Ebooks are a terrible thing, killing the publishing industry and stealing the bread from authors' mouths. Worse, ebooks are corroding our values, their very impermanence undermining our principles. Or so authors Ewan Morrison and Jonathan Franzen would have us believe.
During the Edinburgh International Book Festival last August, Morrison set out his argument that the book, as we know it, is dead. Within 25 years, he argued, the paper book would be obsolete and the rise of the ebook would "mean the end of 'the writer' as a profession".
Now he argues that we are in the middle of an e-publishing bubble, and in an interview on BBC this morning, he called for regulation to protect the traditional publishing industry. Regulation of what, he wasn't entirely clear.
Morrison argues that we're in a bubble because there's now a booming industry in teaching people how to publish an ebook. He’s right that there are now an awful lot of people dispensing an awful lot of anodyne advice about self-publishing and making ebooks, but this is in no way different to what came before — piles of books on how to get an agent, how to publish, how to write.
Most self-help advice is rubbish, of course, in publishing as in any other sector. That doesn't mean that we're in the middle of a bubble.
Morrison then goes on to do a masterful bit of pattern matching, taking Hyman Minskey’s seven stages of an economic bubble and trying to marry them up with developments in the publishing world. There's so much wrong with his comparison, it is hard to know where to start. But in using an economic model, Morrison gets to frame the debate in terms that create outrage. It's a nice play to get him more speaking work, but it says nothing valuable about the period of transition that publishing is going through.
Jonathan Franzen, meanwhile, fears that the transitory nature of the ebook will undermine society itself:
“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.
“Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.
“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”
Franzen and Morrison's protestations sound like the wails of creatures left outside, in the dark. The world is going through one of the most significant transitions in history; every industry is affected one way or another by the advent of the web. We have to work to understand this new reality and learn how to adapt to it. It can be difficult, yes, but it's not impossible nor are we automatically doomed to failure.
The truth of the matter is that publishing has always been a tough game to succeed in. Most authors don't earn enough to live on, and never have. Publishers rely on a few big hits to subsidise all their misses. Readers read best-sellers not necessarily because they are good but because they are bestsellers and thus provide a cultural touchstone that connects them to their peers.
E-publishing changes none of that, it simply brings publishing within the reach of more people. For decades we've been told that everyone has a book in them and now everyone can put their book out. This flood of free/cheap ebooks makes finding a signal in the noise harder; the push towards cheaper ebooks even from traditional publishers has made the market more competitive; the money to be made by the run-away success is orders of magnitude bigger. But really, the new publishing is much the same as the old publishing, just more so.
But as I wrote yesterday on Forbes, people still love physical artefacts of culture, they want more than just words on a page:
"I am increasingly of the mind that we authors need to give readers what they want: Not just a good story, but a good experience, a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself, a desirable artefact that we’ll want to have on our shelves simply because it is as beautiful outside as it is inside."
Old-fashioned paper books can still be objects of desire, but too often these days they are not. The mass-produced paperback is pretty much the same as it has always been, but we are missing out on the high-end hardbacks, the buckram, silk or leather-bound limited editions that bring people real joy. In a world where content is neither scarce nor sacred, we need to think more imaginatively not just about what we’re writing, but how we’re publishing it.
Morrison is wrong to say that the book is doomed and that we’re trapped in an ebook publishing bubble. I think we may well have a glut of ebooks at the moment, but that will self-correct as people realise that successfully writing and publishing books is harder that it looks. And Franzen is forgetting that the human condition is one of impermanence and so far we seem to have done ok as a species.
The basics are that ebooks aren’t going away, copying isn’t going to get harder, but human acquisitiveness and the joy that even simple a simple paperback can bring aren’t going to change either. Publishing, like all other creative industries, will adjust to the changes wrought on it by the internet because, as long as humans are human, we will want stories.