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Meanland: The death of the book, and other utopian fantasies

Well, it’s official: the (printed) book is dead, long live the (e)book.

Or so many political and cultural elites would like us to believe. On the very day of my writing this blog, for example, we were subjected to federal Minister for Small Business Nick Sherry’s apocalyptic diagnosis that Australian booksellers will be annihilated within the next five years, thanks, in part, to the (supposed) explosion of online sales of ebooks. In a less dramatic and more considered register, Kate Eltham, CEO of Queensland Writers Centre, pontificated on the ABC television’s Jennifer Byrne Presents, that the advent of ebooks and e-readers was disrupting ‘the underpinning supply chains that are currently supporting modern publishing’.

Significant to both Senator Sherry’s and CEO Eltham’s perspectives are their disconcertingly upbeat views of these (apparently) cataclysmic changes. For the Minister, the prophesied obliteration of bookshops promises a brave new world in which ‘online trading present[s] a growth opportunity for businesses to expand their potential customer reach’; while for Eltham a future without paper books is nothing short of paradisiacal:

I’m optimistic in the best sense. I think that we are going to see an abundance of titles available. We’re going to see a multitude of channels to get those titles. And we’re going to see conversations taking place between readers that didn’t take place before. So I’m excited and I think this is going to be a really fun time.

Commentators, far more eloquent and informed than I, have questioned the validity of the claim that the printed book has run its course. Suffice it to say that, as Meanland’s own Jacinda Woodhead has shown, Amazon’s sensational news of their ebooks outselling printed books was, at best, highly dubious; and according to Jeremy Fisher, in his Meanjin Meanland essay, ‘[t]he printed book is showing no signs even of a death rattle’. While disagreement between the ebullient advocates of the ebook and their opponents are likely to continue for years to come – until, perhaps, either the e-reader has been, once and for all, assigned to the dustbin of history alongside other notable technological failures, or the printed book has joined the stone table, the papyrus scroll and the illuminated manuscript in museums – what interests me is the excessively sanguine, indeed utopian view of those who see the (proposed) demise of the printed book as an unconditionally wonderful thing.

Why is it that seemingly learned people – who have, one can safely assume, read a book or two during their lives – are so ecstatic about the collapse of not just an industry but one of the tenets of civilisation? What exactly are the redemptive, heavenly consequences of the Four Horsemen of the Internet, ebooks, online shopping, and the vertiginous Australian dollar bringing an end to the profane worlds of print publishing and printed-book selling?

The most obvious answer is, of course, the commercial interests of corporations who, for example, release inflated figures of the sales of their ebooks to boost the sales of their e-readers, or the blatant interference by other interested corporations who, for example, pay influential public figures to champion the cause of an e-future. (According to the Age, Senator Sherry’s comments apropos of the death of bookselling in Australia came at the launch of a public awareness campaign ‘organised by online payment company PayPal’.) In an even slightly less imperfect world, the Capitalist economic base would not be capable of so effortlessly molding the cultural superstructure and propagating spurious assumptions as facts; but I shall desist from indulging in utopian fantasies of my own, and instead explore one example of a myth or, in this case, a fairytale that supports a dominant ideology hard at work trying to convince us all that This-is-the-end-of-the-book-as-we-know-it-and-we-should-all-feel-very-very-fine.

medium_amandahockingThe story concerns one Amanda Hocking who, according to one enthusiastic YouTube appraisal, is a ‘26 year old [North American] writer who was turned down by several publishers only to publish her work as ebooks for Amazon Kindle earning her millions of dollars’. As someone who has had more than his fair share of rejection from many, many publishers, I warm to the story of a fellow struggling writer who has told the ‘haters’ – as one of the presenters in the above YouTube clip has eloquently put it – ‘to suck it’. Also, as a Marxist, I’m very happy to hear that a young, working-class woman has taken control of her own means of production and circumvented exploitation by elitist publishers and distributors. But a closer look at this American Dream tale of going from rags to riches in the age of the ebook reveals this supposedly ‘revolutionary’ tale as a sadly disingenuous, deceptive fantasy.

To begin with, Hocking’s self-e-published bestsellers are far from radical or new in any sense of these words. Among her books are vampire romance novels written for young adults. While possibly emulating the Twilight series is not – rather disappointingly – a punishable offence yet, the fact that this ebook success story could have only come about as a consequence of the immense popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s series of printed books undermines the triumphalism and hubris of those who view Hocking’s success as a repudiation of print publishing. As Jenny Lee has written in Overland, successful self-published e-titles cited by one advocate of ebooks ‘are all in well-established popular genres’, a fact which, in my view, greatly weakens any claim the proponents of this latest publishing technology could have to it being a radical departure from the apparently atrophied paradigms of print publishing.

Also, as it would have been blatantly obvious in my quoted introduction of Hocking, her story serves, perhaps against her wishes, as publicity for Amazon Kindle. While I certainly hope that this obviously industrious writer receives fair payment for her work – although it is rather worrying that, as she mentions in this Associated Press clip, she’s yet to be paid any royalties by Amazon – it is quite possible that here, as with many other e-publishing success stories, ‘the beneficiaries’, as also noted by Lee in her Meanland article, ‘aren’t self-publishers but the [online] store-owners, who are some of the largest corporations on the planet’. While viewing the abovementioned clip, note how Amazon’s e-reader Kindle is rather conspicuously plugged, as is, perhaps oddly, the energy drink Red Bull, presented here as a writer’s drink.

The most self-contradictory aspect of the view of Hocking’s writing career as an exemplification of the utopian wonders of ebooks and e-publishing, however, is its truly fairytale, she-lived-happily-ever-after ending. According to her own blog, Hocking’s ‘new young adult four-book series’ is to be published – for a no doubt gargantuan advance – by St Martin’s Press, one of the United States’ major print publishers. And, although as with almost all other publishers that I know of, the Press’s parent company, Macmillan Publishers Ltd, has embraced digital publishing options, these publishers cannot be seen, in any sense of the word, as e-publishers – as of June 2011, according to The Bookseller.com, only 8% of Pan Macmillan’s sales are accounted for by ebook sales. So if e-publishing is the glorious future and print publishing an expired past, why is this paragon of e-writing abandoning the electrophoretic ink screen of the e-reader gadget for the enervated paper pages of a printed book?

The simplest answer seems to be that the printed book is neither dead nor dying. As much as I for one would like to see hierarchies and stifling bourgeois ideologies of much of the existing print publishing and bookselling challenged and disrupted, on the basis of the frankly flimsy premise of much of the unsubstantiated hype and hyperbole surrounding ebooks, digital technology is not likely to liberate us into a utopian future in which any writer can get published, recognised and rewarded for their work.

I fear that, to the contrary, we may end up with hundreds of thousands of obsolete e-readers and further toxic e-waste being dumped on the slum dwellers of Ghana or China, where staggering quantities of the affluent nations’ high-tech effluence are disposed of by some of the world’s most deprived and vulnerable in some of the most monstrously dangerous work environments imaginable. The image of rivers becoming contaminated, water undrinkable and soil non-arable as a consequence of the processing of mounds of our unwanted e-readers is most certainly not a utopian fantasy, but a properly abject, dystopian reality.

Ali Alizadeh’s latest book, Transactions, has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. His previous books have been shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award and NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He lectures at Monash University.

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Comments

  1. Commercial interests explain ebook boosterism? I don’t own an ereader but also don’t think you need to be a digital enthusiast to notice something changing in reading practices, relationships between authors and their audiences, publishing etc. I’m a bit perplexed at the usefulness of someone essentially saying “move along, nothing to see here.”

  2. James Gleick makes a very good point about publishers acting like their own worst enemies \…treating books as commodities… chasing up to blockbusters\ etc. I often wonder if publishers have any awareness of readers of all, or any awareness of how readers approach books, or what readers hope to get out of books. Recently I read this comment on \The Rejecter\ (http://rejecter.blogspot.com/),the blog of \an assistant at a literary agency/the first line of defence for my boss/I reject 95% of (query) letters immediately and put the other 5% in the maybe pile\:

    \The publishing industry provides an essential service to the book industry: it separates the wheat from the chaff…\

    And apparently readers only exist to service the desires of the book industry.

  3. Despite the mix of topics in this blog, the main thrust emerges. Despite Ali Alizadeh’s fear , awe or disbelief, the incredible is happening as I write this. My own books of fiction (two traditionally published novels, six independently published short fiction collections, one poetry book) are selling three times as many eBooks as paperbacks. I am not the only Australian author to whom this is happening. It might not be a death rattle, and the entire paper book industry might not be under immediate threat, but significant changes are in action NOW. School text books are now loaded on to laptops: now, this year. Computer manuals are online. Even the Yellow Pages directory has shrunk from two unwieldy volumes to one smaller than a street directory. Fiction is downloaded at incredibly cheap prices, and wordcounts are shrinking. Short stories are selling as ‘singles’ (I sell a couple myself). It might not be the Kindle or the iPod that eventually emerges victorious from this, but it is undeniably a watershed period in which we authors are working today. Rejection by publishers does not necessarily mean exclusion from readership. The elation that Kay Eltham expresses is on the part of authors who are freed from the search for gatekeepers’ approval, and she might be right about a ‘book’ being the contents, and not the container.
    Electronic waste apart, access to new written material, access to new authors, access to lively, experimental and innovative writing, access to the world body of established literature, has never been so immediate and so authentic. True, one has to sift through a mountain of dross, but the one-book wonders of this world, many of them baby-boomers fulfilling a life-long ambition, will eventually move aside, dissipate, and the bottle-neck will ease. Readers themselves will find ways of determining what’s worth reading.
    Some of the stuff being written might very well find its way to print in ‘real’ paper books – that is not really the point. The point is the liberation of creative writing from bondage, censorship, and from the subjective or pecuniary whims of those who – whether they knew it, admitted it, or not – were also slaves to the publishing system that had turned into an unmanageable monster, paper or no paper, Kindle or no Kindle.

  4. I have had a lifelong love affair with the printed page. As a photojournalist I have worked in the medium for almost 50 years. I read voraciously.

    On a recent two and a half month assignment I decided to travel with a Kindle. The tipping point was a paperback I wanted to read. Its price $39.95! I’m old enough to remember when those orange covered Penguin paperbacks were a cheap budget option. $40 a book does not figure in my budget as cheap.

    At first I was dubious about my relationship with an electronic digital book substitute, but found that within fifteen minutes of switching it on and beginning to read, I had lost myself in the world of the written word. The added advantage was how easy it made reading in bed.

    In a hotel room in Kalgoorlie, I saw on the ABC news that Rohan Wilson had won the Vogel writer’s award for his novel, “The Roving Party”, a wonderfully dark novel, set in Tasmania. Within minutes of that announcement I had bought the book and had it on my Kindle. Cost $9.95. I was the immediate owner of something wonderful to read, (and it is a great read); the author had earned some money; no trees had been cut down; and little resources had been used in delivering the book to me.

    Because I read so much I had always been a great customer of my public library. My income is not such that I could afford new books, except as gifts and writers don’t benefit from secondhand sales. Using a Kindle, where I can afford to shop, I now spend more money on writers, which can only be beneficial to the craft.

    Much as I love the feel and heft of a good book, even a paperback, no amount of nostalgia is going to see books retain their position as the pre-eminent medium of knowledge and entertaintment. Like the vinyl LP record, it is inevitable that the printed book is eventually going to become the province of the enthusiast and the collector.

  5. Hi there

    As a baby boomber about to get back seriously into poetry writing, I am really interested to learn about what is going on in the writing and publishing world today. One of the most pleasurable pursuits for me is trawling through counters and counters of books at the twice yearly book fair in Canberra. It may come as a surprise to some people diagnosing the end of the ‘book’ to learn that people actually queue to get into the book fair events and many like me, walk away with bags full of books. This year, I intend to take a wheelbarrow:):)

    Thank you for your post – the debate is important.

    Olga from http://revedoa@blogspot.com

  6. Pingback: Meanland: Barbarism, politics and the poet-blogger « Overland literary journal

  7. Pingback: Pam Brown – follow up post « Something Else

  8. The problem with e books is this… the ecosystem within which they inhabit is fragile. Ereaders require electricity, which requires oil… a finite resource. Ebooks are temporary, wake up people, the oil is running out, and so will ebooks

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