Cover Story
Krieg Barrie

Words on paper

2014 Books Issue | Three reasons for pessimism, and three more for optimism, about the future of printed books

Issue: "2014 Books Issue," June 28, 2014

The room was buzzing. The speaker at a local writers group in 1998, executive editor of an e-publishing company, had described a future electronic Eden: closer relations between authors, publishers, and readers; royalties of 50 percent or more; faster submission turnaround; lower overhead translating to greater profits. Caught up in her own enthusiasm, the speaker snatched a stray book from a nearby table. “In 20 years,” she said, waving the volume so vigorously its pages flapped, “what use will anybody have for this?” 

Mutters from the audience, uneasily shifting in chairs. She’d gone too far.

“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain wrote in response to a premature obituary. Other overhasty death reports have consigned Republicans, men, socialism, and God to the grave. As for physical books , the e-publisher represented by our speaker that day is now defunct, while volumes with spines and covers still dominate library shelves. Book lovers have breathed a sigh of relief, but the future of the printed page is murky.

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Books and culture: inseparable, at least in the Western mind, since the first printed Bible rolled off Johannes Gutenberg’s press. But the dominance of electronic images leads publishing professionals to say we’re in the biggest revolution since Gutenberg, and nobody knows exactly where it’s headed. The signs are troubling, in at least three areas:

First, changes in publishing. Fewer editors take time to groom and develop a promising writer. Publishers shove aside midlist titles in their search for potential blockbusters on which the companies gamble huge advances. The big mergers of the ’90s and early aughts, always followed by downsizing, reduced the number of options for a promising manuscript. As veteran editors retired or became agents, the remaining staff skewed younger and trendier, hunting the next big fad rather than building up a cache of quality literature. 

More significantly, publishers failed to get ahead of the e-curve. The electronic reader our guest speaker so enthusiastically promoted back in 1998 was roughly the size of a shoebox: It was awkward to use and had little content. That was the future? Lulled into a false sense of security, traditional publishers let the insignificant share of e-reading consumers chow down on B-list fiction, unaware that a revolution was brewing in the R&D department at Amazon.com.

With the introduction of the Kindle came the second revolutionary wave—not so much in the way books are read, for bare words on a handheld screen are processed the same as on paper. The battle developed over the way books are sold. 

Books are still loved. … That love may yet become as theoretical as Americans’ nostalgia for rail travel, which doesn’t convert to buying tickets.

When Jeff Bezos launched his online business in 1995 he sold only books, and publishers welcomed Amazon as an easy way to sell lots of product. With the Kindle it became too easy—and too cheap, for publishers who preferred to set their own prices rather than the $9.99 (or less) that Amazon demanded for Kindle editions. Heated skirmishes led eventually to a pitched legal battle, with five of the six major U.S. publishers (Random House sat this one out) making a deal with Apple to determine their own prices for open-source iPad editions, in return for Apple’s 30 percent commission. 

Amazon then filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, and in 2012 the Department of Justice sued Apple and the five publishers for “monopolistic” practices. Amazon, the original monopoly, won. Many publishers say Jeff Bezos doesn’t care about books; selling them is merely an effective means of gathering customer data to sell everything else. Amazon now controls at least one-third of the bookselling business and has already flexed its considerable muscle over which publishers to promote or minimize. What if it exercises that same influence over what titles (and ideas) to encourage or ban?

But Amazon isn’t to blame for the third big cultural change, and that is in reading itself. Four years ago, Nicholas Carr penned The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, in which he claimed that online content had begun to erode the modern reader’s ability to concentrate on a printed text. The habits of distraction we learn online, such as clicking, scrolling, skimming, and jumping from one link to another, carry over to our reading of novels. Surveys indicate a continuing decline in reading among teens especially, making us wonder how younger generations will learn to process information. 

Do books still influence culture? Culture obviously influences books, often for the worse, as we saw last year when Fifty Shades of Grey racked up record sales for soft-core porn. Still, those who love books on paper can take heart at three hopeful signs: 

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