Friday, September 17, 2010

The Book Is Dead. Long Live the book

This article was first published in The Apple, Spring 2010

Like everything else in the entire universe, the book industry is undergoing change.
Right now, these changes are affecting everyone from writers to readers to publishers, designers, PR people and booksellers – and it is possibly the most monumental change in this industry since the Gutenberg press was invented. The latest change, unsurprisingly, has involved the digital world; the internet, social media, E-publishing and the ebook readers that many of us now own.
Amazon recently released some possibly dodgy figures which may or may not show that they are selling more E books than hard covers – and regardless of the veracity of those figures –we are living in a time when we can believe that the ebook is surpassing the solid, tactile, page scented, perfect weighted, nostalgia creating, good old book in sales.
Inside the publishing industry over recent months there have been gargantuan conflicts. Macmillan, one of the world’s biggest publishing houses, pulled all their titles from Amazon during a recent ebook pricing ‘negotiation’ (read: war). Amazon eventually capitulated to the prices demanded by Macmillan. More recently Andrew ‘The Jackal’ Wylie, possibly the world’s best known representative of writers and their estates, has entered the fracas. His stable includes Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Nabokov, and Philip Roth. He created the aptly named company Odyssey Editions to work with Amazon, cut out the publishers and sell ebooks directly to the public. Random House (another large publisher) responded by stating they will no longer do business with Wylie.
Many a reader is left, hands in the air, wondering where our next fix of words could come from, and how we are to administer it. Are we still using eye droppers or is it time to mainline? Amazon and Apple are the main competitors in the Beta versus VHS style battle that is happening with ebook readers. The main sparring partners are Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s Ipad though Sony and even Angus and Robertson with their cheaper ebook reader, the Kobo, are popping up for the odd skirmish on that battlefield. The one thing that seems to be established is the format in which ebooks will be published – Epub.
Supporting the entire industry on their backs with Atlantean poise, are the writers. With the onset of the ebook and reduction in printing and shipping costs, there is a hope that they will be able to take a bigger share of the profits. Writers are also being pushed towards dancing the cyber dance – tweeting, facebooking, maintaining a website and blogging. Ebooks may also change they way they write.
Many writers are embracing these tools, entering into the world of product promotion, the product being themselves, not necessarily their words. There are lots of authors in the twitosphere, John Birmingham, perhaps, being the most prolific. Straddling various genres, David Mitchell, Stephen Fry, PM Newton, and Young Adult writers, Kate Gordon and Penni Russon are some of the others that are actively embracing social networking – and they seem to enjoy it.

Cate Kennedy, on the other hand, has spoken strongly against the need for authors to get their hands dirty in an online sense. Her concerns, while she is not a luddite, are that there is a very fine line between “the blog and the blah,” and that the dedicated time a writer needs to foment and compose their words is being eroded by the push to maintain an online presence. “Toxic,” is the word she used.

The circle then comes around to reviewers and online commentators about books and writing. The rise of the blogger is exponential and as daily circulation of newspapers lessens and literary pages are cut, the online commentary becomes more and more crucial for discussion and promotion of books and writing.

There is no denying that the book industry needs an online presence – and that writers need bloggers and reviewers to help them shift their product. Consumers of words and audiences at literary events seek information online and all of the major literary journals in Australia have blogs. Meanjin and Overland have recently launched a collaborative blog called Meanland, which is looking specifically at reading in an age of change – and it has been shown that participation in the arts online translates directly to increased audiences for arts in the ‘real world.

The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book.

Post Script: Since this article was first published, Andrew Wylie and Random House has declared a truce. Wylie has removed titles by authors including Nabokov, Orhan Pahmuk and John Updike from the Odyssey Editions publishing list, leaving him with just seven titles.

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