“As The Book Turns” -Where do the Authors Fit in?-
Whether through the troubadours of the 11th century or via e-book in 2011, humans are always interested in a good story. It is for this reason that I believe authors in the 21st century; still have a chance at being just as successful as in previous centuries. However, just as the troubadours had to stop singing their stories and start writing them down, authors today must also change their form of storytelling in order to remain successful.The quickly changing landscape of the book industry- where there are hundreds of thousands books published each year and they are all being sold at extremely low prices- seems to be a pretty dire sight through the eyes of an author, but with great storytelling and ingenuity, it is possible for them to navigate and succeed in the new world of “writing” and “books”.
To understand how authors are to succeed in the 21st century, we must first examine the current state of the book industry, specifically looking at the large digital libraries that sparked huge changes in the publishing industry. The rise of Amazon and e-books has changed the industry by shifting a focus on trying to sell only bestsellers to trying to sell…everything. As Chris Anderson explains, “with no shelf space to pay for and, in the case of purely digital services like iTunes, no manufacturing costs and hardly any distribution fees, a miss sold is just another sale, with the same margins as a hit. A hit and a miss are on equal economic footing, both just entries in a database called up on demand, both equally worthy of being carried. Suddenly, popularity no longer has a monopoly on profitability”(2004). This means that they’re able to offer a practically unlimited catalogue of titles, and they’re able to profit on almost everyone; even the most obscure. This of course, is a huge juxtaposition to the bookstores that we have always known, where selection is limited (about 200,000 titles in an average Barnes and Noble compared to “over 60,000 Children’s picture books”(2011) alone on Amazon.com), and prices are also much higher (A not yet released hardcover book that would normally be 28.95$, now being offered on Amazon.com for 15.22$). The vast amount of choice and the huge amount of discounts offered has changed not only the way that books are being sold but it also changes the way consumers are buying and thinking about books.
According to Kelly Gallagher, “45% of Americans read a book [in 2008]”(2009). While this is kind of a frightening number considering that 55% of Americans did not even read one book, 45% of the American population still represents a large number of people and that is not even including the number of readers in other parts of the world. This shows us that people are still reading. This shows us that there is still a demand for quality stories, writings, and literary experiences. This shows us that there is still a need for authors in the digital 21st century, as they are the creators of this literary content. However, this statistic does not ensure their success, as Ewan Morrison is keen to point out. Morrison explains how “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content’. Writing has already begun its slide towards becoming something produced and consumed for free”(2011). In other words, Morrison is arguing that the ever-increasing availability of free/cheap digital media such as songs, movies, TV shows, etc. has created an expectation by consumers that all content, including books, should either be really cheap or completely free. So, even though 45% of Americans are reading books, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they paid for them or that they want to pay for them. This “free” expectation clearly spells out trouble for an author’s possible financial success. But what if a lot of the content being offered to readers today, deserved to be offered for either really cheap or completely free?
In his article “Sifting Through All These Books”, Hugh McGuire explains how “across the spectrum, we’ve seen a 32% increase in all titles published since 2002, all without an appreciable increase (that [we] know of) in the number of people who actually buy books, let alone read them. Add to this significant growth the 764,000 (!!!) non-traditionally-published books, and you can see where the fundamental problem for publishing lies: there are so many books out there, and a limited number of readers”(2010). By 764,000 “non-traditionally-published” books, McGuire means to say 764,000 mostly “self-published” books. This means that there’s a huge number of books out there that presumably no respected publishing company wanted to publish themselves, which means, presumably that the books are probably not all that good. So should we be frightened or angered that consumers are expecting that quality of books for free? Obviously not. As self-publishing e-books becomes easier and easier to do, there is going to be an influx of books by “aspiring” writers into the marketplace, some will be good and some will be bad, and most are probably being published for the personal satisfaction of the author rather than to turn a profit. McGuire smartly compares this dilemma with blogs:
“We seem to have solved the problem of sifting content on the web and with blogs, where anyone can publish what they want. It turns out that the vast majority of blogs are uninteresting to me, and to the vast majority of readers. Blogs are, by the numbers, a vast sea of stuff people don’t want to read.And yet.And yet – as a reader, I constantly find wonderful stuff to read on blogs… But, still, given the overwhelming preponderance of stuff I’m not interested in, how is it that I only read wonderful stuff on the web”(2010).
This brings us to our next point, which is one that I believe Morrison fails to recognize in his argument “Are books dead, and can authors survive?”(2011). Morrison fails to recognize that consumers know the difference between something of good quality and something that sucks, and they are willing to pay for that difference. James Bradley also points out how “Morrison neglects…that the success of the iTunes Store demonstrates consumers are prepared to pay for content if it’s easily available and priced competitively”(2011).The key for authors is to realize that consumers will still pay for books; they just have to be of very good quality. In the same way that they used to have to write quality manuscripts in order to differentiate themselves from all the other authors sending in their manuscripts to publishing houses, they now still have to write those quality manuscripts… they just have to differentiate themselves even more from a vast amount of other authors and other stories that are published online. We can see by looking at other online media, like viral videos, when people find something they like, they are readily prepared to not only consume it but also share it, and sharing is one of the most sought after currencies online. Imagine if a book received as much exposure as the YouTube video “The Evolution of Dance”, which currently has almost 182 million views. Even if that book were offered for free, the author would at least already have a huge following for which he could sell his next book to. Of course a 5 minute video is much more shareable than a 500 page book of text. So how can authors create experiences that are just as shareable as a YouTube video?
In “Books in Time”, Carla Hesse quotes John Locke as saying: “books must be seen merely as a mechanism of transmission, a fulcrum between sender and receiver, rather than as a repository or container of fixed truths”(1997). What if authors began to see their stories as being able to exist beyond simply words on a page? Perhaps books, as we know them, are merely the “mechanism of transmission” of the past and now we’re moving on to a new mechanism: the app. Authors are known for using all sorts of literary techniques to their advantage; to enhance the story. What if they began to use interactive images, sounds, games, video, etc.? What if while reading a story placed in World War II, I could hear the gunfire and the jets soaring overhead, while having the screen shake because the character of my novel is being shot at? Does this detract from the storytelling or could it just be a new way of telling the story? One that provides a quality experience which consumers would definitely share and pay for, as it is something new, different and updates the act of reading to the 21st century. Some books are already toying with the infinite possibilities of apps: “Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, recently released in paperback, is also available as an iPad app. The app combines the text of the novel with the audiobook, allowing you to switch between listening and reading, and plays on the book’s fractured narrative to allow you to reorder the chapters as you choose”(Richmond, 2011). Other possibilities include perhaps publishing a novel in serial format, where the reader has to perform a test or a game before being able to read the next chapter. As 21 year old, Cory Brown speculates:
“What do you think would have happened if George Orwell had the iPad? Do you think he would have written for print then copy and pasted his story into the iBookstore? If this didn’t work out well, do you think he would have complained that there aren’t any serious-readers anymore? No. He would have looked at the medium, then blown our minds”(2010).
While this paper is directed towards discussing the success of authors in the future, we can see that if books were to evolve into apps, there would clearly be a need for a new type of publisher, as well.McGuire believes that “publishers who continue to figure out how to bring good books [and perhaps book-apps] to the people who want them will be providing a great service, for which people will be willing to pay, one way or another. But that role of ‘publisher’ is going to look very different in 5 years than it does now”(2010). Perhaps as we move closer towards books as apps, we’ll see that in the same way that publishers used to design a book’s cover and marketing campaign, they will now instead design the application and it’s interactivity to suit the book’s content.
The book industry is clearly changing rapidly, but for those authors (and publishers) that are ready to capitalize on that change; the success is theirs for the taking. The next generation’s great authors could be made up of great storytellers who put out quality writing online, or perhaps made up of mediocre writers who learn to capitalize on technology to enhance their stories… maybe a mix of the two. We can’t know for sure. What we do know is that “writers and publishers who are prepared to adapt and experiment will succeed”(Bradley,2011). And I agree with Cody Brown when he says that: “the ‘books’ that come to define my generation will be impossible to print. This is great”(2011).Great for both authors and readers.
Chris Anderson. 2004. “The Long Tail.” Wired 12 (10). http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/tail.html
James Bradley. 2011. “Are books dead?” city of tongues. http://cityoftongues.com/2011/08/25/are-books-dead/
Brown, C. (2010, April 11). Dear authors, your next book should be an app, not an ibook [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://techcrunch.com/2010/04/11/dear-authors-your-next-book-should-be-an-app-not-an-ibook/
Gallagher, K. (2009, May ). Making information pay [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/bisg/4-making-information-pay-2009-gallagher-kelly-bowker-1406744
Carla Hesse. 1997. “Books in Time.” from The Future of the Book. edited by Geoffrey Nunberg. Berkeley: University of California Press. lhttp://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/HistoryWired/Hesse/HesseBooksInTime.html
Hugh McGuire. 2010. “Sifting Through All These Books.” Tools of Change for Publishing (O’Reilly Media). http://toc.oreilly.com/2010/06/sifting-through-all-these-book.html
Ewan Morrison. 2011. “Are books dead, and can authors survive?” guardian.co.uk http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/22/are-books-dead-ewan-
Richmond, S. (2011, May 26). Are app books the next chapter for e-books? [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8536424/Are-book-apps-the-next-chapter-for-ebooks.html