I’ve just got books on my mind lately. Maybe it’s because reading is hip, and librarians are hip, or hippy, or ex-hippies, or something.
Since I do like a good book, I was intrigued by an article in the Guardian: Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive? It’s an abbreviated form of an address at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Betteridge’s Law of Headlines usually gets confirmed with every instance of a question mark in a headline I see. The problem with this headline is that it has two questions. Are books dead? No! Can authors survive? Yes, at least depending on what you mean by an author.
Why couldn’t the Guardian just ask if authors were dead? No!
The argument seems rather solid, but the headline doesn’t reflect it well. The author doesn’t really argue that books are dead. He seems to agree that books in some form will still be around.
What is dying, so he argues, is The Writer, as in the person who makes a living just by writing books. Books themselves are more popular than ever.
With the move to ebooks and the “long tail” booksellers might be able to sell books, but that doesn’t mean writers can make enough money to live. The book becomes the main thing:
digital shopping has meant that what was originally a tail-off in sales, has now become increasingly profitable. Rather than selling, say, 13m copies of one Harry Potter book, a long tail provider can make the same profits by selling 13m different “obscure”, “failed’” and “niche” books.
However, the writers of these books won’t make much money because they’ll sell few books each.
There’s a bit on the decline of publisher midlists, which has been going on for a very long time now. Publishers don’t support writers, writers go it alone in the digital world, and general anarchy sets in.
If the connection between publishers and writers splits completely, if they fail to support and defend each other, then both will separately be subjected to the markets’ demand for totally free content, and both shall have very short lives in the long tail. The writer will become an entrepreneur with a short shelf life, in a world without publishers or even shelves.
Thus, eventually the only books that will get written are by amateurs or people supported in some other way than by selling their books, as fewer books per author get sold and as the prices of those books approaches free.
Oh, and this is a bad thing, because it means that “the end of “the book” as written by professional writers, is imminent; and not to be placated with short-term projections and enthusiasms intended to reduce fear in a confused market.”
We should ask ourselves what we can do if we “truly value the work of the people formerly known as writers.” Remember, this is at a book festival, which might in itself be a thing of the past.
I expect a large contingent of readers will look at the argument and go, so what? We don’t read that hoity-toity literary stuff anyway. We don’t need Writers; we just need easy prose to consume.
Most people who do read just read to pass the time or fulfill fantasies or add some spice to their workaday lives. That’s why romance novels and thrillers are so popular.
Does anyone, including the readers of such popular books, really think quality is an issue? That work done by an amateur isn’t just as good, assuming the stuff that’s published is even any good?
If that’s the case, fan fiction wouldn’t be so enormously popular.
Even I, literary snob that I am, have moments when it doesn’t matter much what I read. After exhausting the on-board library while vacationing aboard the LJ yacht this summer, I browsed Amazon and found a Kindle mystery for $.99, which is pretty close to free.
Was it good? Eh. Somebody got killed, some other people chased people around, I dozed in and out of consciousness under a cooling sea breeze, and a couple of hours passed where I got to relax my brain. I’d say that was worth $.99.
Think of all the books written by people who are already supporting themselves some other way: academics, journalists, celebrity chefs, and other people like that. They might still keep writing just to write.
And quite a bit of the literary fiction is written by authors who teach in MFA programs, which seem to exist mainly to give authors of unpopular books somewhere to make a living and a place for aspiring authors of unpopular books to prepare themselves for their ultimate dream of teaching in an MFA program to support their writing habit.
Then there all the people willing to self-publish on fan fiction sites or Amazon just in the hopes of a few people reading their books. Will most of these books be bad? Yes. Are most books published today bad? Yes. Anyone familiar with the book trade in general knows this.
Yet some of these books will be good, just like some of the books from academics and journalists and MFA programs will sometimes be good.
Books aren’t dead, and authors aren’t dead, but The Writer might be dying. Once they’re gone, they probably won’t be missed that much by many people.
All these free books and the lack of a publishing apparatus other than Amazon is going to make it harder to justify libraries. Maybe libraries can exist exclusively to lend Kindles and provide Internet access so patrons can shop Amazon for ebooks.