Angst About the Future of the Book at Edinburgh’s Book Fest

On: September 2, 2010
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About Morgan Currie
I’m an American with eight years of experience in video production, but today I'm a student in Amsterdam, thinking a lot about mediums, the Media, technology, and humans & machines communicating in their specific, special ways. I'm finding methods to give these thoughts a space of their own.

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It’s always a pleasure to hear publishers hash out their anxieties about the future. You get passionate, articulate types – fanatic bibliophilia often attracts peoples to the business to begin with – who pounce on issues with impressive granularity. Gather a bunch of publishers and writers to rant about the Internet in particular, and you get a good show.

So it was at Edinburgh’s International Book Festival a few weeks ago. The panel’s moderator and publisher of the London Review of Books, Nicolas Spice, launched the talk by posing a now familiar dialectic: we once thought of the book as content, as a disembodied ideal form that entertained and informed, but we now must confront the book as a physical thing in a disorienting variety of formats. How will the changes to the book’s form affect our behavior and the way we write about ourselves? What will the hyperlinked, crowd-annotated, multimedia book mean for the representations we create, and what does it bode for notions of authorship?

The panelists included Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review; James Shapiro, writer and professor from Columbia University; Andrew Franklin, publisher of Profile Books, and Andrew O’Hagan, an essayist and fiction author. They first went through the numbers. Newspapers and American chain stores’ stocks are sinking. Paper and hardback book sales in the UK are down six percent. But yet the book is nowhere near dead – only changing form. Penguin’s paperback sales are up, and sales of Amazon e-books are up 50% more than hardbacks. Google Editions continue selling apace. If everyone’s still avidly consuming books, even if in a different format, what’s the problem?

The issue is that e-books are cheaper to produce and distribute and so command much cheaper prices. Authors and publishers have begun fighting over the diminished royalties set by the world’s newest retailers: online companies such as Google, Amazon, or Apple.

Google took a particular hit for its brazen Book Search project – the batch digitization of 10,000 books and counting from major research libraries in US and Europe. O’Hagan claimed that Google “undercuts the notion that it’s worth paying a person for making something with your mind, rather than your hands;” the company threatens the world of literature and publishing, and then passes this exploitation off as democratizing access. Who will make sure authors are paid? Who will make sure their bibliographic metadata is correct? (A simple search on Google Scholar reveals that Google’s automated-metadata often gets bibliographic facts wrong). Said O’Hagan, “If you believe in literary culture and its standards, then you need to create proper venues to train and support writers and build infrastructures of valuable human judgment.” But how can these supports be sustained across the Net when so much is now offered for free? DRM is not the answer – writers should be able to read without corporations banking on technical constraints. O’Hagen proposed trade unionism as a possible future option for publishers and writers.

There was also fear that corporations, with massive financial resources and loud, familiar brands, could have more clout in this noisy landscape than publishers themselves.  And of course another issue altogether is piracy, particularly a problem for the American textbook market that bleed from savvy, bittorrenting students.

Another common theme to emerge was the goods and ills of democratization vs. old style quality control. For instance, Shapiro lamented that 164,000 books were self-published last year, an example, along with Wikipedia, of the “amateurization of critical discourse.” Wilmers countered, however, that no one suffers by this situation; it just means most of these self-publishers won’t get paid. Professional publishers however could profit by providing a gateway function of discernment that plucks up the talented authors and brings them to the world of editors, where they all potentially profit.  Also, more niche and marginalized publishers can now start their own businesses with less upfront costs.

Wilmers remarked that another, more intangible problem has knocked writing and criticism itself. The journey to facts has become easy, making writing a less rigorous, less accountable process. Where editing once operated on mistrust of facts that required verification, resources such as Wikipedia destroy the laborious road to ensuring veracity. This ease-to-information not only leads to flabby research, it also sparks the rise of plagiarism. One panelist claimed that 40% of students today cut and paste from the Internet without attribution, a direct hit to our assumptions about authorship and intellectual property.

Perhaps publishers are idealizing a golden past that never happened. Universities subsidize much serious writing anyway, and writers have always experienced ferocious hurdles to making a living from their work. One audience member pointed out that everyone on the panel still seemed to be talking about books as bounded objects made from trees. What about all the innovative ways we can work with texts online, the ways books are becoming open-ended objects and with publishing itself becoming a collaborative activity? What about new economic models that entirely do away with any traditional distinction between publisher, author, and distributor? These were lingering questions for the literary vanguard to ponder on their way out the door.

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