Another publisher gets it wrong

In Publishing: The Revolutionary Future, an article in the New York Review of Books, Jason Epstein talks about the massive changes that are in store for publishing and books with the advent of digital content and devices. The article begins well, summarising the revolutionary changes wrought by Gutenberg’s press, and quickly reaches the present day with mention of the Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, Apple iPad, and the era of a ‘practically limitless choice of titles’. So far, so good.

And then Epstein says this:

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus. That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

You read that right: by Epstein’s logic, because you can access any book with one click, another click could obliterate the contents of the world’s libraries and consequently bring civilization to an end. I suppose I’d better be careful where I click, then – I might delete the internet!

The belief that storing words digitally is more dangerous than storing it on paper is a popular one among NYRB writers; a couple of years ago, Robert Darnton, Director of the University Library at Harvard, argued (a bit more sensibly, it’s fair to say) that digital storage, unlike paper, has to contend with the obsolescence of hardware and software at a rapid pace*.

*I wrote about Darnton’s article in a post here called Defending the Library of Google

True enough, but what many commentators who are not familiar with technology fail to realise is that digital content’s most powerful advantage is that it can be perfectly and rapidly copied, not merely to backups but to local and offline copies in hundreds or thousands or millions of locations around the world.

There are good arguments for keeping physical books in the digital age, and I hope that they continue to be produced and archived indefinitely, but the possibility that some Google employee (perhaps formerly from the Buzz division) might click ‘Delete’ instead of ‘Publish’ and thus wipe out every single digital record in existence is, well, just not one of them. Even the most durable book or stone tablet will degrade over centuries and millenia, and if there are only a few hundred or thousand copies made, they can be easily lost of destroyed; indeed, the main reason why we have the records we have from ancient Rome and Egypt are because they were popular stories or publication, so that many copies of them were made.

Equally, what we write and create today will survive, not simply due to the durability of the software or hardware (and there’s certainly room for improvement there) but because of the volume of copies – and we have the power to create not just hundreds of copies, but millions.

Thankfully, Epstein quickly recovers from his tragic misunderstanding and gives a quick rundown of what publishing might look like in the future; diversity will increase, texts will be available to and appear from new corners of the globe, authors will earn more, readers will pay less, and even better, publishers probably won’t die. It’s not a bad prediction, except for this nasty hiccup:

Some musicians make up for lost royalties by giving concerts, selling T-shirts, or accompanying commercials. For authors there is no equivalent solution. Refinements of today’s digital rights management software, designed to block file sharing, will be an ongoing contest with file sharers who evade payment for themselves and their friends, often in the perverse belief that “content wants to be free”—much as antiviral software is engaged in a continuing contest with hackers. Unauthorized file sharing will be a problem but not in my opinion a serious one, perhaps at the level that libraries and individual readers have always shared books with others.

In almost every article about eBooks and the future of publishing, you are guaranteed to see the ‘touring musician’ argument made, and Epstein doesn’t disappoint. It’s a seductive argument, one designed to make people think that books are indeed different from music, and that authors ought to be treated differently because they can’t go out and perform live concerts for money. Unfortunately, this self-pitying call for sympathy has been repeated so many times that it has blinded authors and publishers a revenue stream that’s right in front of their noses: physical books.

It’s long been clear that readers are willing to pay comparatively huge amounts of cash for a book, providing that it looks nice; just look at the availability of signed leather-bound volumes or limited edition cloth-wrapped books for novels that are not only available cheaper in paperback, but often completely free from Project Gutenberg. Even I, someone who’s ready to buy the iPad on the day of its release, will continue to buy physical books because I like the look of them. Physical books are the author’s equivalent of musician’s concerts.

It’s a good job they are, because I don’t agree with Epstein’s opinion that book piracy is not a serious problem. If publishers don’t settle on a pricing model that readers view as fair, then there is no stopping massive book piracy. In 10MB, I could email you fifty books; in 350MB (the size of an episode of 24), I could email you enough books to read for your entire life. But if there is a fair pricing model, which if you go by similar reductions in the price of digital music and games should come out to £1 or £2 ($2-$3) per book, then I think authors might be pleasantly surprised at their revenues.

Epstein is now on the home straight; he has a worrying stumble when he claims that “Amazon’s recent arbitrary deletion of Orwell’s 1984 at its publisher’s request from Kindle users who had downloaded it suggests the ease with which files can be deleted without warning or permission, an inescapable hazard of electronic distribution,” (no it isn’t; I have plenty of legally-bought books sitting on my hard drive, safely out of reach of any distributor) but he make some strong points about the near-term woes that publishers now face, such as the erosion of their backlist and the flightiness of bestselling authors.

Yes, it’s all looking good, until, a mere two paragraphs before the end:

Newborn revolutions often encourage utopian fantasies until the exigencies of human nature reassert themselves. Though bloggers anticipate a diversity of communal projects and new kinds of expression, literary form has been remarkably conservative throughout its long history while the act of reading abhors distraction, such as the Web-based enhancements—musical accompaniment, animation, critical commentary, and other metadata—that some prophets of the digital age foresee as profitable sidelines for content providers.

The most radical of these fantasies posits that the contents of the digital cloud will merge or be merged—will “mash up”—to form a single, communal, autonomous intelligence, an all-encompassing, single book or collective brain that reproduces electronically on a universal scale the synergies that occur spontaneously within individual minds. To scorn a bold new hypothesis—the roundness of the earth, its rotation around the sun—is always a risk but here the risk is minimal. The nihilism—the casual contempt for texts—implicit in this ugly fantasy is nevertheless disturbing as evidence of cultural impoverishment, more offensive than but not unrelated to the assumption of e-book maximalists that authors who spend months and years at their desks will not demand physical copies as evidence of their labors and hope for posterity.

I’ve got to hand it to Mr. Epstein – that’s one impressive piece of strawman-bashing. Why, every time I meet a fellow blogger, we’re always mystified that our dearest hopes of forming a “single, communal, autonomous intelligence” that will create an “all-encompassing, single book” have yet to materialise!

I’m not sure who Epstein thinks he’s arguing against here, but the last time I looked, most people of any age or technological persuasion were more concerned about whether a story was good than whether it was written by a monk in a cell or by a thousand people on a wiki (and, yes, the formerly is much more likely). To somehow translate the crazy dreams of – well, I don’t know, transhumanists? singularitarians? – to a contempt for texts on the part of all bloggers (and presumably anyone who creates or distributes content online) is not just insulting, it’s laughable.

Of course authors who spend months and years at their desks would like a physical copy of their book, and no-one is denying them that. But plenty of readers will find a digital copy more convenient, that’s all – more easy to search, more easy to carry around, to read, to quote, to learn from, to enjoy. That’s the horrific future that Epstein, and so many others, finds so frightening. That’s the contempt they have for readers.

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