There is a Tsunami of change hanging over the publishing industry, a little like the same Tsunami that hung over the music industry a few years ago. It is the transition from hard copy book format into e books, the Kindle, free down loads and a whole revolution in the reading experience. A revolution that, frankly, is already underway and one that publishers, agents and this writer, are a little nervous of – like a bunch of experienced surfers clutching their antiquated long boards staring up at this massive wave on the horizon, wondering when it will break, how it will break and will they be able to ride the crest.
I’d love to think that owning a book, holding it in excited clammy hands, caressing the beautiful embossed paper, staring down at the cover – the image of which (hopefully) not only resonates with the story but is also haunting – will always be the primary way a reader will consume a narrative, but looking at how anyone under the age of around thirty-five wolfs down and assimilates stories from watching 3 minute videos on I pod through to racing through the stages of a play station game to creating one’s own narrative, persona and quest on Second life, I suspect that the old fashion bound book will end up a collector’s item – a little like traditional frame painting/art is perceived now. Desirable to own but slightly rarefied and perceived as a luxury item.
We will all have Kindles – hopefully as stream-line and as sexy as the I Pod (boy, do I wish Apple was in the race for the first really sexy reading device) story, with a decent viewing screen (currently for speed readers as myself it is far too small- and slow) and we will all have massive library downloaded on these devices. The structure of the actual novel will change – with multi platforms feeding into the storyline – highlighted words that – when hit on – will take you to detailed footnotes – maps, historical research, drawings, maybe even fictionalised photos of the characters. There might even be alternative endings to the story, or (and I can hear my publisher sharply inhale at this point) the unedited author’s ‘cut’, God forgive us our indulgences.
Where lies the imagination of the reader you might ask yourself, Spoon-fed, as she/he would be? Well, I suspect it will be in authorship itself as there will be a massive (there is already) increase in self-published on-line serialised novels – the progressed blog; of only a few will make it in print – as there will be no financial incentive to be traditionally published other than as a vanity project.
Initially, just as democracy can lead to mediocrity – there is going to be an awful lot of unreadable, indulgent flotsam. Then as the revolution settles down into an organised industry the cream will rise to the top again. It is inevitable. It is Darwinian.
However, in the transition, just as many bands have suffered from a sudden loss of royalties due to free downloads and have been forced back on the road, it’s going to be even tougher for working authors. Already in the current paradigm very few actually make a living, (apart from the top 3%)and those of us who do, it is usually not a fantastic living. Bands survive by performing live or hoping that that first free down load will lead to the purchase of the DVD in the stores – so far that has worked (although DVD sales are slumping and it isn’t just because of the recession). Most authors’ pick up 10 to 12% royalties per unit – you have to be a best seller to make a reasonable living. Now calculate in the free download plus e-mailing that download to your friends, family etc. All of which eat away at eth actual necessary to own a book.
The process of writing (especially when a great deal of research is involved) is labour intensive, and we still have to eat. Time to think laterally and trade in your long-board for a custom designed one.
NOTE: For my UK readers my novel Sphinx has just been brought by Sphere, LittleBrown’s UK and I will be published under the name T.S.Learner January 2010.