There is a lot of talk lately about “the death of books”, along with discussion on whether the “rise of the ebook” is for the better or worse. One thing I have noticed amongst a lot of media is a lack of differentiation between “books” and “publishing”, and I feel this needs to happen. I read a great article about why the book won’t die, and I totally agree with it. But I think the need for such an article was created by a whole lot of talk about how books are dying. A lot of the time, when people say this, I think they are actually talking about what we currently identify as the publishing industry, not the “object” that is a book.
It is my personal feeling the book is strong and healthy, and that now is a great time to be a writer. There are more ways to get your work to readers than at any other time. Ebooks and Print-on-Demand books, direct sales from author websites, small publishers and global superstores are all creating avenues for writers to get their work to the public. There are also a multitude of ways for authors and readers to connect with one another, from Twitter, Facebook and blogs, to podcasts, forums and even Second Life. J A Konrath recently posted his vision for the future of the book-as-destination, which sounds very similar to what Kate Eltham was advocating on this month’s episode of the First Tuesday Book Club. I love the idea of communities surrounding books (as they already do), and the technology already exists to make access to these communities easier. I am also really excited by the seriously untapped realm of book-as-app, where authors, publishers and readers move beyond the notion that a book is just something to read. As a game designer and writer my brain really bubbles with the potential here.
On the flip side, I think the publishing industry is on shaky ground. I don’t know if they are taking their last gasps of air as some commentators claim, but I can see how they are in trouble. I think some publishers will really struggle as the big bookstore chains close down, and I think some publishers are already struggling. And these struggles will have a flow on effect for consumers, probably in the form of a more restricted range of books and a higher price point. This, of course, will make it harder for them to sell books and create the horrible death spiral that Michael Stackpole has talked about. All of this will be further compunded by the closing of bookstores, the rise of the ebook, and from more authors seeking less “traditional pathways” to become published. I think that a lot of the “death of books” chatter has grown from the stress placed on publishers, not so much by any chance that books are soon likely to disappear.
I would hate to see publishers go out of business, as they do have a genuinely useful role to play. They tell me which books have been read, edited and vetted before being uploaded onto the Kindle marketplace. They seek out new talent that is like, or complimentary to the authors I already enjoy. They support talented writers that are keen to get on with the craft of writing, by providing advice, feedback and potentially an audience. Notice how all of those things are about bringing me books to read, but have nothing to do with printing or book production? Publishing companies are filled with talented people who are experts at spotting good stories and polishing them into great ones. In my rose-tinted future, I see publishers as resources for readers. I want to be able to pick up a Random House (or other publishing house) novel and know that I am getting a specific experience, whether that be a particular genre, style of writing, world view, or something else. That will save me time, worry and money, if the alternative is to browse the millions of books available online and hope the reader reviews and author’s own description are accurate.
Books aren’t dead and I am not ready to write-off the publishing industry yet (though there is no argument they have a hill to climb). I am excited to see the evolution of books unfold at a pace that will astound us all.