Apparently publishing as we used to know it is dead. Or suffering from terminal asphyxiation which will see it off sometime in the next few years. I know this because I keep reading it in the book trade newsletters the good old internet drops into my e-mail in-box most mornings.
The only thing is, I seem to have heard the same thing before, though not about publishing.
Back in the 1950s, live theatre was in its death throes, and couldn’t possibly survive the decade.
Then it was the turn of film.
Online news, it’s claimed, has very nearly put paid to print newspapers, and all the various ways of watching stuff on a computer screen instead to a pre-arranged schedule on TV make a nonsense of the way they used to count viewing figures.
More recently, the demise of the novel has been announced on a pretty well annual basis. And of course print books are a thing of the past, as are bricks-and-mortar bookshops.
Yet as far as I can tell out here in the real world, theatre, film, newspapers, TV, bookshops, and especially the novel are alive, well and positively thriving; in fact, every now and then, one or other appears to enjoy a resurgence of popularity. Earlier this week, alongside yet another article on the death of publishing I read one about a new bookshop that’s just opened in London, and one about a revival in the fortunes of small independent bookshops where the staff actually know something about what’s on the shelves. For the time being at least there are enough of us who like the feel, look and smell of real books to ensure that that keeps right on happening.
Sure, technology marches on – but the impression I get is that, rather than the latest development heralding the end of the previous one, we’re simply offered more choices. Erin’s post a few days ago is the living proof: she likes print and eBook versions, because they serve different purposes in her life.
When I was a kid, shopping was a matter of going to a couple of places and choosing between two or three versions of the same item. Nowadays retail parks and designer outlets proliferate, there are half a dozen major supermarket chains and the average town is awash with small and large shops. And that’s before you start thinking about online shopping. Not that I do; on the rare occasions I shop at all, I like to see what I’m getting.
And so, I suspect, do the majority of aspiring authors. Yes, there are more options than there used to be for getting your book out there. Yes, you can get someone to turn your peerless prose (or poetry) into an eBook, and make it available online within days of typing THE END, instead of waiting months for an agent to respond, then sending it to another agent who also takes months to say no, and maybe, just maybe, after a seemingly endless process, find a conventional publisher who shares your vision of it and is willing to invest time and money in making it a success, or at least a physical reality.
And yes, I do know that it’s frustrating and dispiriting to have to go through that process with only a small chance of success. And that people sell millions of copies of self-published eBooks. Some people. A few people. Actually, let’s be realistic: a very, very few people. But it does work for some people. It’s another option. Not the only option: just another one.
Sometimes the amount of choice that’s available is overwhelming. I have a vivid memory of my daughter, aged about five, on her first visit to a large bookshop. She learned to read when she was three, was a regular visitor to the children’s section of the local library and had already accumulated a sizeable book collection of her own – but faced with quite literally thousands of books to choose from, her brain went into overload and she burst into tears.
But as we grow up we all develop the mental filters that help us cope with the world and deal with the vast amount of choice it offers us.
I think maybe we’re conditioned by the way technology works. Upgrades and new versions appear so often that anything new is out of date before it leaves the shop, and the old version soon stops working or ceases to be compatible. But it doesn’t have to be like that; the arrival of something new doesn’t necessarily mean an earlier version becomes redundant.
Change and progress aren’t synonymous. Sometimes the new way is just another way.