e-readers are literally KILLING books

This article by Sam Leith on e-readers and the book seems reasonable. It seems reasonable because that’s its tone – practical engagement rather than fanatical frothing of one extreme or another. I’m not actually sure it is particularly reasonable really, but in order to say why, I want to look at one sentence that particularly caught my eye:

Personally, I’m still in the habit of paperbacks.

It’s a recent enough habit. They were the last big change in publishing format. Around properly since 1935 in this country, 1939 in the States. A lot of fears and arguments similar to the ones doing the rounds with regards to e-readers at the moment did the rounds back then. Only I’m never quite sure what arguments are doing what in the media. There’s never any shortage of straw men, and never any shortage of writers wanting to jump into straw men suits. I wish people would shut the fuck up about straw men anyway – they can go the way of scarecrows as far as I’m concerned:

Nobody’s banging on about the death of them?

The reason this sentence caught my eye was because I’d just been reading an essay on the rise of the paperback in American publishing. (20th Century Publishing and the Rise of the Paperback – James LW West III yessir)

The origins of the modern paperback book lay in piracy. In 1840s America price-cutters took advantage of the lack of international copyright agreement to issue soft-cover versions of classic British writers. Then and in the 1880s when a second wave of soft-cover piracy erupted, competitive price-cutting and overproduction meant the industry disintegrated. In 1891 an international copyright statute was introduced, which restricted the practice.

It seems likely that, as with music, the problem of how to prevent free pirated downloads will be electronic publishing’s biggest challenge, and one that it is unlikely to be able to thwart through various means of protection. Pirated reproduction is of course free and easy. There is no chance of pirates destroying each other through over-competition. Pricing is clearly important but no matter how cheap you make something it can’t, all things being equal, compete with FREE.

Piracy, however, was not the reason the paperback caught on. America’s version of the net book agreement collapsed 104 years before its breakdown in the UK, but for pretty much the same reasons. Macy’s department store challenged it in 1890 on the basis of collusion and restriction of fair trade and won.

In the States it caused a change in business model, which ultimately resulted in the format change:

US firms now saw that the British model of book-publishing would not work for them. They would have to do business in a fashion better suited to the laws and demographics of their own country.

Fortunately for these publishing houses, new and more populous areas for sales were opening up, printing technology was improving, and literacy levels were rising. A new business model was very much possible,. American publishers therefore developed a more competitive, frontlist-orientated style of publishing, with emphasis on sales, advertising, and promotion … The backlist (which, under the old business model, had generated a steady flow of operation capital) now became less important. Emphasis was placed instead on subsidiary rights and on tie-ins with other forms of public entertainment – especially the stage and moving picture business.

Hello JK Rowling.

As with Macy’s, pressure from the big book chains like Waterstones and Dillons, as well as supermarkets, brought about the end of the Net Book Agreement in Britain over 100 years later. In the UK, its collapse has come at the same time as the digital revolution, complicating the business models of bookshops and publishers. They thought they’d be the beneficiaries of price-cutting but they got screwed by a seller with better distribution and pricing, Amazon. The e-version is an extension of this trend.

It’s interesting to look at the British model referred to in the passage above:

The key issues were distribution and price maintenance: British book publishers could market their books through an established network of bookshops and send them virtually anywhere in Great Britain through an efficient railway system … British book publishers depended on the home island for most of their sales and got rid of slow-selling titles and remaindered stock in the colonial trade.

‘Virtually anywhere’. With a tweak of sense, it could be an e-book motto. The internet provides similar advantages of distribution, which is as much a matter of time as it is space, as the Victorian railway. The variation between 3g/wifi models is the modern version of being on mainline or being on a branch line.

That exotic element, the colonial market, is interesting in and of itself, I think, not clearly relevant outside of Victorian Britain, other than prompting thoughts about what will happen to backlists. Unlike print versions, backlists would be cheap to maintain, perhaps, if cheaply enough sold, providing a steady low-level source of income for publishers, with front-line gambles earning the most.

In the States various marketing methods appeared to sell books in a financially competitive industry. The Book Club appeared, with monthly catalogues and massive sales tapping a ‘hidden market’. Paperbacks appeared in 1939 and the Second World War saw free literature sent out to American armed forces in the form of the paperback. The GI Bill of Rights meant returning soldiers could study at the Government’s expense. Literacy was never higher, reading was never more popular. Paperbacks were the perfect marketing tool:

The great insight for publishers was that paperbacks would be distributed through the same outlets as popular magazines. Paperbacks could be sold from revolving wire racks in tobacco shops, newsstands, pharmacies, and grocery stores. The storeowners did not choose the titles; that work was done on a weekly basis by the distributors, who removed slow-selling stock for pulping and replaced it with recent strong sellers. The covers of these early paperbacks often featured lurid artwork and sexually suggestive blurbs.

Author profits were lower. They had to be, with cheap products the margins were lower and relied on greater quantities to make money – published paperback writers got 4% up to 150,000 copies sold, 6% thereafter. It’ll be interesting to see what level digital versions settle at, and what authors get. To my mind, frontlist digital titles seem very expensive, when you consider the lack of physical product. Physical books are a dreadful burden financially – they have to be sent out, returned, destroyed, printed, printed again, they take up precious shelf space in warehouses and shops that could be filled by something more popular, they even degrade easily. Without any of these problems the main costs would be administrative, editorial and paying the writer.

I picked two titles that popped into my head: One Day by Adam Nicholls, which I’ve seen everyone reading it seems, is cheaper to buy on Amazon as a paperback than as a Kindle edition. The hardcover of David Millar’s cycling autobiography Racing Through the Dark is cheaper than its Kindle counterpart. E-readers are currently competing with bookshops rather than books.

This has to change and the biggest obstacle to it will be, I suspect, moribund publishing industry business models.

What about the writing? The key word in that section on the marketing of the paperback quoted above is of course ‘pulp’. To make money out of quantity, as paperback publishers with their lower margins had to do, you have to be absolutely certain of popularity. Of course, the cost of failure is less, but equally, failure will not be persisted with. They’re removing your stock from the shop window if it’s all still there a week after it was put there.

The effect that populism had on writing is well known. Writers wrote badly. Whereas before the garish cover had been slapped on Faulkner and Fitzgerald in order to sell (not Willa Cather though, who refused to have her novels published in paperback for this reason), now writers lived down the garish cover, filling their cheap novels with sex and murder. This at least was the reaction of literary gatekeepers. Here’s Edmund Wilson, who I think is a frequently very acute critic, and also the platonic ideal of literary gatekeeping, on detective fiction:

I have recently been sampling the various types of popular merchandise, I have decided that I ought to take a look at some specimens of this kind of fiction, which has grown so tremendously popular and which is now being produced on such a scale that the book departments of magazines have had to employ special editors to cope with it.

He does not like what he finds, finding the imagination in them ‘meagre’, and compares Hammett to ‘those newspaper picture-strips’.

He got so many complaints in response to his first article he decided to write a second:

The specimens I tried I found disappointing, and I made some rather derogatory remarks in connection with my impressions of the genre in general.

And a third:

The furious reaction of these readers confirms me in my conclusion that detective stories are actually a habit-forming drug for which its addicts will fight like tigers.

Don’t get him on to Lovecraft.

A fear of popular forms in their entirety is usually misguided. Certainly the uncomprehending contempt of Wilson is for a critic nagl. It’s likely that if you get a lot of writers writing in a single vein that a lot of it will be bad. Equally, good writers will also get drawn to popular writing. Many examples of popular fiction of the period whether horror, science-fiction, horror or westerns, as well as the films they inspired and were derived from, have come to seem freshly written. They stand outside literary traditions, or participate in them only weakly, and are perhaps from the perspective of those traditions ‘bad’, but they can also be vigorous, unfettered by thoughts of intellectual and moral propriety – they feel part of the age we live in, and not standing above it. This makes them appealing. They are also frequently entertaining, even when very bad. The reason the fear is misguided is you can’t win against popular forms: It’s why you’re wrong, Bunny, even when you’re right.

What does this have to do with e-readers? I don’t think many critics would now say that writing is will become worse the more people read. In the articles that I’ve read something weirder is suggested. It’s where Leith ends up: we’ll read differently because of the medium. To my mind this is the thin end of people who talk about the brain rewiring into a marshmallow because computers mean we’re no longer able to sustain concentration. It’s complete hokum and people should be ashamed of believing such balls, if indeed anyone does, even the people writing about it.

No we all know the immediate accessibility of a lot of more or less emotionally contentless

but quick-thrill material can

draw our attention away

from things that require more concentration.

(Although if you don’t concentrate Monster Dash can really fuck you over as I found playing it while trying to watch Farewell, My Lovely this afternoon. Relevant quote: “I always thought private detectives were omniscient. Or is that only in rental fiction?” <—-another marketing tool).

But writing and other arts that require sustained concentration have always relied upon people shutting out distractions. My impression is that human beings are both bad and good at this. Bad – it doesn’t take much to distract us. Good – we can do it when we want.

Put it this way, I don’t think writing is going to change because people are easily distracted. Nor will it change because writers will change their style and cenception to fit the new format.

Everything that I’ve described so far about paperbacks should suggest that what is most likely to change how writers write is marketing. What techniques publishers come up with to sell their e-product. That may well end-up resulting in Tetris Kafka (you slide the chapters around with your finger on the screen) or RPG Dostoevsky (HP: 1, Stamina: 1, Def: 0, Special Powers: Self-Degradation and Buffoonery) but it won’t be because only epilepsy-inducing levels of twickering lights will be the only thing that can engage our vapid minds.

So I do kind of wonder whether when this argument is presented, even in fairly neutral tones, as in Leith’s piece, whether it’s because of a fear of populism in some form. No one dare say it explicitly – we don’t live in that sort of age, at least not in refained literary circles – but it’s kind of implicit in this ‘we don’t trust people to their own minds’ sort of tone.

The rise of popular modes hasn’t meant a decline in an appetite for serious, literary fiction or classics either. The rise of the paperback in the States was driven by pirating classics and later by producing cheap classics for the armed forces. Penguin Classics, with their crypto cloth-bound æsthetic of sobriety have proved enormously popular. What does seem to have happened is that publishers seem less willing to take risks on more difficult or experimental material. It might be hoped that a reduction in overheads will enable more risks to be taken, although I am sceptical.

At the moment e-version marketing is still based round the book. E-reader editions aren’t visually striking, and the front cover is still the visual pull in places like Amazon.

In the sentences following his comment about liking paperbacks, Leith says –

Much of my professional life is spent reviewing, and I like to scribble on my books and bend the pages back. Plus I can’t be arsed figuring out how to get publishers to send e-versions.

The scribbling and bending pages back were themselves seen as deplorable and congenital weaknesses with the original paperback. They would make writing less serious (hints of the distraction argument). More important with regard to publishing is the second point:

1) As a reviewer and critic, Leith might be expected to perhaps make a bit more of an effort to request formats that people are increasingly reading.

2) When publishers want to push e-versions, Leith will notice he’ll find he won’t have to be arsed figuring out how to get them.

Clearly the industry in its entirety isn’t really quite sure about what to do with its new product just yet. I’m think looking at what’s happened to music in recent years in the hope of seeing a template for literature, is misguided other than in terms so general they’re pointless. One area where a comparison is sensible is that the traditional books industry is fucked if it tries to hold on to old business models by attempting to prevent change. E-versions are still a new enough phenomenon for a good deal of uncertainty to surround them, but all the signs are that they are going to be tremendously popular. Like the creation of paperbacks and book clubs, there is the potential for a ‘hidden public’ who don’t live near or don’t go in the dwindling number of bookshops or libraries, but who have numerous electronic devices.

Leith concludes the paragraph by saying

I’ve no hostility to digital. I’ve spent a good deal of time with the Kindle, and it does the trick.

Like a stock cube, or a bodged bit of DIY, ‘it does the trick’. Ok, but not desirable. This tone of reluctance seems to pervade much of the media debate. It’s understandable. I’ve been surrounded by books from a young age, and the associations they have are powerful. But they are clearly replaceable and the probability seems to me that he Kindle and other e-readers will end up doing more than the trick. They seem to have been embraced quickly and easily by a wide range of people (if my office is anything to go by). I suspect a future e-version of Sam Leith will be saying ‘I’m still in the habit of e-readers, I like the electronic bookmarking and marginal note-taking facilities’

The success of the American publishing houses based at least partly on paperback publishing led to a series of conglomeration buy-outs in the ’60s:

The entry of conglomerates into publishing caused much unease among literary people – writers, critics, editors, and the publishers themselves – about whether the quality of American literature might be negatively affected. Would experimental fiction still have a place in the offerings of major houses? What would happen to midlist authors, whose novels and other writings generated only modest returns? Would book publishing be transformed into a headlong pursuit of lucre by corporate business types with no literary taste? Would publishers still function as intellectual gatekeepers and cultural arbiters?

The conclusion in the essay is that the essentially conservative and inefficient nature of the publishing industry meant that not an awful lot changed. Plus, publishing was in a good state. Increase in capital from popular sales and conglomeration funded all manner of literature which wasn’t aimed at making immediate profit. The publishing industry at the moment is not in a good state. Conservatism, and preserving the ever-reducing status quo is not an option.

New models and publishing enterprises are springing up all the time, including self-publishing, with a few heavily-advertised success stories, and ascertaining the readership for a book before it’s written. There will be all sorts of unintended consequences, with different winners and losers – what will happen to publishing on demand for instance? (Fucked I hope). But I think we can be more or less certain that people will still want to read and others will still want to write, some will do it well, some will do it badly, by some lights, most will be poorly paid. Publishing, in other words.

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5 Responses to e-readers are literally KILLING books

  1. […] wrote a long, rambling post about e-readers, and how their effect won’t be to do with bullshit psychology but marketing, that like most […]

  2. […] an interesting post on a blog called the Idiot and the Dog on eBook publishing – it covers lots of topics […]

  3. […] read an interesting post today on a blog called the Idiot and the Dog on eBook publishing – the post covers lots of […]

  4. […] read an interesting post today on a blog called the Idiot and the Dog on eBook publishing – the post covers lots of […]

  5. Coll says:

    I find the pretentions around paper books (or “tree books” as my friend calls them – yes a cuddly portrayal until you slash down the trees for pulp) very interesting – often clothed in one of your straw outfits, but worth exploring nonetheless.

    Introducing music industry comparisons always makes me think of a time when books will be “retro cool”, cassette tapes, white Sony Walkmans etc etc. There’ll be funkily lit sellers in Carnaby Street, spreading these paper specimens on futuristic furniture, to be turned over and marvelled at by whatever-the-skinny-jean-brigade-will-become dressed kool kids.

    That’s not to say that in some cases cassette tapes aren’t the better choice (as some music makers wil claim). On this note, I guess I would have to agree with those that find books better for scribbling in margins. But no doubt Kindle will come up with its own version of this, if it hasn’t already (Etch A Sketch?).

    This ebook discussion brings to mind the film vs digital photography debate too. Have you been into a Lomography shop? Lesson 1 in How to Sell a Bit of Plastic for £50 But Dress It Up as Film is Better (I fell for it). Studies now show that professional film photographers struggle to pick out the Hassleblad from the Canon WhateverD pic, but you will still have some people swearing blind that film produces the better image.

    I’m undecided. I will however defend the process of printing from film as incomparable to tinkering on Photoshop. When you can turn my computer into a big stinky vat of chemicals, maybe then I’ll consider opening a psd file.

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