Do any of you remember “You’ve Got Mail” from the last century? You remember, before Meg Ryan decided she wanted to look like Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Batman’s arch-enemy, The Joker. Why the hell? I digress… The movie. I watched it with my daughter a few weeks back (the things you do for a cuddle) and I found it quite ironic how things have changed. Remember the Shop Around the Corner, that quintessential little book store we all used to visit before the big bad Fox Books gobbled it up? Well, now it’s the big ‘bad’ book store chains that are on the receiving end of that River in South America.
I found it very interesting to have a glimpse back in time, albeit fictional, at how the small book stores were being overtaken and taken over by the big chain stores and I remembered how I thought that having a dusty old book store would not be a wholly unpleasant way to live out my retirement. I remember watching how my local book store dwindled and how it’s supply of fantasy novels disappeared in favour of whatever had mass market appeal at the time. It is ironic how much things have changed since then and how the brick and mortar stores here seem to be the ones struggling to keep things going. Sure they are still around and have a decent selection but they are no longer the sprawling metropolises of paperbacks and quiet isles of hard cover tomes. As if to confirm their struggles, just recently a big chain store outlet in a very upmarket shopping mall here in Jhb, reopened after downscaling their floor space while enlarging the coffee shop section on the side. Fewer books, more coffee. Hmmm? When a book store has a Lego display at its entrance bigger than the latest John Grisham best seller stand then I figure something really is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Without trawling the net for statistical reasons and economist articles I wonder why this is happening. Is it because books are expensive (yes, they are)? Are ebooks stealing revenue from normal book sellers (I am sure they are)? Or is it because something has fundamentally changed the way people read (sure it has)? Is it because the entire publishing world has changed (CreateSpace anyone?) Perhaps it’s all of these (and more combined)…
Let’s start with the easy ones… Yes, normal printed books (especially hard covers) are expensive. Especially in a country like South Africa where the cost of a single hardcover book could be what someone makes in an entire day. Even large format paperbacks are just expensive enough to get you to wait for the small mass market edition – well, I do anyway. Are ebooks stealing revenue? Well, considering the last 5 books I purchased via Amazon Kindle would have netted my local about R1000 ($100) but cost me only half that I figure that it’s very likely that ebooks are making a difference, especially where people can afford the e-book devices. Is it enough of a difference? I really do not know and do not want to spend my morning researching the numbers but I am sure that it is a factor that cannot be ignored.
I read a newspaper article this morning where the author mentioned how reading literary novels has declined and how people are potentially becoming “aliterate” – suggesting that they are literate enough to be able to read but are entirely uninterested in doing so. After looking up “Aliterate” to be sure there was such a word, it struck me how sad it is that modern society now has a new word between illiterate and literate. Reading is something that I have enjoyed all my life and I could not imagine life without being able to delve into the world of orcs and goblins whenever the real world drove me mad and I had to escape from it all. How true is it that people simply do not want to read? If there is any truth in this then its small wonder book stores are struggling.
In that usual twilight zone type coincidence, shortly after watching the movie I read a post on the Guardian by Jonathan Franzen about Jeff Bezos being one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse for his impact on the literary culture and specifically the publishing world:
“In my own little corner of the world, which is to say American fiction, Jeff Bezos of Amazon may not be the antichrist, but he surely looks like one of the four horsemen. Amazon wants a world in which books are either self-published or published by Amazon itself, with readers dependent on Amazon reviews in choosing books, and with authors responsible for their own promotion.”
“The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers, and of people with the money to pay somebody to churn out hundreds of five-star reviews for them, will flourish in that world. But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in-depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?”
So he hates Amazon and Twitter. Now Franzen seems to me to be someone who views the world as a glass half empty and is unlikely to win any prizes for being a smiley happy sort but what he says is not entirely untrue. The question I have to ask is: Is he just being a troglodyte unwilling to accept what the future brings or is he making a point that needs more attention? Is he only seeing the potential ‘evils’ of the future of publishing or is he forgetting about the plus side of things that the modern world has made possible.
I feel nostalgic when I pick up a tattered old copy of LOTR that I have read a half-dozen times. It’s cover is held together by yellowing plastic contact film that I painstakingly applied 20 years ago and a few pages of the appendixes are lose and brittle. Even now, I smile thinking at how much joy this collection of 1000 odd pages gave me and the thought that I should probably throw its tattered mass away does not even cross my mind. It sits beside a red leather-bound collectors copy I ordered from Amazon a decade ago and have actually never read… My intention was to read it to my children when they can sit still long enough and appreciate Tolkiens language. Strange thing is that I think that by the time I do another re-read, I may have to purchase the e-book instead of lug around the tome.
What will the world be like when I finally manage to publish a novel? I really have no idea but I definitely do not think that holding onto the past too tightly is the right thing to do… for readers or writers. Somehow we have to find common ground and figure out what works for everyone in the food chain. All things considered, the first Kindle came out in 2007 (less than 6 years ago) and I do not think many people realised at the time what kind of impact it would have. Who is to say what will happen in another 6.
Truth be told, I only really care about being able to read and escape into a fantastic world created for me by great writers. Perhaps I may even be lucky enough to become one of them.