Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Commercial: Book futures

In preparation for a Battle of Ideas debate on whether the book can survive in an era of soundbites and texting, some thoughts that were offered to one of the participants. BoI suggested reading is also available at the link above.


1) Um, yes, they will survive. It should be the first lesson that is taught in all media/technology/innovation classes - new media rarely, if ever or at all, kill old media. Instead new media change the way that old media are consumed. The classic is example is the way that radio shifted from a primary device to a secondary one. Changed use - but not no use or dead. So 'books' will survive the upcoming technological change.

2) The 'affordances' of books, eg its physical properties, are still attractive, and in some ways superior, to any screen-based technologies. Marginalia is easier on paper, paper can survive dropping and rain slightly better, you can't bend a screen, the resolution of type on paper is easier on the eyes.... screens are great for lots of things, but for reading lots and lots of text in an unbroken session, paper is still best.

3) Why the assumption that books have to be lengthy and cannot accommodate soundbites and text language? We're being very un-imaginative if we believe that for a book to be 'valid' it must be of x hundred pages long, and consist of a canonical subject matter. Now whether these 'soundbite' books will be of the same value is a different question. But the success of short books, the return of episodic novels, the cut downs of the Penguin Great Ideas etc etc, all suggest that if a book is the right length, edited deftly, and attractively packaged, it will find its readership.

And anyway books have survived in ages far less friendly to them: who thinks that the illuminated manuscripts and the first Caxtons did not have to compete against the pleasures of the oral tradition, the itinerant preachers and the debased language of mead and wenches anyway. The question is essentially framed in a Victorian position of moral superiority of an age's cultural production. And that can be challenged.

And now the counter, non-Panglossian:

1) the economics of current book publishing could be the real danger - to literature at least. How many new titles come out every year? Do they all sell? I doubt it? And if the huge sums that are spent on, say footballers' less than riveting early life stories, aren't recouped, the cross subsidy for 'proper' literature disappears. Which means mass marketing of it gets harder.

But then that might not matter anyway, due to the Long Tail effect - all hail micro-publishing and print on demand, effectively.


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