Monday, October 25, 2010

Do writers need paper?

Tom Chatfield 20th October 2010 — PROSPECT, Issue 176

As the sales of e-books finally start to soar, what effect will this digital revolution have on publishers, readers and writers? Will the novel as we know it survive?                         
The author Lionel Shriver is someone, she tells me, who enjoys “a conventional authorial life: I get advances sufficient to support me financially; I release my books through traditional publishing houses and write for established newspapers and magazines.” But Shriver, who won the 2005 Orange prize for her eighth novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, is also keeping an increasingly uneasy eye on the situation of 21st-century authors. For a start, there’s the worry that if “electronic publishing takes off in a destructive manner… the kind of fruitful professional life I lead could be consigned to the past.”
Then there’s her own reading life, an essential part of the creative process, to consider: “I am personally dependent on the old-fashioned, hierarchical vetting of newspapers and book publishers to locate reading material that’s worth my time. I don’t want to wade through a sea of undifferentiated voices to find articles whose facts are accurate and novels that are carefully crafted and have something to say.”

The tyranny of choice is a near-universal digital lament. But for literary authors, at least, what comes with the territory is an especially barbed species of uncertainty. Take the award-winning novelist and poet Blake Morrison, perhaps best-known for his memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? “I try to be positive about new technology,” he told me, “but I worry about what’s going to happen to poetry books and literary novels once e-readers have taken over from print. Will they survive the digital revolution? Or will the craving for interactivity drive them to extinction? I’ve not written anything for a year, and part of the reason may be a loss of confidence about the future of literary culture as I’ve known it.”

I’ve spent the last few months talking to authors, publishers and agents about the future, and it’s clear that Morrison’s feelings are far from unusual. After a number of false dawns, books are, finally, starting to go digital. In July, Amazon US reported that its e-book sales overtook sales of hardbacks on its website for the first time. E-books now account for at least 6 per cent of the total American market, a number that’s sure to rise steeply thanks to the huge success of both dedicated e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and multipurpose hardware like Apple’s iPad, which is currently selling a million units a month. What this means for publishers, readers and writers is the transformation not only of the context within which books exist, but also of what books can and cannot say—and who will read them.

Above all, the translation of books into digital formats means the destruction of boundaries. Bound, printed texts are discrete objects: immutable, individual, lendable, cut off from the world. Once the words of a book appear onscreen, they are no longer simply themselves; they have become a part of something else. They now occupy the same space not only as every other digital text, but as every other medium too. Music, film, newspapers, blogs, videogames—it’s the nature of a digital society that all these come at us in parallel, through the same channels, consumed simultaneously or in seamless sequence.

Link to Prospect magazine online for full story.

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