Stranger than fiction

My following article appears in the latest edition of Sydney Ideas Quarterly:

Myth or reality? Antony Loewenstein examines the case of the vanishing books

The days of mass-produced, printed books may be ending.

At the recent Frankfurt Book Fair, leading American publishers brought fewer staff, which may suggest some ugly truths about the state of the book industry and changing reading habits.

American book readership is declining. US sales of adult hardcover books were down 18 per cent for the year ending June and paperback sales 14 per cent. Many independent bookshops no longer exist; chain stores are teetering; fears of piracy are growing; Amazon has largely replaced the romantic notion of store browsing; the marketing guru’s judgement is preferred to the editor’s and publishers are increasingly reliant on mass market titles by celebrities, chefs and sports figures.

Barely a month passes without a desperate story about a fired New York editor. Major houses like Scribner are laying off staff because, as editor Colin Robinson says, “here in New York, books are quite often left out in the street. If people are moving, they don’t take their books with them”.

Profit margins are declining and celebrity quickie titles look increasingly appealing. Books like former US vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue might represent the future.

“The stifling excess of lucrative junk,” says Elisabeth Sexton, senior vice president of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Sexton is pessimistic about the future.

“Publishers used to presume that money earned on successful titles would help pay the bills incurred in producing and marketing books that sold less well but that they supported for reasons of cultural pride, literary respect, political conviction, competitive seal or quirky enthusiasm,” she writes in the Nation.

Sexton virtually dismisses digital readers, like Amazon’s Kindle and Sony Reader as part of a viable publishing future. Kindle has up to one million users in circulation, offers around 300,000 titles and will soon be available outside the US. Sexton rightly wonders how the books of the future will be produced, properly edited, marketed and distributed with much smaller revenues.

Others, however, like the founder of PublicAffairs books, Peter Osnos, are less pessimistic, arguing that people are downloading e-books at ever-increasing rates. He is positive about the myriad ways of reading works–digital readers, the printed form and MP3 players–and instructs his colleagues to accept the new digital world or face commercial ruin.

The news isn’t completely grim. Dan Brown’s new work, The Lost Symbol, has become the all-time fastest selling book in Britain, selling well over 550,000 copies in September in its first week alone and millions worldwide. Bookseller Waterstone’s reported that the title’s unabridged 17-hour audio download became the book chain’s fastest selling audio download. These are not the signs of a public uninterested in the printed word but the delivery systems are undeniably shifting.

Interest in reading and writing remains strong, despite publishers’ nerves. Take a report released by Stanford University’s Andrea Lunsford who from 2001 to 2006 collected 14,672 student-writing samples, including in-class assignments, formal essays and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions were startling. “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she tells the US magazine, Wired.

Young people today write more than any previous generations, albeit on a variety of platforms and in various styles. Lunsford’s team found a healthy number of students are able to assess an audience and adapt tone and technique to get a point across effectively. Despite urban myths, she found no first-year students using text-message speak in formal papers. Generations of readers and writers are not disappearing due to the crisis in the media and publishing industries.

Ultimately, key questions must be asked. Does it really matter if future generations of books are published paper-free? Will prospective publishers survive if books cost far less than today’s prices? Could self-publishing expand the number of writers available to prospective readers? Perhaps most importantly, can the publishing industry survive the drop in traditional revenue?

As an author myself, I don’t want to imagine a world where my work doesn’t appear on the printed page, but I’m open to the possibility. The romantic hold that books have had over popular imagination is being mugged by financial reality.

Google has recently announced in September that its “Espresso Book Machine”, which can print 300-page books on demand in five minutes, is being greatly expanded in America. “It’s like things are coming full circle,” said Google spokesperson Jennie Johnson. ”

This will allow people to pick up the physical copy of a book even if there may be just one or two other copies in some library in this country, or maybe it’s not even available in this country at all.” More than two millions digital books in the Google library are available for the service.

But how appealing are digital readers? Environmentally, according to consulting firm Cleantech group, the Kindle–Amazon’s wireless reading device–creates far fewer carbon emissions than does felling for books. But a columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper has recently claimed that the Kindle could be as doomed as the Betamax video system because Sony’s Reader was more user-friendly and adaptable to various files from different publishers.

The New Yorker’s Nicholson Baker was also underwhelmed with the Kindle 2, arguing its look and feel was bulky, slow and incomplete. Despite these apparent obstacles, I noticed countless Kindles on the New York Subway during a recent visit. Its popularity may not last–newer, brighter and more colourful models will inevitably replace it–but the act of reading digitally has gone mainstream.

This is despite comments by Dymocks book chain chief executive Don Grover who claimed in that, “in 10 years time, it [digital reading] will only be 10 per cent of book sales, but not much more. Customers still love everything about holding a real book, and the practicality of holding a real book”.

Grover’s optimism may be misplaced; reminding us of newspaper owners at the turn of the century who said that their product would remain vibrant. Countless newspapers closing down across America during the last 12 months is a clear message that publishers either adapt to the new reality or face oblivion.

We are in a period of transition, unsure about the future of the book industry but clear that the 500-year-old Gutenberg system of printing and delivering to a select number of people is nearly over.

Jason Epstein, author of Book Business and former editorial director of Random House, writes that the digital revolution will “radically decentralise the marketplace for books and greatly reduce the cost of entry for would-be-publishers”. He does not ignore the importance of filtering and editing, but dreams of “world-wide multilingual backlists expanding online in a cultural revolution”.

The nuts and bolts of this cultural shift will cause discomfort with the gate-keepers. Susan Hayes, director of literature at the Australia Council for the Arts, wrote in The Australian that the transition to the digital future will be particularly challenging for the smaller publishers because they don’t have the required computer sophistication to adapt to the digital format. She also discussed the shifts in author royalties across regions and highlighted “book publishers who are ahead of the game taking advantage of the internet for marketing, rather than innovations in text”.

Perhaps the most honest analysis of the publishing game is that nobody really knows where the future lies. Books will survive in some form. Books as cultural beasts are necessary for the nourishment of our society but such ideals cost money. I remain optimistic, however. Although newspapers are dying a slow and very public death, the public consumes news and information at an ever-increasing rate. The publishing industry can’t be sustained by Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer titles alone but adapting to a digital future will be as fraught as it has been for media companies. Some failure is inevitable but the Kindle is not the enemy.