Someone with a pretty sizeable following tweeted recently that reading digitally wasn’t really reading. Go read a book, you animals, she said. I wonder. What is a book?
The words. It’s the words, folks. Who is more deeply moved by the quality of the paper, than the words printed on it?
Yes, I understand that one can appreciate the tactile, but the paper and ink and glue is not why we read. To hold onto that is a sentimental romanticising — or a fetish.
What makes a book?
A book becomes ‘publishable’ when, after writing, it has been edited, designed, illustrated and typeset. Marketing and promotion start in the lead-up and continue after release. So, then what? What else makes a book?
First, we build and run machines to print words onto sheets of paper. That brings considerable environmental baggage starting with the trees, of course, but also from toxicity of inks and dyes and bleach. Then we cut those paper sheets into small rectangles and glue these printed sheets between thicker sheets. Sometimes we bind them into a solid casing needing more glue or stitching. More machines.
The supply chain
These printed and bound wads of paper need to be shipped. From printers, which may be anywhere in the world, to distributors’ warehouses to booksellers’ warehouses and then to retail booksellers. And bookselling is the great unknown. Finding out what sells, and how to sell it, is elusive.
If the bookseller is a shop, the books then go onto shelves. If it’s an online store, more warehousing. When they aren’t sold, they are returned: ‘remaindered’. More logistics, and warehousing is expensive. A publisher never wants to print too many. These are pulped. Great for the environment, that step. Sometimes they’re pulped because the publisher doesn’t have room, and even though this book might have a readership, it becomes ‘out of print’. Time to move on. Shiny new authors are always around the corner. Sometimes books are pulped because they have an error. It might be a typographical error that is just too embarrassing (book production is a human process) or it might be a legal issue. More pulping. After corrections, then more printing. More packing, distribution and warehousing.
Profits are in volume
Sometimes the publishing house is very tiny, or the author is independent. The distribution of books between factory to warehouse and into bookshop is difficult, especially in a country like Australia with a tiny market but vast geography to cover. It’s expensive and exclusive. If you can’t get a distributor, you can’t get your book into bookshops. There’s a reason that publishing houses have become huge conglomerates (80 percent of books sales are controlled by only a few firms): this system benefits from economics of scale. Operators with volume.
Every one of these steps costs money. And none, none of the above, has anything to do with writing.
Digital is better for authors and for readers
When the financial returns to authors are so small, most make less than AUD$12,000 each year, what steps can be cut out?
Digital is better for readers who can download immediately and read more. We need more, better and cheaper ereaders and we need to be able to buy ebooks from multiple sources. I don’t want Amazon to have any more power than it already has. And we need more options to ‘gift’ ebooks than we have in Australia now.
It’s happened with music
This isn’t even new—we’ve crossed this threshold with music. Most music is streamed now and we’re all still standing, albeit with some nostalgia. I heard Zan Rowe interview Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) on Triple J recently. Cook seemed aware of an inherent contradiction between his desire for music to be played, and a certain wistfulness about today’s world. We can find and listen to anything anywhere anytime. But has something been lost, he mused? Has the passion gone? Growing up, he recalled the joy of finding copies of records which might only exist in one or two places and he loved them all the more because of the struggle to get them.
We will always need some print books: for libraries, for people with special needs, and for collectors. And books of photography, art, and design, of course. For this, there is print on demand. But for the bulk of trade, or consumer, books, we need to be buying digitally.
Is exclusivity part of the deal? Nope. It’s not. And I think most struggling authors would agree with me.