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2008-06, 358, Colin Steele, Evolution of the Book

Book Article: Is the book dead?

Sherman Young, The Book is Dead. Long Live the Book.
(UNSW Press). 189pp. $29.95

Making Books: Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed. by
David Carter & Anne Galligan. (St Lucia: UQP). 416pp. $39.95
Arts of Publication.

Scholarly Publishing in Australia and Beyond. Edited by Lucy Neave, James Connor & Amanda Crawford. (Australian Scholarly Publishing). 197pp. $29.95

THE COVER BLURB for David Carter and Anne Galligan’s collection of 23 essays in Making Books. Contemporary Australian Publishing, asks “Is the Australian publishing industry flourishing or floundering? What is the future of the book? Has lifestyle replaced literary publishing? Have new technologies revolutionised the nature of the industry?” Big issues indeed.
If Sherman Young had seen the hordes of people staggering out with bags of books from September’s Canberra Lifeline Book Fair (but sadly not into the adjacent ACT Writers and Readers Conference), he would not be asking if The Book is Dead. Young, a senior lecturer in Media Studies at Macquarie University, admits, however, that the phrase “’the book is dead’ is an absurd proposition”. Young fervently believes that the book’s “place in the cultural milieu is essential and must be protected”. His solution is to release the book from its print form into a digital “Heavenly Library – the
world’s collection of books available in an instant”.
Young also asks the important question: “Does anybody still read books?”
A recent US Associated Press-Ipsos poll came out too late for Young to use, but it reveals that a quarter of US adults read no books at all in the past year. Of those who did read, women and pensioners were the most avid readers, with religious works and popular fiction the top choices. The median figure for books read was nine books for women and five for men. The figures also indicated that those with college degrees read the most, and people aged 50 and over read more than those who are younger. More women than men read every major category of books except for history
and biography.
Young quotes British author Ian McEwan, who, in 2005, attempted to give away free books in a London park. McEwan told The Guardian that nearly all but one of the takers were women, who were “eager and grateful” for the books, while the men “frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” McEwan’s conclusion was that “[w]hen women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”
A recent issue of the UK Bookseller noted that Penguin’s biggest selling living fiction author is Clive Cussler (age 76), who just beat Jack Higgins (79), Frederick Forsyth (69) and Wilbur Smith (74). It was suggested that male readers, to whom these ageing authors appeal, are seeking “solid reassurance and juicy narratives”!
Joyce Carol Oates wondered at the June US BookExpo how American culture could “sustain ideas longer than the language of a fortune cookie”, and Young laments how publishers have turned away from ideas in favour of diet cook books and celebrity biographies. Carter and Galligan also reflect that while “the local book industry is a major sector within Australia’s cultural infrastructure”, publishers face a major dilemma as they try to straddle both “commerce and culture”.
Professor Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, quoted in The Age of 29 September, stressed that a University Press “that doesn’t talk to the things that preoccupy thinking people in this country is probably a University Press that’s missing its mark”. Robin Derricourt’s succinct overview essay in Making Books on ‘Book Publishing and the University Sector in Australia’, and several of the chapters in Arts of Publication, echo this sentiment, although the ways of achieving Davis’s edict in access and business models clearly differ. Arts of Publication required two subsidies from ANU, “otherwise it could not have been published”. Therein lies
another debate in the digital era.
The nature of book publishing and the reading public in Australia is well covered in Making Books, which is divided into three sections, ‘Industry Dynamics’; ‘The Industry and New Technologies’; and ‘Industry Sectors and Genre Publishing’. As in all collections of essays, some are better than others, and some have been previewed elsewhere, such as Mark Davis’s incisive and controversial comments on ‘The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing’ and Richard Flanagan’s ‘Colonies of the Mind’ originally delivered in June 2003.
Lorien Kaye and Katya Johansen in ‘Publishing and Book Selling’ note the changes in the Australian book selling landscape, although K-Mart and Big W are yet to achieve the book depth and price range that Tesco’s have in the UK. The recent purchase by Pizza Express mogul Luke Johnson of the Borders bookshop chain in Britain indirectly reflects the increasing fast food concept of the business.
Young notes how “[t]he intellectual butterflies of the publishing industry devolved, not into caterpillars, but slugs, as they were absorbed borg-like by multinational corporations […] the idea of public good has been largely cast aside”. If Young believes this is true for the general book publishing industry, he should note what is happening in the academic publishing world where large multinational companies, particularly in science, technology and medicine, are making huge profits and squeezing out smaller publishers, learned societies and monograph publishing, a crucial issue for
the concerns outlined in Arts of Publication.
James Connor in that collection of 11 essays, edited by himself, Lucy Neave and Amanda Crawford, notes that publishing “academic work is a symbiotic relationship—although a few of the academics we spoke with would prefer the term parasitic”. The symbiotic link between profits and the leading academic publishers is strengthening at a rapid pace. According to Publishers Weekly, the world’s 45 largest book publishers generated revenue of approximately US$73 billion in 2006, with Reed Elsevier topping the list with revenue of US$7.6 billion, followed closely by Pearson with sales of US$7.3 billion.
Arts of Publication, subtitled Scholarly Publishing in Australian and Beyond, has its origins in papers given at a symposium at the National Museum of Australia in August 2004. The challenges of ‘publish or perish’ for academics and PhD students in the social sciences and humanities has not diminished since the original symposium. It is unfortunate, however, that the book has taken more than three years to appear, reflecting a recurrent problem with academia and print publishing. One of the authors in Arts of Publication told me that he has three other chapters submitted in 2004/5 to
other publishers which have still not yet appeared and this is far from a rare case.
As a result of the time delay, several of the 11 essays have dated significantly. A number of contributors make cross-references to Russell Smith’s chapter on ‘Web Publishing’, which is the chapter that needed the most updating in terms of developments in publishing, digital access, repositories and the impact of E-Presses since 2004. Smith does, however, conceptually capture the opportunities in, and the growing importance of, blogs, wikis, and new social publishing frameworks.
Academic authors are, however, between a publishing rock and a Research Quality Framework hard place at the present time in Australia.
One of the original motivations in the Arts of Publication was to provide a vade mecum for PhD students on how to get published, how to deal with manuscript rejection, etc. Several chapters, such as James Connor on ‘Publishing a Book’ and Rhonda Black on ‘Writing a Book Proposal’ contain much good advice in traditional publishing contexts.
Young recognises that the pages of The Book is Dead will probably only be read by a few thousand people, while his doctoral thesis was read by a “grand total of four people”. He and some of the contributors to Arts of Publication seem unaware of the Australian Digital Theses program. Lucy Neave’s conclusion to Arts of Publication that “we look forward to a future in which it is hoped that academics will not only be more informed about publishing but more active participants in the process” is an apt one.
John Byron, in his Foreword to Arts of Publication, provides a well articulated call to arms for new academic strategies, reminding academia that “a failure to disseminate research will be read as a failure of quality”.
The growing Open Access publishing movement, within peer review settings, offers hope in this context. The digital environment will also allow for vastly different methods of distribution and access beyond the traditional print sequence of publisher warehouse, book and remainder shops and then second-hand outlets.
Matt Rubinstein pointed out at the 2007 Sydney Writers Festival that digital books will allow many authors to reach a worldwide audience and that currently “for most authors the problem isn’t privacy but obscurity”. Young, however, if he truly believed in this heavenly digital library, would have put his text, like his blog, up on the Net.
Jeff Gomez in his forthcoming US book Print is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age believes “[t]he old publishing system is disappearing […] The question is what is the path of migration for us to the new ecosystem”. Natalie Ceeney, Chief Executive of the UK National Archives, in an address at Parliament House in Canberra on September 18, reminded us that Google has only been operational for nine years, yet it is already a fixture in many lives. For many people in Britain and America a bookstore is Amazon reached through Google.
Young, at at the Sydney Writers Festival this year, said: “In the MTV age of instant gratification […] blind devotion to printed objects threatens the very existence of books.” Yet despite this comment on print, many readers will prefer to print off text from digital originals. Print On Demand (POD) units in book stores and universities will become commonplace. A senior Amazon representative recently indicated that POD is currently the fastest growing segment of their book sales through partner company BookSurge. Given rising global postal costs, it makes more sense to download books locally and distribute within countries and ultimately at the desktop. Jason Epstein, a pioneer of the paperback revolution in the 1950’s, said recently: “Think of this (POD) machine as a visit to Kitty Hawk.”
Ebooks, moreover, still only constitute 1% of total global book sales, although it should only be a matter of time before readers will be able to download books, as cheaply as music, onto iPods and MP3s. Major issues to be resolved here include copyright and industry standardisation. Amazon’s new e-book reader, Kindle, will probably not help the latter, although readers will be able to download books wirelessly from the e-book store on the Amazon website.

Whatever the Net book futures, the ideas in text, and what they stand for, will remain paramount as Young and Davis remind us. Jeanette Winterson wrote earlier this year in The Sunday Times that “to carry a book in my pocket is a reminder of my freedoms, my values, my way of life, not the one that the Government has prepared for me. Next time you see a CCTV camera read to it”!

[Originally published in The Canberra Times. Reprinted with permission]
Colin Steele

(See also: Colin Steele, “We must e-publish or perish” in the Higher Education section of The Australian, Wednesday 9 July 2008, p.29. Ed.)

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