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Boeke | Books > Boekartikels | Articles on books > English

Big Book Chain Chat #23: Beware the digital wave


Eugene Ashton - 2010-12-02

There is talk of a revolution in the book business; readers and writers alike are working themselves into a frenzy. It is all very exciting. We are being told that the world as we know it is about to change, that the costs associated with moving books about the world will dissipate, and that cheaper, more easily accessible reading material is at hand.

I don’t believe that for a moment. It would seem that the people who argue for the digital change often fail to grasp some of the essentials in the equation.

Writing in almost every form is collaborative. If it is not, then an element of the editorial is. The reality is that there are very few authors out there who are in a position not to be edited. And if they are in that position, more often than not they do have editors or agents that tell them what they think of the book. The point is that a book does not simply appear, and if you think that you can crack it on your own without the help of publishing houses, of literary agents or of freewheeling editors, then you are making a mistake and a very grand one at that.

Publishers have historically played the role of getting the book to the public. The role is now more complex and requires a combination of marketing and publicity, targeting the public directly, and retail relationships where bookstores sell to them. They build loyalty programmes and often hand-sell. In collaboration with the publishers they have launches; they bring the book to the public. Yes, this can be done through a multitude of channels, and increasingly online and digital is one of these, but it is not the only way of doing it.

It is a great idea to go with a digital solution to the world. Look at what has happened in the music industry – the comparison that is most irritatingly made. Bands figured that they got so little from their records, they were being pirated into oblivion, that they started giving songs away for free. It makes sense – their main revenue is from performances and the albums become the advert for the band. But therein lies the error. Music, and listening to music, is in the pleasure of repetition – one listens to the same album again and again – whereas you seldom read a book a second time. Give it away once, and it is over. The book business differs from music in that authors earn their principal revenue from selling books and not from appearing before audiences. Therein lies a substantial distinction, because it means that authors and publishers, booksellers and even readers, if they wish to have books, need to ensure that revenue streams are protected. Fail to protect them and the writing dies.

That does not mean that there will not be efficiencies that come into play; it does not mean that books will be cheaper or more expensive. These levels will be found and a happy median will be arrived at. What it does mean, however, is that it is not as simple as selling something in a different format, or even giving it away for free. The price of a book is not in the package.

We are spoiled in that we have a surfeit of things to read, and in our recommendation society not a day passes that one does not add another to the list. This demand is created through channels, through industry magazines and newspaper reviews, through television hype, or simply through word-of-mouth. Mostly there is an author, an agent and editor, a publisher, a bookseller, a reviewer and then the reader, everyone of them involved in the complex process. Simply changing the format does not negate outright the need for any of these in the chain.

Books will have to get better. They must be more entertaining and there is no excuse for not having them delivered in a perfectly formatted and edited form. To achieve that, though, requires the long publishing chain, or a short publishing chain, and the editors, the critics, the people who are able to sort through the endless pile and recommend the one for you.

It surprises me that people think that this means the death of integral parts of the industry. It most certainly does not. The digital wave is breaking on our shore and we would do well to remember that we have a relatively healthy publishing industry that will, in good time, find the ways to embrace the new format and ensure that the book – the actual writing of it – continues unabated and uninterrupted.

Eugene Ashton
The opinion piece is written in my personal capacity.