Tuesday, August 23, 2011

death of books, part 346

Someone at the office asked me if I was going to the latest Future/Death of the Book panel discussion somewhere in Toronto at sometime. Instead of screaming and running away, which is what I really wanted to do, I just ruefully shook my head and said "I can only only go to about twenty of those a year, and then I get tired."

When did CBC anchor guy Evan Solomon publish his novel, Crossing the Distance? I'm thinking it was around 1999 - five years after my first e-mail address, and 'round about the time someone first said the word "Google" to me. I interviewed Solomon about his novel (whenever it was), and somehow we got into a discussion about the future/death of the book. It was a popular discussion topic among publishing types even way back then in the last century. Solomon said something that has always stuck with me, and he was probably quoting someone else. He said, "the book is a great technology."

I repeat that line to myself from time to time. The book is a great technology. It used to be a calming mantra, but now more and more I find myself adding the word dammit! to the end of it. It's no longer something we booky types need to say to ourselves to help us get to sleep at night. Now, it's a campaign slogan - maybe an emergency campaign slogan.

I could go on and on, explaining what I mean but, luckily for all of us, novelist Ewan Morrison has done all the going on and on for me:

Are books dead, and can authors survive?

This is an important rumination, so I implore you not to run away screaming. Along with Jaron Lanier's mighty You Are Not A Gadget - a roundhouse manifesto right in the face of free culture - this is the most compelling call to protect the economy of cultural production I've read.

Here are a few "free" samples:

The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

These digital providers are not in any way concerned with or interested in content, or what used to be called "culture". To them culture is merely generic content; it is a free service that is provided in the selling of customers to advertisers. Ideally for service providers, the customers will even provide the culture themselves, for free. And this is what we do when we write blogs, or free ebooks or upload films of ourselves, at no cost.

Morrison dissects the rationale behind casual piracy perfectly. It is so subtle, yet so pernicious, it seems almost unstoppable. Almost. What can stop it, according to Morrison? Only our desire to see it stopped:

All that is clear is that for authors and publishers to abandon each other only accelerates the race towards free content. Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to "go it alone" in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.

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Crockett said...

John, I know you feel very strongly of the quality vs. quantity culture question.

Certainly, flash in the pan fame & notoriety does not a fine artist require ... I think of Rebecca Black. Yet what of the discovery and popularization of amazing prodigy talent such as Jackie Evancho?

Is it the medium of dissemination that fosters talent or discovers it? I wonder if little Jackie would
have bubbled to the surface without the mass medium support, or is such talent destined to be recognized and fostered regardless?

I suspect there is some truth to the homogenization of culture due to the same easy access to shared opinions, yet the same system can catapult one to great heights who may otherwise have been lost. The same system that dilutes can also join like minds in great purposes leading to freedom, dissemination of truth and social change.

Unlike some, I think people are willing to pay for quality over cheap or free mediocre. People still line up overnight for the first day copy of a harry potter book or the latest versioned iPhone (I know iPhones are devices but strangely to fabois they are art).

The hyper connected world we live in is a double edged sword, and I will even accept arguments that we may be worse off for it, yet I don't see it turning back. Best to find ways to adapt well, take hold of the best and minimize the worst.

Gruesome said...

This is a very interesting topic for discussion.
I'm not sure of the impact of piracy, I suspect it may be quite small to insignificant in that books are so inexpensive given the high quality of the product itself.
Having said that one of the great disadvantages of a book given it's size is that it could probably be downloaded from a torrent site in seconds. in one sense torrents are probably not required for mass piracy of books.
Still I hear quite frequently of the downloading of movies and music and for whatever reason I've never heard anyone say they were downloading books.
Then there is the other side which is writers giving work away for free.
This is a a strong phenomena in photography. I've used this method myself to try and gain clients.
I don't know about writers but many other professional photographers hate this.
For instance one way in which I acquired some portrait clients was to photograph my daughters t-ball game and allow the parents to download the images of their kids.
These shots where much better than the typical hold your bat and say cheese ones. I captured their kids with the true look of joy on their faces as they played.
This had an impact on the sales of year end team photo purchases.
But I acquired new clients and got referrals.
Should I feel guilty? I think not, it's strictly a way of promoting myself.
Many news sites are now crowd sourcing photo's and getting them for free.
I imagine that their is a similar thing going on with writers.
I good example of that is the Huffington Post.
Should the Huffington post be forced to pay for what writers have given them for free?

This is the new business reality we speak of changes to business models.
One thing I always tell people getting into photography for money -It's a business first!
If you want to make money you need to take this approach. There are a lot of whiners who refuse to change the way they do business and it's hurting them.
There are advantages and disadvantages tot he changes. Some creators will fall by the wayside while others that would not have ever been heard of will rise.
I don't have a doom and gloom feeling about the book industry. Book sales are down somewhat but we're still in economically difficult times, especially in the US.
I was very resistant to e-books at first but then someone gave me a Kobo and I'm having a hard time controlling my book purchases. I'm still reading paper books but the Kobo is so convenient and I even read using the Kobo app on my phone. The Kobo allows me to use otherwise wasted time (like waiting to see a doctor or dentist) reading. Since March I've purchased 11 books on my Kobo. And probably read another dozen books in paper form.
That's more than double my usual reading pace.
I suspect that once the economy turns around books will be one of the strongest contenders for entertainment dollars.
I've always found books the best way to enjoy a good story or learn new things.

Gruesome said...

Found some stats for 2010
Books sales are up over 2009 in all categories
Doesn't look gloomy to me

John said...

Yeah, I believe in the value of books and the industries that produce them (writing and publishing). If I didn't believe in those things, I'd have made a pretty terrible choice of career.

I also buy more books as a result of e-reading, but I wonder about the effect of price pressure in the long run. That's why I think contemplations like Mr. Morrison's and Mr. Lanier's are so important, and why I think society must resist the siren song of free culture.

I don't advocate resistance or refusal to change. I advocate all business models that result in cultural creators being compensated in a meaningful, sustainable way. Much free culture theory does not allow for that, or presents what I consider to be a completely unrealistic expectation that artists will adopt models far removed from the actual work of creation.

Gruesome said...

The problem is you're never going to eliminate participants in free culture. And at this point I only see it growing.
I've only read one book that was written and given away for free but it was quite good.
We can't interfere in peoples right to give away their work or participate in work that will be distributed freely.
It's just a new variable that people will have to deal with.
I mean it's always been there but now much easier because of the low cost of delivery.
I don't think it will ever become overwhelming because people who find success (a large audience) will eventually move to expecting some sort of compensation.
I agree downward price pressure is probably unavoidable. I'm not sure how to avoid that. It's been felt in so many businesses. Look at what Walmart does.
I think we have to look at alternative ways to see creators compensated. Whatever form that may take. For instance many have scoffed at the idea of sidestepping the publisher. Perhaps that's not the answer but now we're seeing co-op publishers. A better idea? I don't know.

John said...

Sharing one's work for free is a valid choice for all sorts of reasons. I've never advocated against it, and I persopnally do it every time I write on this blog.

What I resist, and what I think society should flat out refuse is the pressure to make all creative expression free - the removal of choice. I find it frighteningly ironic that so many of the world's sudden copyright experts celebrate the "choice" of artists to eliminate the middleman and go directly to the fans, while at the same time working hard to eliminate the choice of building a strong industry.