Book to the future: what’s to come for readers and writers

Most everything I read about the future of the book takes on the didactic nature of all online debate. Amazon good. Amazon bad. Self publishing good. Self publishing bad. Big 5 good. Big 5 bad. You’re wrong. You are. Shut up. No you.

As counter to that, The Economist published a brilliant essay a week ago, “From Papyrus to Pixels: An Essay on the Future of the Book.” The Economist doesn’t fear complexity, but that doesn’t mean it fails to produce clarity. The essay starts by taking one book, Cicero’s de Officiis (On Duties), from the papyrus scroll to codex to illuminated manuscript to books printed on the Gutenberg press to the book technologies we know now, right up through to the ebook. It does that in just the first few paragraphs to make a point.

Technology always has an impact, the magazine admits. Gutenberg died almost penniless.

But to see technology purely as a threat to books risks missing a key point. Books are not just “tree flakes in cased in dead cow,” as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.

It wouldn’t be right to quote too much from the essay. People need to read it, rather than having the usual binary debates I described in my first paragraph. Anyway, I honestly can’t do the piece justice here, particularly as it examines self-publishing, digital, Amazon and shifting publication technologies. Once upon a time blogs (weblogs) were supposed to point you to articles and pages worth reading. This is one of those times. If you care about reading, if you care about writing, if you care about books, read this essay.

The Economist does a nice little trick with the online version by letting you listen to it or read it like a scroll or a book (with virtual pages flipping), so experiencing three different book technologies. The magazine always finds the best people to quote. Take this from Niccolo Perotti on certain scourges of publishing, “Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would be best forgotten, or better still, be erased from all books.” Perotti was a humanist scholar complaining to a friend. In 1471.

The chapters of the essay give you a feel for where this essay will take you:

  • Chapter I: In which something old and powerful is encountered in a vault
  • Chapter II: In which deaths foretold do not unfold
  • Chapter III: In which new sorts of author meet new sorts of reader
  • Chapter IV: In which standards are always in steep decline, and life gets ever better
  • Chapter V: In which ideas from the past move on into the future

You don’t, on the other hand, need to give much attention to another thinking person’s magazine, New Republic, as it takes on one piece of the debate over the future of the book with a tabloidy cover story by editor Franklin Foer headlined “Amazon Must Be Stopped.” Foer wants the anti-trust laws to be twisted around somehow to stop Amazon from being big, even though it hasn’t tripped any of the actual rules that I know of. The key damage to the economy that Foer can find will be the loss of publishing advances to writers. “This upfront money is the economic pillar on which quality books rest, the great bulwark against dilettantism. Advances make it financially viable for a writer to commit years of work to a project.”

Like 95 percent or more of authors, I’ve not benefited from this mighty pillar. Nor am I a dilettante. Sounds more like Foer is.

I do have a conflict of interest in this discussion. As a debut author writing for a smaller publisher, I can’t bite the hand that might squash me, so everything I write about Amazon might be seen as suspect. So maybe you should read the article yourself to see if Foer makes a real case.

I’ll finish with novelist Anthony Horowitz quoted on Amazon in the better Economist piece: “They really are evil bastards. I loathe them. I fear them. And I use them all the time because they’re wonderful.”

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