Or is it?
At the Edinburgh international book festival earlier this year Ewan Morrison suggested a bleak future for publishing. He was subsequently published in the Guardian, asking “Will books, as we know them, come to an end?” and answering his own question “Yes, absolutely, within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books.” He also states, “ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of ‘the writer’ as a profession.”
He seems pretty sure of himself, and writes at great length. He argues that there has been a financial downturn in all of the traditional creative industries that have turned digital, because a culture has been created in which people no longer expect to pay for any “content”. This isn’t just due to piracy, but because so much “content” is offered for free, other “providers” have no option but to make their work available for nothing if they are to compete.
His argument is simple: if there is no money, no writer of any worth will continue to write, and why should they? He claims that “most ‘notable’ writers in the history of books were paid a living wage” and that in the last fifty years the system of publishers' advances has supported “notable” writers. Without the patronage of the traditional publishing industry there will be no great writers writing great books.
In Morrison’s apocalyptic future, traditional publishing houses will inevitably go out of business. Any writer foolish enough to directly e-publish will lose the support system of editors, proof-readers, publicity and promotion. They won’t even be able to sell their works online: charging for extra content, eking their work out in instalments or via crowd-funding are all, apparently, non-starters.
He says that within a decade or so the biggest "publishers" in the world will be Google, Amazon and Apple. He offers a horribly persuasive vision of the near future in which all artistic endeavours will inevitably be channelled through these digital behemoths, offered for free, paid for by advertising. And that advertising revenue, presumably, goes into the pockets of the behemoths and none will go to writers, musicians, film makers, artists, etc. I came away from reading the article imagining a world in which badly-written flash-fiction will supplant novels, and amateur Youtube clips will take the place of films.
But is he right? I don’t think so (to answer my own question!)
For a start there are figures published by Nielsen BookScan here in the UK stating that in 2001 there were 162,000,000 books sold in Britain. In 2011 it was up to 229,000,000. Despite discounting, overall revenues are also up, especially for fiction. That doesn’t look like an industry in decline.
Sales of books in 2011 are apparently slightly down compared to 2010, so is this the beginning of the end? Amazon.co.uk says that it is selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, but they admit that their sales of hardcover books continue to increase. Reports of the death of the physical book seem to have been premature, especially if we make allowances for the present economic climate.
And is there really a culture of freeloading as Morrison claims? As Lloyd Shepherd says in a very well argued Guardian article, music was pirated on a large scale for several years because there were no good alternatives if you wanted to download digital music. The success of iTunes shows that now a great way of legal downloading has been established, people use the service, and pay for it. And we should always beware of industries that tell us they lose sales through piracy; a good proportion of those piracies would never have been legal sales in a perfect world.
There will always be ludicrous claims from the doomsayers and the self-interested, just as there will often be something real at the root of some fears (in my opinion, the dominance of Amazon is one of the biggest potential threats to all the artistic industries.) But I have to admit that the one thing that really annoyed me about Morrison’s article was the claim that “most ‘notable’ writers in the history of books were paid a living wage” and that in the last fifty years the system of publishers' advances has supported notable writers. Anybody with any knowledge of literary history knows that many of the greatest works of literature were created by writers who were unappreciated by the literary establishment. It has always been the case, and probably always will be, that the best writers won’t give up writing just because a large, traditional publishing house might not give them a huge advance on royalties.