A Novel Revolution

Posted on 22/02/2010


There’s something revolutionary about books. Jason Epstein recently published a fantastic article in the NYT review on this topic: “Publishing the Revolutionary Future”. Six centuries ago, Gutenberg made possible the transition from written to printed word. The age of the digital word is now upon us, Epstein argues.

Google have already put thousands of texts online by scanning in their pages. The revolution we’re talking about goes further. It bypasses the need to print books at all, cutting large high street retailers out of the loop. This way books are archived, marketed and sold entirely online.

This could resolve many of the publishing industry’s woes. For every book published, they take a large financial risk, paying for the author, their agent, and the production of x copies before a single one leaves the shelf.

Sales of backlists, the vast catalogue of titles belonging to a particular publisher, used to give them a slow but steady income they could rely on. The book retail market has since changed, and retail floor-space comes at a premium. Small book have largely been forced out of business, and the large chains that remain now have to compete with fashion retailers for rents. No longer able to stock titles from these backlists, it is both parties that lose out.

Technology is changing this. Kindles, e-readers and smart phones give everyone a platform on which they can read digital text. Epstein interestingly accompanies his article with a photo of Steve Jobs and his iPad. It would seem that hopes of an industry are resting on this device. However, the Expresso Book Machine strikes me a far more revolutionary. This device can print, bind and deliver a complete novel, dictionary or textbook in less than an hour. What’s more, it isn’t much larger than a Xerox machine. You only need an ounce of imagination to guess at the possibilities here. Did you ever imagine that Starbucks could become a publisher in their own right?

Binary texts could give greater freedom to authors and publishers alike. There’s no reason why an online collective of backers couldn’t put forward author’s advance in the same way people do with films. Mere mortals could even get a chance to publish that unwritten novel that lies in all of us.

In the digital world, popularisation comes hand in hand with democracy. Everyone with a device has access and as we’ve seen in other areas, traditional marketing efforts don’t work in the virtual landscape. Instead, e-book sales will experience the same forces as YouTube videos or Reddit bookmarks. Of course, today’s “best sellers” like Alice Sebold (Lovely Bones) or Markus Zusak (The Book Thief) will still feature heavily, but the field is also open to outsiders, allowing cult titles to receive recognition, or even revive older ones. In the same way the Shawshank Redemption took years to receive full recognition, titles from 50 years ago could see a spontaneous spike in sales. Books too will go viral.

Along with the wonderful potential these developments have, there is of course a darker side. Digitalizing books risks exposing them to same kind of piracy that music suffers. Unfortunately, authors don’t have the same options as musicians; book tours and festivals will never sell tickets in the same way as music ones do. One day it might be possible to sell the video rights to YouTube or develop the fictional world into something similar to second life, but for now protecting author’s copyright is essential. This ongoing battle is a concern, but shouldn’t distract from the enormous potential this revolution will bring.