Monday, June 27, 2011
It meant having to delay the blog entry, and last week three notable pieces subsequently appeared in the Press about just the very subject, rendering some of my own arguments repetitive. The first, and most notable, was a piece in the Guardian, which more than alluded to the point I’ve been making about traditional publishing and ostriches, that is denying the inevitable. It’s a good piece and the most realistic vision of where publishing is going and why, something some traditional publishers are not accepting which will be to their dire consequence, I fear. The other two pieces are in last Sunday’s Times’ Culture Magazine (an interesting view on where publishing is going and how it will be revolutionised, which while not completely new to most readers, is certainly a good summary) and a piece in this month’s SFX.
Of these two latter pieces, the SFX one is perhaps the most interesting given that it’s the most honest reply to the ereading phenomena by publishers (Julie Crisp, Tor, Jo Fletcher) and agents (John Jarrold). John particularly, as it is one of John’s previous clients, Ian Hocking, who is finding success doing precisely what publishers fear, going solo and doing rather well out of it with his books Déjà Vu and the recent sequel, Flashback. To paraphrase, despite the danger of doing so with something so political, there is no denial that the landscape is changing and John makes a valid point that it isn’t publishers who will decide the future now, it’s the reader, wishing to chose between a 70p book and a £7.99 book.
Though I think really traditional publishing has this in their own hands, as their reluctance to embrace ebooks with ridiculous pricing and availability, is driving readers to mid-list authors who have turned up their noses to miserly and almost criminal royalties on digital editions. As the Guardian says explicitly, traditional publishing’s reaction to ebooks has been to treat it at best as an elephant in the room and at worst a pariah, despite creating the beast in the first place.
Julie Crisp is honest in that while these are interesting times for publishing, they are also precarious. She revels in the technology but is probably aware that the freedom for writers and self-publishing can only damage traditional publishing given that Tor and Macmillan still average their ebooks at hardback and paperback prices, something I had to complain about during my time with them, though to be fair I suspect this had little editorial decision about it (and I know for sure this wasn't down to their digital division either during my conversations with them) but more the publisher’s bean counters who have an alarming lack of business sense. Harsh? Perhaps, but harsh words are needed for traditional publishing to survive.
The fact is, and this is mentioned widely now in the Press and in forums and blogs, is that traditional publishing is cutting off its own feet. It’s alienating its authors and its readers, and doing both will only destroy what traditional publishing is. True, ebooks won’t replace printed books completely, but the digital revolution will help fund how printed books find their way to readers too. As I see it there are only two obstacles for ebooks to get an ascendency, the first is proper editorial input. The second is a credible blog or website dedicated to reviewing self-published e-books, one with a good reputation and as credible as any literary journalism found in mainstream press. The first obstacle can be handled by just hiring a good copy-editor, and the second will be come along any day now. When this happens, it will change things - it will introduce quality control removing the final counter-argument from traditional publishing.
Publishers should beware, I think.
Still coming up: the other argument for ebooks…
Thursday, June 02, 2011
I’m a big fan of ebooks. Let me state that first.
A couple of years back I was hobnobbing with an editor and copy editor from Hachette Livre who were lamenting the gradual demise of paper-based publishing, aware that ebooks weren’t just the future but the end of traditional publishing. As an author, ebooks and epublishing is exciting. It unshackles creativity, and while it isn’t regulated or quality-controlled, I honestly believe that’s the whole point of art and creativity, to transcend boundaries and be free. The downside is that sometimes what you get is a little rough, or hewn badly, or in some cases utterly crap. You get that in any work of art though, where charlatans pass themselves off as geniuses.
But it works the other way too with gate-keepers; where good artists find themselves without a voice, or they’re shouted down by the latter-day guardians of the public word, gate-keepers in the industry who are no longer in a position to take a risk on the untried and are driven to decisions by accountants rather than instinct. Publishing is a business, and no one will tell you different except those wanting to be published.
But while traditional publishing hangs on with its fingers, authors are becoming frustrated and impatient. Too frustrated and impatient to wait for traditional publishing to discover them, it seems.
As I write, I’m reading an ebook by Ian Hocking calledDéjà Vu, a book that went into print on a limited basis, yet has not found a commercial publisher, which is a bloody mystery, really. To be frank, it’s a fucking good book, and one that any self-respecting science fiction fan should own. That’s not just my opinion, but the growing number of fans Ian Hocking has attracted since eschewing traditional publishing (trad publishing which had failed Ian, not by the want of trying but because they weren’t prepared to take a risk on someone who has talent, for inexplicable reasons). By going the route of ebooks it will – hopefully – give Dr Hocking the rewards he finally deserves.
Just as it has to many other authors who are now receiving attention after trad publishing cast them out or turned them down.
~However, there is a downside to this autonomy. As epublishing grows and trad publishing shrinks (which it’s doing now) something is being lost. Something quite important.
You see, for all the freedom ebooks and epublishing gives, there’s nothing like a paper book, and there is an argument that has been forgotten in the whole great brouhaha of publishing and why paper books are superior. An argument that transcends the usual complaints that “you can read a paperback in the bath” or “a paperback is cheaper than an ereader”, or my personal favourite: “the batteries for my paperback never run out.”
Nor is the argument I’m alluding to about the smell of books. I can do without smelly books, to be fair. That whole musty-book smell makes me sad actually, reminding me that one day the books will get too fragile to open and will scatter like autumn leaves on a blustery day, losing page after page before becoming a wholly irrelevant story, absent minded and then lost for good.
Age is not good for books. Especially paperbacks.
Nor is it the tangible thing either. Paper books are awkward – if you want to save their spines. Open a book too far while you’re drinking coffee or eating a sandwich and their back will break. I don’t do it on purpose. It can be unavoidable. Sometimes books don’t want you to see inside and are so tightly shut, you must break them to read their words, and I despair when I feel that “crick” of the spine, or the groan of binding rupturing under my efforts. That’s tangible, but it feels abusive as well. I want to get some stickers that say “Mind me back, love… Books have feelings too.”
So if it isn’t the smell, and isn’t the feel, and it isn’t some foolish nostalgia that keeps me from embracing utterly the digitised word, then what is it?
Well, for me it’s the presence. It’s the standing on the shelf an inch thick, or three or four inches, displaying its edges like a shy peacock, knowing when it is time, the fanning out of those printed pages will be glorious. It’s the covers, gaudy or subtle, the writing on the spine announcing a story so sublime or preposterous or magical that you’ll doubt what’s real by the final sentence. A good cover isn’t something that should be cobbled together on Photoshop, I believe, but one that should be meticulously constructed and loved like taking a photo of a particular event. Sure, experiencing the event is more important than the photo, but a memento keeps it alive, and for me that’s what a good cover does, and what ultimately the physical presence of the book gives. It’s a memento of a wonderful journey. A memento that speaks to me.
You see, paper books are there for all to see and remember. When I walk into my study, I am beaten back by a cacophony of voices, of different pitches, of different sexes, sometimes different languages, and ages, and races, of times past and future, as well as present - with thousands upon thousands of stories, pouring invisibly from the spines of millions of pages, standing on the platforms and arches of a study that has been transformed from a place of writing into a city of novels. They perch precariously on the edge of shelves, balance on bridges across rivers of wiring that power the two laptops I write on, down to supporting the entire desk and the weight of more tomes that sit there. I have books to the left of me, books to the right, and here I am, not so much stuck in the middle but immersed in the words, surrounded and not unlike the feeling you get when you walk upon the streets of
Could you do the same with a Kindle?
Which is why, for me, ebooks will never replace normal books, just as digital photography will never stop people from printing photos. Sure we no longer print all of our photos now, nor in the near future will we buy all our books from traditional publishing. That’s just how things change. But the word on the paper will almost certainly continue as printed photographs do, if only to remind us of the places we have been and enjoyed.
Next up: “Argument: why pixels are a good thing for pixies”