27 August 2011

The End of Books

The Edinburgh International Book Festival hosted a debate entitled, oddly enough, The End of Books. It was held on August 20, 2011. To address the irony of it all, David Petherick wrote an article discussing the impact of the digital revolution on the publishing industry. The article quotes novelist, Ewan Morrison at length arguing the side of the publishing industry and endorses the view that "writing, as a profession, will cease to exist."

At the outset, let's all agree that even if books are dying as a form of recording stories and disseminating information, it's because other formats are being embraced.

The publishing industry, in defense of its own importance, would have us believe that the democratization of the printing press is bad for authors and bad for the reading public. Imagine how the Catholic church must have felt when it realized that any monarch could translate and easily publish their own version of the bible.

Part of the problem with Morrison's analysis is that he doesn't acknowledge that disruptive technologies create both winners as well as losers. As he explains it, everybody loses. In the age of independent publishers and e-readers, established authors who formerly commanded large advances may not fare as well because they are forced to compete in an expanded marketplace. The large publishing houses that once enjoyed the status of cartels have to figure out new ways to add value when access to the printing press is now essentially free. The winners are the thousands of authors whose works are being read by an audience whose size is increasing.

Morrison also mischaracterizes writing as a "profession." Novelists, journalists and academics all write for a living and all belong to different professions. Each will be impacted differently as the digital revolution unfolds. I can't think of one profession that is exempt from the impact of advancing technology.

The article cites many examples to show that creative work, in the future, will be considered as having little or no value. Just look at the music industry; everybody is listening to music for free. The life of a creative artist has never been a secure path to a comfortable living. Yes, creative artists will have to embrace technology and continue to be creative. No one is exempt and there are no guarantees. The work of those who are outstanding at what they do has the best chance of being recognized and compensated. That's how it always was.

The article arrives at the bizarre conclusion that the digital revolution is killing progress. Books are dying and the digital revolution will force all professions to reinvent themselves, but that's a far cry from concluding this will have a negative impact on civilization when all is said and done.

See also: Gary Gauthier, Publishing in the Golden Age of Competition and Joe Konrath, The End is Nigh

For a different angle, see Charmaine Clancy, Phooey to the End of Books.


  1. Wow Gary, very in-depth look at this issue. I guess there will always be people who listen to free music, pirate movies and expect to read for free, but I'm still happy to pay for quality (don't even get me started on the whole 99c trend!).
    Great article - thanks for mentioning me :)
    Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

  2. Interesting post! Very thought-provoking. I think there will continue to be a lot of debate as to whether the proliferation of self-published works will lead to the "dumbing down" of the masses, who are now exposed to a lot more slush, or the cream rising to the top that much faster. I'm hoping for the latter - but I think factors other than quality, like price, will affect what people expose themselves to. Not to mention that I don't have time to sift through slush to find something that I will like. This is one reason that I hope publishers can find a way to survive.

    And I have no doubt that writers will continue to thrive; we just have to find a new way to do it.

  3. Ishta, thanks for commenting. The dust is going to take some time to settle in the publishing industry, and there is no way of knowing for sure how things will play themselves out. But for some reason, I'm very optimistic about the industry and I don't see the coming huge piles of slush as getting in the way. It certainly is easier to find published dross nowadays. However, I believe the increase in reading material will create a demand for talented critics who will serve as filters and guides for discriminating readers. The digital revolution is also increasing the population of avid readers, benefiting authors and helping to fuel this demand. As these new critics make a name for themselves and begin to specialize in genres and new sub-genres, sophisticated and demanding readers will take advantage of their services. This may turn out to be a golden age for creative writers. We can only hope!

  4. Your theory that a community of trusted critics will rise up to lead the way is a good one, and I agree that it's likely. As you know, the more we read, the more we refine our literary palate, and if people really are reading more, and not just buying books because they are cheap only to leave them languishing in virtual TBR piles, then this bodes well for our desire for the tastemakers of the future to make themselves heard. Here's to hope!


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