Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The commonwealth of stories

As the Australian publishing industry is still trying to get its head around this digital thing - and still somewhat acting as if the internet will go away if we just close our eyes for long enough - it occurs to me that part of the confusion and resistance could be caused by the fact that the internet is simply not a medium many of them are comfortable with, particularly in terms of their work. They use the web for email, to find out information, perhaps to order groceries. But they don't think about the pages they read in terms of content - thus, it's hard to perceive how a book may also be considered content, or content source.

There could be something else behind the resistance, too. A lot of us in the industry were library nerds or, at the very least, bookish children and teenagers. We formed our identities around the idea that we loved to read. Reading was our refuge from the harsh world; it gave us our own commonwealth, even if we were all so introverted that we rarely interacted with other bookish people. And our love of reading let us tell ourselves that we were smart, and apart from others. I read, I don't play sport, I don't watch television. Sport and television are for people who don't like reading and my reading makes me somehow superior.

I'm speaking from personal experience - I was a horrible reading snob. But it didn't mean I was smarter than everyone else. It just meant I was a horrible reading snob.

Now take a horrible reading snob and plonk them down in front of the idea that e-books just may reach people who play sport and watch television. E-books - because of ease of research and purchase - may reach people who didn't read books as children, not because they didn't want to, but because they couldn't. I mean people with dyslexia, for example, who want to read but for whom reading is torture - so much so that they'll never go into a bookshop because they don't know what they want to read and they don't want to have to explain that to the horrible reading snob behind the counter. But e-books mean they can take their time trying to find something they may like and they can, if they want, read it on their phone so no one can see. E-books - digital publishing - open up the world of stories, both fiction and non-fiction, to many, many more people. And inherent in that is a threat to the safe world order of the horrible reading snob who believes that stories belong to readers alone.

But they don't. Our first storytellers did not write their stories down - they told them out loud. When all storytelling was oral, the stories belonged to everyone. The advent of the printing press changed the dynamics of storytelling and oral storytelling now takes place on - wait for it - the television. And the cinema, radio and theatre.

However, that doesn't mean that the stories contained in books should belong to only those who can read them. Stories belong to everyone - to every single person who speaks the language they're told in. The stories that are contained in books do not belong only to the horrible reading snobs. They belong to the people who can't read so happily; they belong to the blind; they also belong to the illiterate. While e-books won't appeal or be accessible to everyone, I do think they will open up more stories to more people once the devices are more affordable and access to e-books is more widespread. At this point in time it's just my personal theory - I have no proof of it. But my safe, protected, printed-book, horrible-reading-snob world is coming to an end, and I think it's exciting.

5 comments:

TL said...

Some insightful admissions about the book-slob consortium, lol. Hopefully, the industry will bring in some media consultants, business consultants and people with some entrepreneurial spunk to show them just how they can ride the wave, instead of being drowned by it. Information businesses worked out years ago how to make big money reselling knowledge or content. It's about access, pricing access and accessibility. Stories should be out there for everybody: to reconnect people to the world...in the words of Susan Sontag, to hear more, see more, feel more.

Anne Whitfield - author said...

I don't think ebooks will ever replace print books entirely, but they are a great alternative for people.
It would help if Australian industries got behind the technology like the rest of the developed world though!

I think I was a horrible reading book snob too!

Good post.
Thank you.

David T said...

I think you're right -- there's a democratisation of content, though there's always, I suppose, a shift in one direction or the other going on. What concerns me is that if and while the content is shifting to suit an audience that previously didn't much like to read, is the amount of content getting bigger to compensate? I mean, is there still space to pay authors to keep writing the range of stuff that we booksnobs grew up loving?

Television's democratisation of content has pushed snobworthy content out -- the pie has not gotten bigger at the same rate that the democratisation has occurred. It's not all bad content by any means, but there's more 'visual content for people who don't much like stories' than there ever was; it's an increasingly higher proportion of the total tv pie. I think the same is true of music, though perhaps to a lesser degree. While it would be great, and very PC, to allow people who previously didn't like reading to start to enjoy it -- by democratising the content -- it would be a net loss if even fewer writers (as opposed to content producers analogous to the producers of reality tv -- the consultants TL mentions?) could make a living at writing. Should we have to make do without interesting midlist writers and their stories, just so people who were indifferent to books and readers as a child should have content that suits them? Those stories are already disappearing fast enough.

TL said...

I second what Anne & David say.

David T--sorry if I made you think about reality tv producers--erk--not what I meant at all. When I speak of getting consultants in, it's not to let them take over the industry, just to give people who are generally resistant to change, some fresh ideas. Then you send the consultants home. Or, they could simply ask me ;-))))

I would also be horrified if all this led to a lessening of 'the pie' or worse still, a gristle-filled pie, or a Sweeney Todd type pie (filled with unloved authors).

In business lingo, I try to think in abundance rather than scarcity, which is what I think Agent Sydney is getting at. The thinking is: if you make more pie, there'll be plenty to go around. Let's not fight over the scraps. That's the thinking. The question is how to implement it.

Zara Penney said...

I am a book snob. I consider an ebook only deal as almost a self-published work. Without a hard version, no way. I am a snob. But having said that, I think it's the way of the future, especially with Kindle/Amazon and other openings for downloading books over the internet.

However, I am wondering on pondering this subject whether this is such a bad thing, given that once a book is bought the copy is then free to be given, borrowed etc. on a secondary market without any financial benefit to the vested interests of the original sellers of said book. ie, Kindle will stay in the buyer's hand and I don't think they are free to hand over the download willy nilly.

Secondly, I wonder if, given that in Australia we have a very generous lending rights regime (PLR, ELR etc) they will die.

What has to be defined will be resumation of rights once the book is out of print. The thing I don't like with epublishlishing is that there might be dodgy definitions of what out of print is. Given that an epublisher has no warehouse problems, they could, possibly (but not with larger reputational pubs) have a book never defined as out of print even if they sold one copy per millenium.

Australia is slow on the ebook side. Kindle wasn't available until late last year and the list of downloadable books to Kindle owners here are not as vast as the overseas markets.

I think that coffee table, children's picture books, and library copies (hardcover in particular) will probably always be in demand. But I can see many of the more popular genres leaning more and more heavily on an ebook basis because they are the ones that clog book shelves. Kindle saves space for a traveller on an aeroplane so that's why it's all an inevitable expectation.

But they did forecast the end of movies with the invention television, and the end of movie houses with the invention of the VHS, and that never happened. I think the agent/author obviously must be careful with the contract but once that is satisfied, then why not.

The biggest problem I see with epubs is the low royalty fees unless you are JKRowlings in which case the money does keep rowling (yes pun intended LOL).