The parade of mourners is long, the mood dark. Everywhere you look, technologists proclaim victory against the war on the printed word. They point to falling print sales and blame young people for their technological prowess and alleged short attention spans. They paint older folk as relics of a dying, unenlightened age, making fun of our reluctance to text or post Google-map links to the best early bird specials. They even cite rising illiteracy and poor school scores as evidence that we have somehow “outgrown” print and “no longer read.”
Chant it, sing it, post it on Facebook… It doesn’t make it so.
People are reading. In fact, more people are reading now and buying books than ever before. According to an online British article by The Guardian’s Lloyd Shepherd titled, “The Death of Books Has Been Greatly Exaggerated” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/30/death-books-exaggerated), there was a 42% increase in book sales over the last ten years (in Britain, and no I don’t know how many emails were hacked to get the figures). What led to the ongoing suffering of writers and publishers on both sides of the pond despite those stellar numbers was the control of pricing those books – and everyone was ok with the standard until technology arrived. Even in Britain, “Publishers are no longer paying advances to authors, or if they are these advances are a fraction of what they were.”
The answer to why is worse than simply “e-books;” it is what e-culture is doing to the arts; it is the proverbial bull in the china shop. Advocates of technology are quick to give away products of the humanities, to minimize the effort and dedication it takes to make culture more than a series of haphazard “fads.” This is cheapening our entire cultural heritage and insulting those who labor in the creative sector.
For writers and publishing, e-books represent a shift in cultural thinking: that everybody elses’ everything else should be free. It starts with one thing (in this case, e-books) and cascades downhill from there. A cheaper book becomes impossible to produce and publishing momentum impossible to maintain, the publishing model which evolved over centuries of human endeavor cannot be sustained: authors can’t be paid enough to write as a career; publishers can’t retain the “top talent” (so trumpeted by Wall Street but making significantly less than bankers) to ensure that what is published is done so to meet professional and literary standards. Envelopes cannot be pushed, chances cannot be taken, or new authors or new story ideas gambled upon…Creativity is stifled from all sides.
But if things look bleak now with “just” this rampant discounting, it stands to get so much more damaging. Says Shepherd, “What’s worse, [even] these e-books will collapse in value, because that is what today’s younger consumers want, as demonstrated by the online shift in free news…And all the time the relentless combination of pirating, retail competition and the demands of younger consumers means that the price of every piece of content – a song, a film, a book – trends toward zero.”
So first off, about those young consumers: just because they want access doesn’t mean they are thieves and don’t care if J.K. Rowling misses an occasional meal. But they are young: they have cash and big eyes for everything they want just like their over-indulging parents flirting with the one percent. It’s human nature: if you can get it for pennies, why not? The solution is simple: don’t offer it for pennies. If they want it, let them ask for higher allowances, or get a job like the people who made whatever it is they want. Give them boundaries, and let them be kids.
Secondly, if they don’t read anymore, please explain the rush to “free” online news and the tender embrace of the e-book it is claimed they are driving. Maybe it is the neat pictures that can be cut-and-pasted without permission since their reading scores are so reportedly abysmal… But I personally think this is another load of…mythology. I don’t see “more” people – young or old – reading news online. I see less people reading news... And caring less about it, which disturbs me more. When news media had reporters in every city covering every conceivable thing, we were more aware of that “global community” technology keeps promoting. Now I’m more aware of Jessica Simpson’s choice of baby diaper that what is happening in the Middle East…Where our troops are…Where your SUV’s oil comes from…
Thirdly, somebody steals from you only as long as you let them. The music industry was the first to fight back, and I for one applaud them. If it is the shrinking price of e-books that is costing jobs and opportunities in publishing, then maybe it is time for publishing to find out how badly they would be missed if nothing is sold through Amazon.
The argument that the market couldn’t bear the cost increase is ludicrous. Look at the number of consumers flocking to natural food stores willing to pay four times the cost for the chance to eat “organic.” How many of us pay more for make-up not tested on animals, or to recycle our products, or to ensure farm animals are treated humanely? People pay for what they think is worth it. People who don’t want to pay the cost of what it takes to bring a book from a writer’s imagination to a finely edited, polished product that can entertain, inspire, teach, or comfort are just not worth courting. Yet they are the first to complain that there is nothing good at the theater, no real quality fiction making it to the shelves…or cyberspace. Quality doesn’t come cheap. And if you think it is tough just fixing dinner after a “40-hour”workweek that typically includes overtime and a long commute or under-time and a second job, try squeezing a novel out of that tiny unnamed orifice.
Book sales are up because people like to read. But nobody likes to be robbed. Every time a book is bought at discount, the author gets deuced out of earned royalties and some writer somewhere doesn’t get published. The more consumers gleefully scout books at brick-and-mortar stores and buy online, the less new books are finding publishers. There’s a tipping point somewhere in there. But five cents for a pile of poo is still a pile of poo. With consumers complaining about the popularity of bad singers getting astronomical hits on You-Tube, the result of this “free is better” mentality should be obvious. For everyone who cringes at bad singing, bad writing, bad art… “listen up” as they say in the South: once again, you get what you pay for.
Furthermore, if prices continue to plummet, once the established authors’ remainders are sold off, and the warehouses are emptied, your selection choices are going to shrink. Check the Horror Aisle in your last remaining bookstore if you don’t believe me. In fact, check any aisle. You are likely to find – even now – only established and top-selling authors carrying their genres. For anyone who ever “discovered” second tier authors who usually only suffer from second tier marketing or genre deficiencies – this is devastating news and you know the true loss this implies. Not everyone likes Stephen King. Some prefer Bentley Little. What will you do if publishers start to pick one over the other for cost reasons? What if you want to know what new writers are out there? What old writers were underground classics?
Tanith Lee where are you? Caitlan Kiernan? Ambrose Bierce?
Is all that worth the cheaper price of a book?
Let’s be clear: I am not anti-technology; I’m a dinosaur and this is not my first meteor shower. I see the benefits from being able to control marketing and an author profile, in being able to deliver the goods from innovative grass-roots to a hungry public that might find indie styles appealing. However there is a reason traditional publishing is an entity to worry over: it remains the measuring stick of literary quality in most cases. It means people educated in the business of writing and fluent in the history of literature have opened those hallowed gates and the author has become one with the cosmos and literary tradition. Some semblance of that dedication to standards has to survive this technological revolution or we might as well go back to painting mammoths on cave walls for entertainment.
I suppose that was too saccharine for some. But as a struggling novice writer I know whereof I speak. Traditional publishing is the Holy Grail for a writer…not the nearly extinct writer’s advance, not the book-signings, the author tours, or raised eyebrows of awe when you get introduced to crowds. It is the professional recognition that you have met the industry’s expectations and the proximity to the dream of someday entering the literary canon. It means technique met imagination and the marriage was good. It meant all those revisions were a part of expertise and artistic decision – not just guessing in the dark, not some revenge fantasy of flaunting one’s intellectual wiles at the 20-year high school reunion. Real writers don’t write because of money. But real writers have bills. And so do publishers who publish them.
Horror as a genre is being swallowed up by other genres, cross-marketed, and downsized. It is no coincidence that this is happening at the same time that e-books and Amazon are putting the screws to publishers. And if it hasn’t happened to other genres yet, it will: just look at Westerns…that is your reading future: three shelves in your local bookstore, four or five authors deemed worthy, and used copies of great novels found only in retrospective collections. Thank heavens, you say, they are safe online in e-books. Don’t count on it: wills and estates will catch up…there is legacy involved here you know, and cemetery upkeep. Maybe you can wait 75 years past the author’s death to get your free e-book, but I for one prefer to pay my $29.95 right now, and know my investment paid for the sequel.
So quit blaming young folks who are preternaturally tech savvy, old folks who like their news folded on the kitchen table, and publishers who “don’t get it.” We all get it: it’s about the money. And as usual, those who are making most of it don’t want to share.