Digital Fiction 5.0: A warehouse of unsold books

A post a little while back on the Penguin blog includes the following assessment of the current global recession:

Books are getting more expensive to manufacture. The best way to bring down the cost of an individual book is to print a higher quantity, spreading set-up costs over a larger volume. But if people do actually buy less this will lead to a warehouse full of unsold books, never a good thing (Penguin Books UK, 2008).

Though an individual blog post is hardly representative, it does suggest that Penguin considers itself at times to be little more than a book manufacturer, more printer than publisher. If true, this attitude harms both readers and authors alike.

If my goal were to simply create a book with my name on the cover, I would have long ago turned to vanity publishing. The reason I continue to pursue a career as a published writer is to establish a readership, an audience.

I am writing the first draft of this sentence at twenty minutes past midnight on a Tuesday and, although I know that I will only too soon be woken up my children and work commitments, I feel the need to continue writing. I have more to say and I consider this more important than sleep right now or the thought of a tired and cranky morning in six hours. This is something of the thrill of writing, what Stephen King characterises as ‘telepathy’, an intimate meeting of minds:

We’re not even in the same year together, let alone the same room…except we are together. We’re close.

It is an obvious point to make: Writers write in order to be read. Books may remain the best way of establishing a readership, but even now the book is just one of many ways an author can maintain a relationship with readers.

The purpose of an online store such as simongroth.com is not to create, but to maintain an audience. It offers a way for readers to connect with an author, to access works that would be otherwise difficult to obtain, and to remunerate the author directly for those works.

Publishers still have a vital role to play in such an environment. As Helen Barnes drily noted, publishers provide the public service of reassuring readers that the text has already been ‘tested on humans’. But, if publishers are to thrive in an increasingly electronic world, they must be open to reaching readers through more than just books.

If a reader engages with a story I have written, why should I care if he or she chooses to display my books on a shelf, or flick through my titles on a screen, or listen to them as podcasts, or read them as a series of daily emails? As a writer, I only care that someone is reading and, maybe, making an emotional connection with my characters enough to want to revisit the work at a later time. How they choose to go about it is their business.

Conversely, I care deeply if a potential audience wants to read my work electronically and does not have the opportunity.

I suspect most writers are content to let a publishers handle the business, marketing, and manufacturing processes involved in this industry. I would much rather spend my time writing stories than setting up e-commerce web sites. The simongroth.com shop came about through necessity. How long before more writers find themselves compelled by the same necessity? A real danger for publishers would be to lose a successful author who decides to go independent and offer stories digitally. A high profile precedent in the music industry is Radiohead, who left their record label after fifteen years and released their last album digitally to a massive worldwide audience. Even in the unlikely scenario that the book disappears altogether, writers and readers will adapt.

The challenge for publishers right now is to move past the panic, stop protecting the book, and have confidence in your product. Books need no one’s protection. People will keep buying and reading ink on paper. But other digital formats and devices for reading fiction will likely join the book in widespread use. Such technology has the potential to increase readership instead of cannibalising the current base of book readers. Publishers need to recognise this and shift focus from manufacture to editorial and marketing. Yes, I actually recommended more marketing.

The publisher who says today, ‘Nobody knows where the readers are or how to reach them’ is a publisher without much future. Get out now and let the rest of us move on with it.

The challenge for authors is to demand more from their publishers and to educate themselves on the possibilities a digital world can offer. Just like publishers, an author chooses to take a Luddite stance at his or her peril. Publishing contracts will often include provisions for digital rights, but these are often vague and not all publishers choose to exercise their digital rights once granted. The author’s role is to communicate to readers, independent of format. Like publishers, writers are not in the business of making books. It’s up to readers to determine how they want to buy our words.

Digital Fiction 5.1: The future of reading

In our house, we have broadband internet on a wireless network. Our house has more computers than adults. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a newspaper. My son believes newspapers and magazines are purely screen-based media. My wife is as likely to sit up in bed with her old PowerBook as with a paperback. On any given day, I read more words on a backlit LCD screen than on any kind of paper. And that includes weekends.

But our house is also filled with books. Colourful paperbacks, both pristine and well worn, jostle for space on the groaning bookshelves with austere hard covers, dictionaries, journals, and atlases. Books litter the house from study to living room to bedroom floors and bedside tables. You can find Joseph Heller under Stephen King, but take care to step over the pile of Dr Seuss on the floor.

In our house, analogue and digital texts coexist quite peacefully. I sometimes wonder if the future of reading is already happening right in front of me.

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Thus endeth the extensive rant.

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