"Everything's going digital, man, it's the future."
"Have you considered an app?"
Last time I ranted a bit about self-publishing, and how it's still as rubbish as ever, in spite of your mate Gaz who's written a well-good book with hardly none of them so-called spelling mistakes. And that annoyed a few people, so let's press on with annoying everyone else by looking at e-books and people who should just go and marry e-books, if they love them that much.
(As a digression on the self-publishing thing, though, I do wonder whether one positive outcome of the changes afoot will be smaller slush piles at the offices of publishers, as the truly talent-bereft pile over to Amazon in their legions. I feel a bit like the physician in Bells, the opening episode of the superlative Blackadder II. "It just leaves more rampant totty around for us real men." Where rampant totty = publishing opportunities, and real men = writers with a slightly higher commitment to literary standards than that provided by Office's spellcheck.)
The whole "print is dead" argument annoys me on several levels: personal, professional, and semi-professional. On a personal level, the sort of people who will tell you that in the future we'll all be reading what they choose to call "books" on electronic devices, well, they are soulless little squits. They talk about "dead tree books" as though a reading system based entirely on scarce and finite mineral resources is somehow an ecological masterstroke compared to printing on recycleable and sustainable compressed vegetable matter. They are moronic magpies, who'll lap up just about any shiny crud as long as it has a suitably international corporate logo on the case. And they show off about downloading classics they'll never read, while filling their latest gadget with offensively poor writing. Insert your defence/resentment of the 50 Shades phenomenon here if you must.
On a professional level, well, I came into publishing as a classified media sales guy in 2004. Round about the time people stopped taking out expensive classified ads in magazines due to Google Adwords, as it happens. It wasn't the easiest job, but it still beat teaching. I once spoke to a mail order specialist who told me he wasn't doing any more print advertising as he'd just "bought a Googer-lee-ay". The conversation loses a bit in transcription, but I've often wondered since how he's got on with his "Googer-lee-ay".
Anyway. I've spent the last eight years hearing snake oil salesmen punting various online portals, platforms and solutions (perhaps including Googer-lee-ays), and they always couple their pitches with the hilarious implied threat that you'll be out of business within two years if you don't buy their product and embrace the digital revolution fully. Print should have been dead for at least five years according to these specimens, but, well, there are still quite a few magazines around, aren't there? And the vast majority of those who do migrate online fully never recapture the lost advertising revenue.
I'm not here to talk about magazines, so let's talk about why it annoys me on a semi-professional level, as a chap who likes to spend his spare time trying to write books.
I love books, and I have done for about 30 years, from Mr Men and Winnie the Pooh to Balzac, Flaubert and a whole other bunch of French writers from them days. If there is anything in the modern world that needed less modernising in a world of dwindling natural resources, it's the book. Be just a little bit cannier about sustainable trees and avoid certain sealants on the covers and they're pretty green things. They're tactile, beautiful and smell great. You can find rare books, with hilariously bad cover art. You can collect them. You can choose between expensively bound hardbacks and yellowing, tatty dog-eared paperbacks from the back of a charity shop.
Or you can buy a Kindle, and be virtually unable to even see the cover art that takes up most of the downloaded file.
E-books are fine, a totally pragmatic option for someone needing reading matter for a long holiday who wants to keep their luggage light for the duty-free shop. They're brilliant for commuters, and a godsend to the visually impaired. Don't get me wrong, I get e-books. What I don't understand is why people seem to think they must inevitably supplant printed copies. Particularly given that printed newspapers have managed to withstand:
- cinema (ie, newsreel)
It's not just a factor as a writer. I want to buy other people's books, and meet authors. I want to go to launches and spill red wine over my freshly signed copy of 666 Charing Cross Road, while actually talking to Paul Magrs (nothing like a splash of claret to add a certain je ne sais quoi to a vampire novel). I want to eat chocolate cake and drink prosecco in Covent Garden Waterstone's while toasting Ben Aaronovitch's Whispers Under Ground. I've never actually been very keen on reading in the bath, but if I ever do try it, I want to think that the worst that can happen is a soggy book drying on the radiator for a couple of hours. I want to be able to share the books I love with the people I love. With a printed copy, that's called lending and is a gesture of friendship. With a digital copy, it's called piracy, and my ISP might send my details to the publisher so they can come to my house and break my reading fingers.
Fundamentally, I don't want to just read, that's easy. I want to value the act of reading.
And that's where these sanctimonious little technophiles fall into the age-old trap of knowing the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Free books? So what? You've been able to get free books for years, guys, they're called libraries, and you don't have to shell out £89 for a library card.
E-books have their place. They're an efficient format supported by some clever technology, but they should never replace printed books entirely. Writers don't want them to, publishers don't want them to, printers certainly don't want them to, and most readers don't want them to.
If you think differently, well, you and e-books just need to go and get a room, OK?