Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Death of the Paper Book?

The death of paper based "print" books is much discussed these days on a variety of fora frequented by authors and would be authors. Seanan MacGuire, writing on Live Journal, makes an excellent case regarding the need for "printed words" to continue. I find myself in full agreement with him.

Electronic books are fine, I have some of mine available in e-format now, but if you don't have a Kindle, iPad, whatever, you can't read them. All you need to read a paper book is the book. You can get it from a library, from a bookstore, from Amazon and even from the second hand bookstore tucked away in a backstreet. But here lies a part of the problem. Authors have to get past a large number of "gate keepers" in order to get published by the traditional publishers. Most won't even look at a manuscript submitted by an author if it doesn't come through an agent. Even when they say they will. The truth is that they are swamped by manuscripts these days as the electronic age gives more and more people the power to create the novel "everyone" is supposed to have inside them.

Even if you do get read by a traditional publisher, more and more manuscripts are rejected because the author isn't marketable. Note, I said the Author isn't marketable. An unknown writer is just too much of a gamble. It costs a lot to publish traditionally, the overheads are enormous in terms of premises, salaries and so forth and then the manuscripts have to be edited properly. That all takes up time and money. I know, because I have been told and have now acquired quite a bit of experience in "doing it myself" that the actual printing isn't expensive. It ain't, what is expensive is the editing (Someone has to take the time to find the mistakes, typos and so on), the correcting (Again, there has to be a physical check that the "Proofs" are correct and there are no glitches), that any "facts" are properly sourced, correct and acknowledged, and finally, the really expensive bit - promotion. If people don't know its available, they won't buy it! More and more, this is the bit left to a new author ...

Even once you have managed to get your book printed, there is a further hurdle. The bookstore has limited space on their shelves. The books they are prepared to put there are those they believe will sell rapidly. Any book that sits on the shelf more than two weeks is costing them sales. Ergo, the books they will put there are those they KNOW will sell quickly. In other words, the books that make it through the next hurdle gate, the media review pages, the advertising posters and blurbs and so on. The books listed for various "Literary Prizes" and promoted to the point the public believe that only that book will be available in the stores ...

This leaves the "fringe" author very few options. I can try to get my books noticed by the bookstores, I can even offer them a "sale or return" deal on limited numbers so it gets at least onto a shelf. Trouble is, I know it won't get a prominent place and it remains a matter of chance whether anyone will actually spot it. (Funny thing about shops and shelves - the middle range, around eye level is where most people will look for something and buy it. Lower shelves seldom get looked at unless the buyer knows they are looking for something on a low shelf, and the same applies to anything above head height. These are well known ploys in store layout and marketing. Being on a bottom shelf is near 'death' for a book and being on a high one is to be classed with the sort of magazine that comes in opaque wrappings and not for sale to minors ...)

It is also said these days, that for a "self published" author to get taken seriously, they need to make sales of 10,000 copies. I find that threshold a bit misleading, especially since the traditional industry regularly publishes "Prize Nominees" and "known" authors who sell fewer copies. One "Prize Nominee" a few years ago sold a total of 150 copies!

So, this leaves us with a market where the easiest way for a fringe author like me to sell my stories and books is through the e-formats. However, I still prefer the book to be available in paper and like to see paper sales. After all, I like to hold a book, to smell a book, to feel a book and to read it. Like Seanan MacGuire, books were my friends as a child. They were my escape into a wider world and a wider understanding of how the world works, its people and the wonders of science, religion and nature. What I think needs to change is the publishing industry, not necessarily the format of books. There are a lot of good books not published by "traditional" publishers, some of them definitely potentially best sellers. But there are also a lot of absolute rubbish books as well. As they say, the buyer must exercise judgement and caution there.

Personally I think the paper book is far from dead, but the industry that produces them must also change and adapt. E-Books are here to stay, though not everyone will embrace them and some, like me, will continue to keep stacks of printed books on every flat surface and in every shelf we can find.

Books provide a fantastic opportunity to learn, to gain knowledge and to have fun doing it and killing off the paper based book will cut off access to them for a large section of every community. The Public Library was my door into a whole new world as a kid and I sincerely hope it will continue to provide that door to generations yet to come. Sadly, though, there is another part to this problem, illiteracy.

Looking around the sink estates today and listening to the youngsters speaking one quickly realises that many cannot read anything complex. Worse, they don't have the underpinning knowledge to realise what they are missing or what they could gain by stretching themselves reading a good book. There are all sorts of causes underlying this state of affairs and one of them is the "instant gratification" that comes from "quick hit" TV shows, games and the like. Reading a good book means actually having to savour the anticipation of the pleasure to come as the book reaches its peroration. For a generation now trained to have the attention span of gold fish, that is difficult to grasp.

If books are to survive in our society it requires that we nurture a wider audience than the cognoscenti who currently dictate what is published. We need to engage the youth at schools, particularly among the poorer end of society and show them what is available to them in the printed word. Books must be saved, but not just as the preserve of those who consider themselves "above the common herd" or as the "literate" - we must find ways to reach those who don't, at present, read anything other than the blurb on the latest "game" wrapper...

Quite a challenge for authors, publishers, sellers and educationists.

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