The future of reading
· Photography by Thomas Allen
I’m not thrilled about this inevitability. I want to put my first novel on-line for free to hook readers, who will, I hope, go on to purchase my subsequent work. And I want to do it now, while it’s still a perverse and hence noteworthy thing to do, to get physical sales while there’s still a reason to buy bound sheaves of paper. That’s why I’m so frustrated by my publishers’ demurral. They may not like this future, but to fight it is to play King Canute. It’s better by far to try to swim.
Books have always been available for free: libraries, used books, friends’ copies. For the time being, they retain their decorative value, and a house lined with books suggests a well-read owner. But LPs were once a staple of living room decor as well. That space was overtaken by cassettes and CDs, if ever so briefly, but now a computer terminal is often the only thing on display. The question is, will anyone still buy books when payment is purely voluntary? iTunes and the music-industry precedent indicate that the answer is yes — for now.
(One argument for how to save traditional book publishing is to only publish superb books. In 2004, in English alone, roughly 450,000 titles were published. Many of them, perhaps most of them, were, well, quite unnecessary. For books to gain back cultural cachet, the argument goes, a counter-revolution based on quality is necessary.)
If enough people grow accustomed to reading without paying, then authors will have to go back to being financed by wealthy patrons, publishers will wither away, and readers will find themselves trying to sift gems from an ever-growing mountain of self-published dreck. If readers do choose to pay, they will be able to send their money directly to authors, cutting out publishers entirely, and encouraging successful writers to self-publish rather than settle for a percentage. Either way, a revolution is on the horizon.
A new industry will eventually emerge from the chaos. Books aren’t going away, and even bound sheaves of paper will survive in some form. Readership may actually increase — I think it’s safe to say the digital generation doesn’t read as many books as the paper generation, and e-books might change that. But the oncoming digital meteor will hit today’s publishing industry hard, and its dinosaurs are going to die.
Jon Evans is an engineer turned author and journalist. He lives in Montreal and his website is www.jonevans.ca
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