Friday, March 04, 2005

The end of books?

Not long ago I discussed problems in the paperback end of the book business that may spell "the end of paperbacks," or at least a serious reduction in the number of titles printed in that format. My main source of info was super-agent Richard Curtis, who wrote an article on that subject, published online at Backspace . Now the same Web site has a new article by Curtis, predicting that electronic media will profoundly change the nature of books.

This time, however, I'm skeptical. I've heard this song before. In the late 1980s there was a lot of excited talk about how novels would be rendered obsolete by video games. Video games were so much more dynamic than text; they could put you right inside the action; they had color and sound and animation. How could old-fashioned books compete? But books are still around, and they show no signs of morphing into video games anytime soon.

Then in the early '90s the e-book was introduced. I was a small player in this development; my novel Stealing Faces was the first book ever published in e-book form prior to its print publication date. For a while it was the number-one-selling e-book in the country. But number one didn't mean much; the book sold only a few hundred copies in electronic form, compared with more than 100,000 copies in its printed version. And sales of e-books have not risen significantly in the years since. Meanwhile all of the dedicated e-book reading devices, such as the RocketBook, have disappeared from the marketplace.

It turns out that readers are conservative types. They are resistant to major changes in either the content or form of the books they buy. And I suspect they will resist the electronic revolution that Curtis foresees.

Curtis pins his hopes for the e-revolution on blogs, noting that blogs have become influential very quickly and that it's possible to make money off a blog by running ads on it. But there is less to this story than meets the eye. Of the tens of thousands of blogs that exist (with thousands more being started every day), only a handful have any real following. And even the most successful blogs don't seem to make much money from advertising. Two of the most-read blogs, National Review's The Corner and Andrew Sullivan's blog, have repeatedly held "pledge drives" in PBS fashion, pleading with readers to donate money to keep the blogs going. Many others have no doubt done the same. It's hard to argue that blogs are wildly profitable when even the most popular ones have to beg for alms.

I think the truth is that blogs are simply another niche in an expanding communications universe that will still include traditional books. People don't want to spend all their time staring at a computer screen, no matter how nicely it is packaged. There is something relaxing about a traditional printed book, something comfortable and homey. Years ago, a book called Megatrends observed that as society grows more high-tech, it also grows more "high-touch" - consumers, weary of being surrounded by mass-produced items, seek out handmade furnishings, original art, and other old-fashioned purchases.

Curtis includes one troubling example in his essay:

Hyper-exposed to audial and visual media, the new breed of publishing animal seems to exhibit diminished confidence in the power of words alone to stimulate the imagination. For many jittery young people, printed texts on a stack of paper are, as one editor said, “kind of boring.” “If all it is, is a book, merely words” he elaborated, “it’s hard to get excited. I ask myself, ‘What else is it besides a book? Is it a video game? A movie? A web site?’ It’s got to be more than a book to turn me on.”

Now, I realize I run the risk of being seen as hopelessly retro, but in my opinion, anyone who finds "printed texts on a stack of paper" to be "kind of boring," and says it's "hard to get excited" about "a book, merely words," is someone who should not be working as an editor. No doubt there are many exciting opportunities open to this anonymous young (I presume he is young) gentleman, offering him many chances to be creative and clever, but the field of publishing is not among them.

For better or worse, the book business is all about words - "merely words." Odds are, it will stay that way for a very long time.


Blogger Brins said...

I should hope they don't stop printing books; I've been meaning to publish a novel I wrote years ago for a long time.

At the rate at which information technology is developing, it's easy to get the feeling that one day everything will be available on PC. But books are different to me; unlike movies, games etc. the reader is in charge of the novel's world; if I read a book (I don't read much, mind you), I visualise everything the way I see it. I've seen films of books in the past that disappoint me because everything in them is depicted differently to what I had in mind.

I really don't think books can be replaced.

March 18, 2005 3:41 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

I agree completely. The imagination is more powerful than any image that can be concocted by even the most advanced CGI program. And that's why I think books, even if they are "only" words on paper, will be with us for a long time.

March 18, 2005 1:55 PM  
Blogger Jeff Perren said...

As you say, books will be with us for some time to come... I predict centuries -- regardless of whether they continue to be printed on paper or are reproduced in some other form.

As much as I love motion pictures (I've seen literally thousands),
there are aspects of a novel or non-fiction book that no other medium can replace.

Things like thinking for yourself, translating the physical marks into concepts and images,
self-education, etc.

No medium yet devised can do this like a book. The others do the work for you to a great extent.

For those who, in some way, enjoy exercising the mind, books are here to stay.

(By analogy, when physical effort no longer became required to the degree it was in centuries past, humans invented new forms of exercise -- for the sheer pleasure of using the body.)
Jeff Perren

March 31, 2005 10:56 AM  
Blogger Michael Prescott said...

The exercise analogy is a very good one. Or for that matter, look at music. It is possible to program a computer to produce any sort of music we might want, and to do it flawlessly. But people don't go to concerts to watch computers. They want to see real people playing real instruments, even if there are occasional mistakes. Similarly, it's possible to create passably realistic human actors via computer animation, but people still want to see real human beings in the movies.

April 01, 2005 2:30 PM  
Blogger Jeff Perren said...

Are there real human beings in the movies these days?

I sometimes wonder.

April 01, 2005 9:57 PM  

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