Thursday, May 20, 2010

The future of the book

Some three weeks ago (more! what day is this, anyway?) I headed out to the 12th Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival to attend a panel discussion: "The Future of the Book."

(It's the only event I attended this year; there was no author in particular that I was clammering to see, but I feel obliged to experience the benefits of great cultural events taking place near me, no matter how much I'd rather nap.)

On the panel: Yvonne Hunter, director of publicity and marketing at Penguin (Canada); Kim McArthur, publisher and president of McArthur & Company; and Andrew Piper, prof at McGill, author of Dreaming in Books: The Making of the Bibliographic Imagination in the Romantic Age, and blogger.

The discussion was moderated by Paul Kennedy, wearing a Habs jersey.

I was going to report on this panel discussion immediately after the fact, and then I wasn't going to bother, and now I am, because of an overwhelming sense of confusion. That is, I came out of that talk a bit confused, the discussion had a vague and shifting focus, and the panelists themselves didn't seem very certain about anything. Now that it's sat with me for a few weeks, I see that this muddleheadedness is really the point, evidencing the confusion of the industry as a whole.

I'm sure that's not news to a lot of people. Me neither. But it's one thing to read about the industry here and there, the uncertain financial futures of independent booksellers and publishers, that reading is on the decline, the problems associated with digital rights management, etc; quite another to be in a room with industry professionals and see them shrugging their shoulders and shaking their heads.

So, this is me, not really reporting on anything at all, just saying, "Aurgh."

The state of things today is that boundaries are being knocked down, between writers and readers, between publishers and distributors. There's consensus among the publishers that they're losing the middle — you're left with big-money authors and weird little niche markets; the rest is dross.

Briefly they discuss the potential for technology to change the reading experience, particularly for children, where it can be an enhanced learning experience, and also for encyclopedia-type reference books. (Great! But then they're not books anymore.)

Of course, no one believes that books will ever be driven to extinction; although in some ways, they are being transformed into something like fetish objects. (I think the word "fetish" is taken by some people in the audience (as evidenced by their comments) to be something stronger, weirder, and more offensive than it ought to be. Everybody seems kind of scared by this.

Here's something I hadn't thought of: Ebooks can't be remaindered (the whole concept of which, I learn, was introduced during the Great Depression). Too bad for me and my bargain-bin hunting ways, but I'd've thought the industry would love that. Did you know it's normal to expect 50% returns on Maeve Binchy titles?

(None of the publishers who send me review copies is equipped to send review copies as ebooks.)

The "plan" then is to feed all those profits from your bestsellers back into the editorial process; if you don't need printing and warehousing and distribution, the savings will better serve the author–editor relationship. The role of the publisher can now morph into that of nurturing young talent. (Which is what I always thought it was supposed to be, that that's what the bestsellers afforded them to do; I'm not sure how digital changes this.)

(But this is kind of contrary to the kind of anecdote I regularly read, that editorial input is below expectation, and copyediting often nonexistent. I really don't think they know what they're talking about.)

I sat in a room of well over 100 people, most of them older than me, most of them gasping at the revelations of the Orwellian-like capabilities of Amazon to get inside your Kindle and track your every movement. Clearly they all like books, panel included; in fact, the panel were quite nostalgic about the physical book, about how you take them to bed and to the beach, and I was really surprised at all their trepidation.

My sense of it is this: They are too easily confusing content with form. They are feeding into each other's romantic nostalgia for physical books. In their defense of physical books, they are fetishizing them, and trying to preserve a market while resisting a brave new one. (I must say, the Penguin rep seems genuinely concerned with ensuring authors get a fair shake out of the deal). There's a weird emotional blockage at work that's preventing everyone from seeing clearly and getting on with business.

I'm not really sure what I want to say here. Sorry for not being coherent, but neither is the future.

Vaguely related matters
Five different reading devices, championed by five different readers.
Some answers to some common complaints.
The future of reading at the PEN World Voices Festival.
Amazon tracks Kindle habits.
Kobo also tracks how you read.


Pearl said...

I'd have liked to have gone to that Blue Metropolis talk. Opinions on the future is found to vary.

Form is part of content but that books would become quaint nostalgia, elite fetish objects seems unlikely unless we are talking a scale of millennia not decade.

With the invention of digital, AM radio and records have a changed market share but haven't been displaced.

That they can aggregate what passages kindle readers underline is sorta disconcerting. Ergonomic software alone could spook some people to stay on the pulp page.

Isabella K said...

If you haven't aleady, Pearl, check out the video in the link to the PEN panel discussion. Ben Okri argues pretty fiercely for the phsycial bookness of the book, saying something like you can't compare words written in the sky to words written on your ceiling. The thing is, most books aren't skies. He might have a point if my choice were between digital and gold-filigree illuminated manuscripts, but most books, honestly, are nothing special in terms of look and feel. I get lost in the words in that limited rectangular space, no matter how crappy the paper quality.

There really is a lot to learn from the model of music.

Stefanie said...

I think you were quite coherent given the material you had to work with. Publishers are dragging their feet kicking and screaming over digital content and distribution and because of it they are part of the problem in the book business. So is their draconian concern about digital copyright. I agree with you that it is about the content and not the physicalness of the book. I love books, my house is filled to bursting with them, but as you say, a good many of them are nothing special in terms of their physical quality. Off to go investigate the links!