Do Writers Need Paper?
As the sales of e-books finally start to soar, what effect will this digital revolution have on publishers, readers and writers? Will the novel as we know it survive?
The author Lionel Shriver is someone, she tells me, who enjoys “a conventional authorial life: I get advances sufficient to support me financially; I release my books through traditional publishing houses and write for established newspapers and magazines.” But Shriver, who won the 2005 Orange prize for her eighth novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, is also keeping an increasingly uneasy eye on the situation of 21st-century authors. For a start, there’s the worry that if “electronic publishing takes off in a destructive manner… the kind of fruitful professional life I lead could be consigned to the past.” Then there’s her own reading life, an essential part of the creative process, to consider: “I am personally dependent on the old-fashioned, hierarchical vetting of newspapers and book publishers to locate reading material that’s worth my time. I don’t want to wade through a sea of undifferentiated voices to find articles whose facts are accurate and novels that are carefully crafted and have something to say.”
The tyranny of choice is a near-universal digital lament. But for literary authors, at least, what comes with the territory is an especially barbed species of uncertainty. Take the award-winning novelist and poet Blake Morrison, perhaps best-known for his memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? “I try to be positive about new technology,” he told me, “but I worry about what’s going to happen to poetry books and literary novels once e-readers have taken over from print. Will they survive the digital revolution? Or will the craving for interactivity drive them to extinction? I’ve not written anything for a year, and part of the reason may be a loss of confidence about the future of literary culture as I’ve known it.”
I’ve spent the last few months talking to authors, publishers and agents about the future, and it’s clear that Morrison’s feelings are far from unusual. After a number of false dawns, books are, finally, starting to go digital. In July, Amazon US reported that its e-book sales overtook sales of hardbacks on its website for the first time. E-books now account for at least 6 per cent of the total American market, a number that’s sure to rise steeply thanks to the huge success of both dedicated e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and multipurpose hardware like Apple’s iPad, which is currently selling a million units a month. What this means for publishers, readers and writers is the transformation not only of the context within which books exist, but also of what books can and cannot say—and who will read them.
Above all, the translation of books into digital formats means the destruction of boundaries. Bound, printed texts are discrete objects: immutable, individual, lendable, cut off from the world. Once the words of a book appear onscreen, they are no longer simply themselves; they have become a part of something else. They now occupy the same space not only as every other digital text, but as every other medium too. Music, film, newspapers, blogs, videogames—it’s the nature of a digital society that all these come at us in parallel, through the same channels, consumed simultaneously or in seamless sequence.
There are new possibilities in this, many of them marvellous. As the internet has amply illustrated, words shorn of physical restrictions can instantly travel the world and be searched, shared, adapted and updated at will. Yet when it comes to words that aim to convey more than information and opinions, and to books in particular, a paradoxical process of constriction is also taking place. For alongside what Morrison calls “the craving for interactivity,” a new economic and cultural structure is arriving that has the power to dismantle many of those roles great written works have long played: as critiques, inspirations, consciences, entertainments, educations, acts of witness and awakening, and much more.
The digitisation of the reading experience itself is the least radical aspect of this process. Although a minority of titles offer sounds and images, most e-books ape their paper counterparts. Even on an advanced device like the iPad, the best reading applications emphasise clarity and clutter-free text. What’s truly new is the shift in power that the emerging order represents.
The arguments being made for the indispensability of the traditional publishing model centre on two factors: advances and expertise. The established publishing system of paying advances against royalties enables writers, it’s said, to take the time to write and research works of proper depth and quality. The expertise gathered within established publishing companies, meanwhile, is an invaluable resource both for sifting through slush piles and for improving everything from a book’s structure and style to its grammar, presentation and accuracy—and subsequently its packaging, marketing and distribution.
Leaving aside the likelihood that this expertise will simply migrate to new media companies, this account neglects digital culture’s single most transforming force: data. Buy an electronic book and the exact details of that purchase are instantly known: exactly how much was paid, and when, and how, and in combination with which other products. What are the trends, the sudden sparks of interest, the opportunities? Which chapter held people’s attention for longest; at what point did most readers give up? Answering exactly these kinds of questions lies at the heart of the businesses that players like Amazon, Google and Apple have built over the last decade. And these three companies already overwhelmingly dominate the world’s digital publishing transactions.
It has long been a truth of publishing that—much as in movies—a small number of hits generate the bulk of revenues, allowing producers to take a punt on future productions. What, though, if there were no longer any need to gamble on success? Book publishing is based on the principle that publishers control access to a scarce, precious resource—print. But digital media models, where the costs of publication and reproduction are almost nothing, tend to function the other way around: material is first published, then the selection process begins among readers themselves.
For all the weight attached to traditional models of discernment, it’s hard not to see a logic that’s already well-established in other fields gaining ground: put as much material as you can in front of an audience, and let them do the selecting for you. Then—when your best hope of a hit appears—maximise it relentlessly.
After all, digital culture is one vast forum for debate, selection, promotion and distribution. As Angus Donald—whose writing career began in 2009 with the publication of Outlaw, the first in a series of novels about Robin Hood (the second, Holy Warrior, appeared this July)—described the experience of becoming a writer to me: “I find myself as a sort of president of a club of like-minded individuals. I’m matey, elder-brotherly and in regular contact with anyone who wants to communicate with me. I write a blog on a weekly basis, I have two Facebook pages for my books and I go to pretty much any events that invite me… ”
Donald has embraced technology, but there are plenty of authors who take a dimmer view. “When it comes to the world of the internet and blogging and Facebooking and what have you, I’m profoundly sceptical,” Philip Pullman, author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, told me. “I daresay it manages to connect with a large number of people, but I strongly resent the time it takes up. In the little time that I have ‘spare,’ I don’t want to sit tapping at a keyboard and staring at a screen, I want to read and think.”