My weekly Guardian column is below:
How many e-book consumers realise that some publishers, writers and distributors know an awful lot about their reading style? They have knowledge about how far into the book you’ve reached, when you get bored, which characters you like and those you don’t. Amazon, Apple and Google, along with countless large publishers, embrace the idea of providing products that readers are apparently craving.
It’s yet another way that our digital footprint is commercialised, marketed and analysed. Nothing is private anymore. Curling up on the couch with an e-book is not a solitary act but instead a way for corporations to learn about your habits and then sell you items you’ll think you need.
Novelist Scott Turow told the Wall Street Journal in 2012 that writers still didn’t know who bought their books or why. “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting”, Turow said. “Personally I’d love to get the information.” The president of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux pithily responded: “We’re not going to shorten War and Peace because somebody didn’t finish it.”
Along with the music and newspaper industries, the publishing world is undergoing a profound transformation that will affect every book that you buy or write. A 2009 New Yorker article on whether the Amazon Kindle could “improve on the book”, is today a redundant question. The device, despite its technological limitations and mundane aesthetics, has sold in the millions (not that Amazon ever releases actual sales figures).
The days of extravagant publishing parties, sales reps enjoying spa treatments and wine tastings are almost gone. The result is that author advances have plummeted, Amazon now controls vast swathes of the industry, bookstores are closing across the Western world and yet at no time in history have more people been reading. Publishers in Australia and globally are trying to adapt, recognising that readers want more choice in how they purchase books. The Australian industry, while perhaps healthier than in years past, remains risk-averse though online opportunities for genre fiction has never been stronger.
The reasons for the publishing malaise is both complex and predictable (yes, the internet kills and nourishes all art forms). In a seminal 2009 essay on the subject, by Elizabeth Sifton, senior vice president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a litany of figures are blamed, including the industry itself. She worried about the commodification of books, the “internet types” who see books as items to be shifted as opposed to critical cultural artefacts in a healthy democracy and “lucrative junk”. Sifton laments “booklike objects created by the teams working on, say, famous generals in televised wars, cooks, telly dons, ballplayers, realty-show contestants, famous pats. These flashy items dominate shelf space, ad budgets and public attention; they leave nowhere near enough air, space or money for true literature.”
I would counter and say a healthy market should sustain all types of books, from the literary masterpiece to the quickie title based on an instantly forgettable TV show.
Despite it all, the book will survive and perhaps thrive, though our understanding of what a book can do and how it relates to the reader must change. Amazon remains a behemoth and yet a recent New Yorker feature on the company painted a picture of multinational disinterest in building a quality collection of books and literary culture (perhaps because they’re too busy selling garden tools, dildos and toys on their website).
Books, like newspapers, aren’t just products to be bought, discarded and forgotten; they contribute to the necessary exchange of ideas, policies and dreams in any stable nation. Simon and Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy urged her colleagues this year to strongly promote the “marketplace of ideas” that they create. Books can inspire fear and hope, love and pain. They allow any individual to shut out their own lives and imagine a different reality. Whether this is fiction or non-fiction and in print or online, we should celebrate, nourish and support the realisation of creative works. This takes time, money, patience and a diversity of views. Never forget that only six corporations control 90% of media in the US. Smaller, independent presses have therefore never been so important (along with challenging the idea that a company like Google can digitise every book ever written, handing one firm unimaginable and dangerous cultural and financial power).
So what will the reading future look like? It may be dominated by new ideas around wearable technology such as Google Glass. Wired magazine claimed in January that these devices “will be as big as the smartphone”. It’s entirely conceivable that people will want innovative ways to read content as they live, work and sleep. Publishers will need to be ready or the public will simply bypass them and design their own methods of reading. As an author myself, I’d love a book that can be accessed on multiple devices, each giving the reader a different experience about my journalistic work, some static and others interactive.
Perhaps the most interesting interventions in this debate over narrative are coming from gamers and digital storytellers. Sydney based Guy Gadney, group executive director of The Project Factory, blogged this month – under the headline, Why Ancient Stories Bring Transmedia Inspiration (Or Why Books are Shit) – that consumers should no longer accept the rules set by publishers. “Books are now centralised and controlled by monolithic publishing houses which make the decisions over what we should read and what stories will never see the light of day”, Gadney argued. “But behind this corralling of story form and structure, a new wave of storytelling has recently been emerging that will challenge the orthodoxy.”
He advocated a “dialogue not monologue” around engaging audiences and used one example of a project that will assist Australian Indigenous cultures in sharing their stories to a wider audience via an app, Ringbalin: River Stories. A normal book simply cannot fulfil this mission.
I don’t see this project as replacing traditional books but a direct challenge to the failure of the written word to publish or even acknowledge so many Indigenous stories. With the public increasingly consuming information on countless devices and screens with limited time to read and reflect, non-linear forms of storytelling must be considered by any serious producer of content.
Books will exist in 100 or 500 years, and not just in museums. How we as a society manage the online disruption to traditional forms of publishing will determine how we want to tell our own stories and how they should be remembered. Are we no more or less than what is recorded on a retrievable device? Memories fade. History has been traditionally written by the elite so I welcome the ability for anybody today to document their lives, every intimate detail, on equipment of their choosing. Books need to adapt to this changed reality or face being principally embraced as nostalgia.