Wednesday, February 17, 2010...8:30 am

Missing the point about e-books

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Woman in Black author Susan Hill spectacularly misses the point about e-books in this piece from the Spectator.

On the way, she does make some insightful observations about the way that bookshops are facing up to the threat posed by internet sales and digital distribution.

In fact, small, independent bookshops may be better placed to ride the wave of change than the major chains. Borders is a high-profile recent casualty of digital sales and distribution – hampered by high rental locations and a diffuse brand image.

But indies are sometimes succeeding by focusing intently on the customer and what they want.

  • Quality stock – they shun mass market celebrity titles for hand-picked and interesting titles
  • An enticing environment – inviting children’s areas, coffee areas and such
  • Reader engagement – kids’ art competitions, author events and in-store book clubs
  • Knowledgeable staff – people who care about books and care about offering you books that you will care about

This is excellent stuff – and it’s the kind of thing that has a relevance for journalism and the media. The rules aren’t hard to grasp – though seem to be hard for many publishers to put into practice.

  • Know your audience
  • Engage your audience
  • Serve your audience

But then Hill gets all steamed up and decides to demonise e-books – which is kind of stupid. It’s a bit like typesetters demonising the PC and desktop publishing back in the 80s. I mean – it’s not going to be uninvented, let’s face it.

Perhaps the biggest concern for us all is the e-book. These have their place, just as audio books do, but publishers are rushing like gadarene swine over the cliff to predict and even encourage the demise of the printed book.

Hill can’t escape from her conditioning that a book has to be made up of bound paper. Much as journalists often can’t get away from the idea that news has to be packaged in newspapers.

Don’t get me wrong – I love books. And I’ll be sad to see them disappear, if that’s what they do. But while Hill is right to say that “the book is a perfect piece of intelligent design”, she makes the mistake of moving from aesthetics to economics:

The worst and the most immediate consequence of the demise of the printed book [...] is unemployment on a huge scale. Book shops, publishers, designers, printers, paper manufacturers, binders, librarians, distributors, warehouses, wholesalers, shippers, packagers, delivery services – all of them will be redundant, all over the world. This is still a huge industry. The number of people needed to manufacture e-books is tiny by comparison.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

This is manifest nonsense. If we had been ruled by this attitude in the Middle Ages, we’d still be looking on as a protected coterie of monks laboriously illustrated manuscripts for a tiny elite to see in churches. Books wouldn’t exist you see, because illuminated manuscripts provided jobs.

As for judging the transformational potential of ebooks by the number of people employed to manufacture them – it’s enough to make you weep.

I have no idea whether ebooks will take off or not, or whether they’ll be bypassed by another technology. Or whether, if they do take off, they’ll eradicate the paperback or not.

But I think it’s fair to say that we won’t know what other avenues of economic activity will be opened up by e-books – just like we didn’t know what doors the internet would open for us. Did anyone reading this figure out that search would become a multi-billion dollar business? I didn’t think so.

2 Comments

  • Amen to that. Yet again, Simon, you achieve the perfect hammer/nail interface.

    The idea that any society should hold up the advance of science and innovation to protect jobs is… well, mediaeval. It’s almost as stupid as outlawing advances because they upset religious folk.

    We moved beyond this nonsense in the early 16th century. It was called the Enlightenment, and it’s the reason Susan Hill is well fed, lives in a warm, clean home and didn’t die of diptheria in childhood.

    The older I get, the more I realise that the truest saying ever written is this: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  • I don’t think books are going anywhere soon, but Susan’s point about unemployment on a vast scale is interesting. As I see it, the book industry is one of the most wasteful around with up to 40 per cent of its products pulped (http://editorialass.blogspot.com/2009/07/is-it-true-are-40-of-books-printed.html).
    There are structural reasons why this is the case – the need to physically distribute vast numbers of a book for it to have any chance of selling a much lower number, but there are also far too many books published, and a lot of them are dross. Spend an hour in a remainders shop and you’ll get the point. Maybe it’s due some rationalisation.
    ebooks won’t kill hard copy, but crap publishers may hasten their demise.

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