Friday, 16 January 2009

On digitization

Many are predicting the demise of the book-publishing world as we know it. Last year, in one of his columns for the Independent on Sunday, Toby Young espoused the common viewpoint that book publishers would simply be redundant in the future, since the advent of digital technology, including e-books, the Internet and print-on-demand services would enable authors to bypass them entirely. The idea, roughly speaking, is that authors will rise to fame by word-of-mouth via the Internet, and use print-on-demand services and/or e-books to provide readers with their work, leaving nothing whatsoever for publishers to do. I’ve heard this point made a number of times, but is it really true?

It is, of course, impossible to predict the future, but I think there are a number of points worth making against this future scenario. For a start, digital technology is, at present, a much greater threat to traditional book retailers than it is to publishing companies. My tentative hope is that book publishers are in a much stronger position to adapt and incorporate new technology into their business strategy.

There are, I believe, reasons for this hope. I think what people like Toby Young don’t fully comprehend is the number of aspiring authors out there, and what it takes for publishing companies to sort the wheat from the chaff to find work that is publishable, sellable and hopefully worth reading. There are many people who are already saying that there are too many books published as it is. If we imagine that every aspiring author puts their work on the Internet, and readers at large are honestly expected to sift through this deluge of words to find genuine quality work, and once they’ve found it, to persuade other people to like it, do we really expect this to work as well as the traditional filter system of agents and publishers?

Another point is that the media that have been successfully broadcast over the Internet to a mass audience so far have been music and video. There are reasons for this. Music and video (particularly the kind of short video you get on YouTube) are easily and quickly consumed. A novel-length book is not. Many people object to reading on-screen rather than on paper. We’ve yet to see whether e-books are successful.

A slightly more trivial point is the importance of quality typesetting and editing. These things may be underrated by supporters of the Toby-Young viewpoint, but those in publishing are well aware that there’s a world of difference between reading a word document and reading a well-edited book that has been well typeset.

So, to bring these points together, in our future scenario we are being asked to imagine that readers of the world will be hunched over flickering computer screens, reading for hours on end an unknown author’s work that’s probably not very good, complete with typos and huge factual mistakes, in the probably vain hope that it might turn into Proust after webpage 151, so that they can tell all their friends in order to make money for someone else. Doesn’t that sound more like what publishers do today than the consumer of the future? – who will, no doubt, still be watching porn.



  1. Nice post. Thanks for sharing the informative post.
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  2. Great post, William. Not to mention that digital downloads are likely to put even more pressure on margins and profits. People will be happy to download free books, but will they fork out £7.99 for a new novel. According to a study released today, 95% of music downloads last year were illegal. Music downloads now account for 20% of all music sales. Global music sales were down a colossal 7% last year. Makes you think, doesn't it?


  3. Why must one replace the other? The internet offers different possibilities to traditional print, not a simple alternative. I've loved finding essays, flash fiction and poetry on the internet, but I'm not about to read a 500 page novel on screen. Nor am I about to sift through a thousand sites for a book that really appeals to me (I thought that was an excellent point). I get extremely irritated by the black and white thinking of the media, when the internet offers the possibility to get people reading more in all formats, not just less in print.


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