by those interviewed on the Imagine programme and the poll on the right of this blog, there's still a healthy market for paper books. The unicorn sees books becoming works of art in their own right, sold in the equivalent of antique shops for big prices to collectors, or auctioned off to Russian oligarchs to display on their coffee tables between the caviar and the samovar. Authors who are selected by publishers to provide the content for these beautiful books will still make a living, selling less books at higher prices maybe. For those authors, the book itself will be an important part of their product, even more so than today. So Bigwig Author need not be scared. And Bigwig Publisher of these new works of art need not be scared. Nor should Bigwig Agent, who will bring author and publisher together in the old way.

The mass market, previously served by paperbacks, will probably move the other way. There will be ever cheaper paperback editions produced for supermarkets and book clubs, the emphasis being on affordability and personal choice… if a chain can provide these paperbacks at competitive prices to the public, then maybe there will even be a new type of discount bookstore, perhaps with POD machines, springing up in out-of-town shopping centres? But the unicorn thinks that once e-readers become more affordable and are given away in cereal packets, much of this mass market reading will be in eformat.

This is both scary and exciting for authors, whose stories and words will be able to shine - or not shine - without the distractions of beautiful typesetting or an artistic cover. When a book is stripped bare by an e-reader, those authors who write what readers want to read need not be scared at all, because their words and stories will still be in demand. The best sellers of the digital age will not necessarily be the “selected” best sellers you see piled in the front of WH Smith that sell because, like a mountain to be climbed, they are there and you trip over them. They'll be the books that sell because people talk about them and can easily order their choices from a POD machine or online, without having to wait for the publisher, distributor and bookseller to get their act together.

Again, publishers need not be scared, because all these authors will still need publishers to make their work public. Agents at this end of the business model might have reason to be a little bit scared since margins are tighter and authors might just decide it’s more profitable to do it for themselves than wait around for a contract that might never come – but not too scared, since they are in a position to hire editors and handle promotions on behalf of their uncontracted authors.

my author's brand new local library

So books - the last chapter? The unicorn says no! This is the first chapter in an exciting publishing sequel, where readers will have more choice and better access to affordable content than ever before, where collectors and physical book lovers will have more beautiful editions to choose from than before, and where authors should be dancing with joy because now they have another way to reach readers that does not depend upon the “promotion for the select few” model that relied heavily upon control of the printing presses, warehousing, bookstore promotions, and sale-or-return (what is THAT all about in the modern age, anyway?!) It’ll mean thinking about new ways to promote those books that are not in the physical bookstores and libraries, and it’ll mean new types of contracts between authors and their publishers and agents. But it’s certainly not a reason for anyone in the business to be gloomy.

As I keep telling my author… write a book people want to read, and it won’t matter if that’s read on a scroll, paper, screen, or plugged straight into your reader’s brain cells. Good stories will always be in demand, and readers will always be hungry for more of them. To my mind, authors and readers are in the strongest position of all. But then I’m only a unicorn, so maybe I'm dazzled by glitter? Please leave a comment and let everyone know what you think!


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