The BBC asks the question, “Is modern fiction just not up to scratch?”
It seems that the literary world is up in arms over a tweet* that one of the judges of the Guardian first book award. It seems Claire Armistead is ” …frustrated by the standard of editing.” The BBC’s headline caught my attention, at first because the idea of literary quality was in my mind at the time. I had been reading some articles on the nature of good fiction and so, when I saw the Beeb headline, I wondered who was criticising modern literature now. It seems that the headline had misled me a little and it was actually about the amount of time Editors have to do their job – and the fact that they don’t just edit any more. Read the article it’s quite interesting.
It reminds me of the record and film industry. Margins are falling and they ask themselves, “Why?” The large media conglomerates appear to think of the average person as mere walking wallet, there to be thrown some tidbit so that they in turn can harvest an iota of cash. It’s the sort of mindset that plays by the numbers and gives the market what those numbers say that they want. The end result is somewhat bland and lacking in depth. As the perceived quality becomes less I don’t blame most people for thinking that it’s not worth paying for product that doesn’t seem to have the quality they are looking for.
What does this have to do with publishing? Well, if the same media conglomerates own the publishing houses then inevitably the same perceptions are going to filter down from the top. If your editors are too busy to do the job of editing, if they need to do other things, is it any surprise that the overall quality of the books might slide? I certainly don’t blame the people themselves; I’ve yet to come across someone who wasn’t interested in the business of telling good stories; but I do think that the publishing houses should be wary that they don’t start churning out large numbers of middle of the road or bad, books, just like Hollywood or the music industry, because if they do, then they might start to wonder where the cash has gone.
And then where will we be?
PS. I hope I am wrong.
* I have to say that one, off the cuff, remark doesn’t seem worth getting all he up over.
I originally wrote a different version of this post sometime ago. It’s been sitting on my ToDo list while I fretted over exactly what I think.
I’ve been struggling with the idea of Ebooks.
Quite a few in the publishing world herald the advent of Ebooks (really a very old idea – they’ve been around for yonks) as a new dawn in their relationship with their customers. I don’t think they, or those commenting favourably on it, truly understand what might be coming. I am not the only person who has noticed read this. I don’t normally read the Telegraph but I think that the journalist is bang on the money.
Let me start with music. I recently saw an exchange on a friends Facebook page. It went like this:
Her: I hear album by band X is bad. It’s just arrived I can’t wait to listen.
Friend: You paid for music.
The availability of music, for free, makes it hard to derive any money from the sale of it. Why pay if you can get it for free? Unfortunately for the music industry they tried hard to stamp down on piracy. When they did this they enhanced the idea that they were The Man and therefore Evil. If they are Evil then why do you want to pay money to them for their product? Music piracy is now widespread. There has been some movement to provide music customers with services at a “fair” price but this has come late to the game. People still think that it’s not worth paying for music, that it somehow does harm to the bands themselves and in any case you’re better off paying to see the bands directly. So these services struggle to generate any money and, despite how things are going on the net, these services require that you invest in the tech that enables them – even tech support need funds to buy pizza. I worry about what’s coming for music. I don’t think this is a debate that’s ended.
How does this relate to the publishing industry? I think publishers are lucky in that they are not seen as being The Man and therefore Evil. Their business model is actually quite similar to the music conglomerates (all of them being tied together anyway) but people seem less bothered by this. I also think that authors have been better at protecting their rights than many performing artists – the exchange is perhaps not as one sided as the music industry is (or was). At least that’s the perception. It may also be that the creation of the written text and someone’s experience of it is different which is an idea I agree with.
This is one of the reasons that comparisons with the music sector fail. Reading a book is not a group experience. You can make it a group experience (film adaptations, spoken word, and book clubs) but the reading experience is very personal; which is why film adaptations often fall short or you have an argument in a book club. We’ve also largely lost the oral storytelling craft in western society. Very very few people have the option to earn a living wage telling stories; this contrasts somewhat with musicians who can still earn money getting out there and touring.
Step forward the E-book with its promise of mass market appeal and convenience. Now we can reach LOTS of people, create our own niches based entirely around authors, writing styles, use of punctuation … whatever you want. Publishers can cut out the printing and distribution side of things. Savings for everyone! Eh, hang on a minute. There’s much more to producing a book than writing, printing and putting it in a shop. If you want to see a world without editors, agents and everyone else involved with publishing then I invite you to spend some time on a writing forum or browsing the available titles in a self publishing site. Do you want to spend your time reading that? I thought not.
We’ve all seen what happens with music when you produce it digitally. There’s also this idea that something produced digitally is software. That’s a concept at odds with how people think
about physical objects. If I buy a physical book I expect it to be mine. Contrast this with software, with its long history of piracy and where it’s common for consumers to rent the product. If this is the case then you agree to the limitations set out in the license, frequently you don’t own anything. The media conglomerates know that piracy is bad and so they are very interested in DRM. DRM is bad. You are only renting the ones and zeros covered in the agreement. That agreement is usually also written in incomprehensible legalese. And there’s always this clause that the license may change at any moment … you might suddenly find your shiny new Ebook isn’t available – which has already happened by the way (see picture).
Compare this with buying something that actually physically exists. It’s an entirely different concept. No, really it is, there’s reasearch out there* that demonstrates that people treat physical objects different from ephemera. That’s probably because we’re merely grownup monkeys.
If the publishing houses go down this route it will look tiresomely like the hamfistedness of the music industry . They will create the very pirate market they seek to avoid. And who wins then? Certainly the publishing houses won’t, writers won’t (they’re all impoverished artists anyway) and ultimately neither will the customers. The future will belong to people who do not read
And I would be sad.
It seems to me that the focus needs to be changed to focus on what makes reading unique. Can Hollywood match the pictures painted by a well crafted word? Is art as accessible as something created in a shared language? Can music tell the story of the rise and fall of humanity in the same way a really good book can. I love the feel of a book. I like turning pages; that sense of satisfaction when you’ve conquered a really tricky set of ideas. I love that replete feeling of a job well done – knowing you’ve grown in the process. I like the smell of the book and I like the look of them on my bookshelves. I tend to poke around on people’s bookshelves when I visit because you can tell a lot about people from what they read. It’s always fascinating. I love the heft of a book in my bag, the way that presence always demands that I sit somewhere quietly turning pages.
To me books are not about words on a page. They are about the experience. I’ve read ebooks. It’s ok. I can certainly read the words. It just lacks the overall experience, but I get the fact that it’s a great way of carrying weighty tomes (a job hazard). It’s been pointed out to me that this is pure sentimentality and that I will get over it. I really hope not. I really want to have that experience time after time into my dotage.
I really don’t have all of the answers. I am very cynical, I’m a geek and I’ve lived through at least two tech bubbles and I have to put up with Web 2.0 BS daily, but I am genuinely worried about the day I see this exchange:
Her: I got the Iain Banks book today!
Friend: You paid for a book.
*sigh. Can’t find it at the moment. I will keep looking.