Why the Book isn't Dead: An Essay on the Future of the Publishing Industry

November 21st 2011 – Simon Armitage stands up at India's Hay Festival and warns of the “potentially huge” effect of e-books that is “threatening to put writers out of business”1 (despite having 17 e-books available on Amazon himself ).And yet according to Nielsen’s BookScan the people of America alone bought 751,729,000 books in 2010.2 Whilst this is a sharp drop from 2009's 777 million2 , it doesn't sound like a dead industry to me – it sounds like a recession. The last century has seen the publishing industry grow exponentially year on year.3 As the industry globalised, it also had to industrialise and economise – the leather-bound beauties you find in second hand book shops were simply impossible to produce in their thousands, let alone millions. And so today, if you walk through Waterstones (the largest book shop in Europe), it is full of stack-'em-high-and-sell-'em-cheap bookshelf fodder. Their prices are identical, their content mediocre and their front covers inconsequential. Looking back, the move to e-books was inevitable. Nowadays, so many people seem terrified that electronic literature will be the death of books,4 and yet I see very little difference between the mechanised pulp that has cropped up in recent years and the digitalised pulp they are competing with. e-books offer books in a totally impersonal form – faceless, lifeless, bodiless – but they're easily accessible and can be substantially cheaper. They are merely the next step in mechanising the book. Any publisher or writer who has ever sacrificed quality for quantity has no right to complain about the Kindle. However, there is also a lot of cyberbole around the e-book. Recently, Amazon announced that for every 100 paper books sold, it also sold 105 Kindle books5. So e-books must finally be outselling real books? Well, no. The thing to remember is that when Amazon tells us that e-book are outselling p-books (by which I mean any form of paper book), many people will be quick to assume that those numbers represent the world's publishing. In fact, Amazon is just one shop, and it is a shop based online that constantly pushes its Kindle products on its customers. Of course e-books will be selling rapidly on Amazon, because online customers want online books. Sadly, because of the nature of the industry, most of the statistics available are contradictory, vague or, worse, American. For example, in 2008, the New York Times published that “Publishers sold 3.13 billion books last year”,6 but this year told us that “Publishers sold 2.57 billion books in

all formats in 2010, a 4.1 percent increase since 2008.”7 It seems odd to me that a drop of half a billion in a year wouldn't be commented on. I can only assume that the change in numbers is between worldwide figures and American figures, but the facts are very vague. Amazon, meanwhile, refuse to release figures on sales of Kindle readers, sticking to their party-line of “millions”. BookStats reported that as many as 114 million e-books were sold,8 but that number is still swamped by the billions of paper books sold every year. At the end of the day, the book represents a multi-billion pound industry has been growing exponentially for over 100 years, and that's not about to “die” within the next 10. Theatres didn't all pack up once cinema came about, painters didn't retire when the camera was invented, and my parents own both a Nintendo Wii and two different versions of Scrabble. These electronic forms of entertainment provide a totally different kind of enjoyment, it's quicker and cheaper, high-tech imitations are neither better nor worse, but something wholly more significant – different. (As an aside, people often draw the comparison of an e-book being to a p-book as an MP3 is to a CD. However, I would argue that an e-book is like a recording of a live performance, whereas a p-book is the performance itself. The difference is not just in the format, but the whole experience.) It is this nature of 'difference' that is ignored by most of the debate, which tends to lean towards 'preference'. There is a perception that the e-book and p-book cannot exist together for more than a few years, however, I think the current changes to the industry are just the tip of the iceberg. The reason I think this is because the changes we are seeing are purely down to technology's advances, and these advances can mean a lot more than just battery-powered gadgets. In The Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature, Alison Gibbons states: “Indeed, the rise of digital technologies in the late twentieth century has certainly impacted upon the publishing industry; most recently of course, we have witnessed the emergence of the ebook, but in print-based publishing the fact that images and word-image combinations can now be produced cheaply and more easily has resulted in an increase of multimodal works into the mainstream market.”9 The multimodal works she talks of are part of a growing niche in the world of publishing that I believe signals the future of reading, the only question is whether this change is concerned with paper or pixels. Visual writing is a term I use here to encompass artist's books (where the book itself is a piece of art, and the visual aspects come before text), multimodal novels (those which use

typography, image, interactivity or other techniques outside of text as part of the storytelling) and new media pieces (writing that is technology-based, often heavily interactive and almost always found on the internet). Visual writing is something that reared it's beautiful head a few times in the last century, but which seems to really be growing pace in this one. The reason I think visual writing should come into light when discussing the future of books is that many of them do things that e-books simply can't do, whereas others do things that would be impossible on paper. Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves10, for example, is a 700 page book with 400 footnotes and interlocking stories that requires the reader to jump backwards and forwards throughout the pages. Many people read the book with at least 2 book marks. This notion alone is impossible on a Kindle, which automatically opens to the furthest page you have reached. If the reader flicks forwards to the appendixes at the back, they will have to manually find their page again every time they read. A similar problem arises with his other novels: Only Revolutions11 (which you read from both ends, turning the book over every 8 pages) and The Fifty Year Sword12 (which has multicoloured text and pages so long they would not fit on a Kindle's screen). Jonathan Safran Foer recently published a treated novel. He took The Street of Crocodiles, by Bruno Schulz, and die-cut holes in the pages to create a separate meta-text within the story. Whilst the resulting text, entitled Tree of Codes,13 could be transferred digitally, the unique and specific effect created by the spaces and hole in between could not. However, the same publishing company – Visual Editions – opened up a whole new world of possibilities by publishing Marc Saporta's Composition No. 1.14 Composition No. 1 is a book in a box, with each page a loose, and self-contained piece of narrative. By shuffling the pages, the reader has a totally different experience with each read. This technique was also used by B.S.Johnson in his book The Unfortunates, but what makes Visual Edition's publication different is that it comes in two forms. The first is printed like the original. The second, however, is an iPad application. The iPad version quickly shuffles the pages in front of you until you press the screen to tell it to stop. This reworking hasn't made half the splash it should have made, as it suggests a whole new direction in publishing.

New media novels, meanwhile, have been leaving p-books in the dust for years now. Toc: A New Media Novel, by Steve Tomasula15 (and a team of creative technicians), is an interactive novel that combines text with speech, video and sounds. The overall experience is total absorbing and one that could not be replicated by paper this, to me, is a truly electronic piece of literature. 253,16 however, by Geoff Ryman, is a new media novel that is soley text based. Unlike a lot of hypertext novels, 253 was then late made into a 'proper' book on account of it's success. It's interesting to note that in being taken from digital and made analogue it was seen to be acknowledged as a real novel. The niche nature of these books is easily scoffed at, however, whilst international book store Borders was closing down, a small independent book shop called The Book Hive was being set up in Norwich. The Book Hive focuses its effort on rekindling the love for the book. It is a well designed and wonderfully furnished shop, where free tea and coffee is available for those who ask, and books are laid out carefully over every inch of space. The books are hand chosen by the owner, and are often all conversation pieces, from poetry portfolios, to wild kids books, to obscure cookery books and a little corner full of indie, arty creatures of paper. The company isn't just staying afloat, over the summer of 2011 it recently set up another store also in Norwich called the Art Hive,17 specifically for it's art book section. Whilst this is only anecdotal evidence there is a strong suggestion that people are still willing to fork out for paper when it's presented in the right way. Just as people spend hundred of pounds on an oil painting – when something captures our imagination, economy goes out of the window and it becomes a matter of passion. So what of the future? Well, if e-books maintain their low prices (or go lower), writers are losing out. If writers lose out, eventually they will refuse to be published electronically. The only people releasing e-books will be desperate authors, and the market will be even more flooded with awful writing. e-books won't take off simply because there will be so few quality novels. Charity shops are much cheaper than high-street stores, but most people can't be bothered to sift through the trash to find the gems. Alternatively, e-book prices will go up so that writers can get a better deal, if that happens, they can't be raised too far without becoming the same price as paperbacks, and one of the largest selling points of e-books will be lost. To justify higher prices, e-books need to shift into the world of multimedia, a world where a readers of essay can verify statistics simply by clicking on them, or be linked to themed content, or choose the endings, or see the Facebook pages for the characters. This

requires more than just an iPad to be successful, it requires imaginative writers and media designers working together. Essentially, right now both p-books and e-books are competing for exactly the same market – that of black and white text – but both are capable of so much more. One format needs to change if either is to reach their full potential. Whilst it would be wonderful to see more visual writing on paper, logic says that it will be e-books to change first – with media integration being only a few steps away. This will be a real revolution, not a desperate imitation of the real thing. This will be something that paper cannot compete with, but something it does not need to, and it will give the pbook the space it needs. The Kindle has not killed the book, it has given us an opportunity to reinvent it. Word count: 1965

Bibliography: 1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/8903580/ 2. http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/some-good-news-from-the-world-of-books 3. http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/us-book-production 4. http://techcrunch.com/2011/09/09/death-of-books/ 5. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=176060&p=irolnewsArticle&ID=1565581&highlight%20] 6. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/30/business/media/30books.html 7. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/books/survey-shows-publishing-expanded-since2008.html 8. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/09/books/survey-shows-publishing-expanded-since2008.html 9. Bray. J., Gibbons A., McHale. B., (forthcoming: 2012) Routledge Companion to Experimental Literature London: Routledge. 10. Danielwski. Z. M., (2001) House of Leaves, New York: Pantheon Books 11. Danielewski, Z. M., (2006) Only Revolutions, New York: Pantheon Books 12. Danielewski, Z. M., (2005) The Fifty Year Sword, Holland: Bezige Bij, De 13. Saffran-Foer. J., (2011) Tree of Codes, London: Visual Editions 14. M. Saporta, (2011) Composition No 1., Unbnd edition, London: Visual Editions 15. Tomasula. S., (2009) Toc: A New Media Novel. [DVD-ROM] Alabama: University of Alabama Press 16. Ryman. G, (1998) 253 – the print remix. London:Flamingo 17. http://www.edp24.co.uk/_1_999280

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