I finally got round to watching my copy of the BBC’s Imagine … Books: the last chapter? this morning. Well worth watching, if only to encounter the woman whose main job is to sniff books at MOMA and to hear Douglas Adam’s prophesy regarding publishing from over thirty years ago.
There is much talk throughout the programme on the future of the book publishing industry, the main point made by publishers and agents being that copyright laws must be strengthened to protect writers – and the livelihoods of publishers and agents – and to ensure continued availability of quality product. This does not take into account the growing Creative Commons, self-publishing and free download markets, or explain some of the ridiculous limitations placed on e-books through DRM, such as Harper Collins putting a 26-checkouts cap on e-book loans via public libraries
The production, distribution and sale of print books is very costly, in terms of resources as well as cash, so it would seem reasonable to expect that a shift to e-books leads to much reduced prices for the reader and increased royalties for the writer. This, of course, is not the case, as profit is all. The parallels with the movie and music industries are obvious, the main difference being that book publishers are more polite about exploiting their creators and consumers than record companies and movie producers, as one would expect.
Digital technology poses problems for big business due to the very nature of digitisation. Non – degraded copies are easily made and the rapid development of domestic scale technologies makes it easier for people to produce and/or edit their own media or choice of media, cutting out the middle man, so to speak. Big business responds by introducing restrictive and obstructive software, threats of legal action and using corrupt or stupid politicians to force through draconian legislation, rather than channeling their energies into using the technologies to make their products more pleasurable for the consumer.
Increasingly, movies are delivered to the cinema digitally, rather than by transporting fragile rolls of film. Digital technology makes switchable subtitles a piece of cake on movies, so why are there still so very few subtitled screenings in the cinema? I would think any cinema which publicised it’s policy of switching on subtitles should a deaf person arrive at the box office and make the request would quickly find a whole new audience. With books, the cheaper production costs, and higher profits, of e-books could allow publishers to subsidise the price of audiobooks to book lovers who had difficulty reading or holding a print book.
There will always be a demand for print books, just as there is still a demand for 35mm film, vinyl records, audio cassettes and even VHS cassettes. Partly this is down to the superior quality delivered, as with 35mm photographic film and vinyl, partly because the replacement delivery system is inferior – CDs are shit, always have been and always will be. But a digital file, be it music, an image, raw data or a book, is, to all intents and purposes, invisible. Even a tatty, trashy old print book has an attraction of its own as an object, a possession.