Books are (probably) going to be okay

If you haven’t yet, you should check out Baldur Bjarnason’s excellent post on How to Beat Amazon, and the brilliant follow-up. It’s extremely hard to predict what the publishing landscape is going to look like in five years, let alone ten, but Bjarnason does a really good job of laying out some steps publishers need to take so that the book industry remains healthy and relevant in the digital age.

In particular, I really like this quote from the second post:

Fanfic has been with us for a very long time. Any piece of fiction that is driven by the memory and experience of another work, instead of the emotions experienced by the author, is fan-fiction.

The comics industry, regurgitating endless variations of superhero stories, is a fanfic industry.

When given the chance to write their hearts out, most people’s souls are so blank, lives so empty, that their fondest, most personal, expression is that of a memory of another story.

This has more to do with the state of the novel than anything else, and I’m not going to go into it much right now, but there’s a point to be made that a storytelling tradition that is about regurgitating other stories is less interesting than one which is about reinventing stories and seeking out new ones. To take an example from a genre close to my heart: though I may enjoy something like A Song of Ice and Fire, I’d much rather read China Miéville, and have a speculative fiction community more interested in his kind of writing than in simply revisiting Tolkien over and over again.

But as for Bjarnason’s larger point, that this sort of cloistered inwardness could be killing reading, I think this is largely misplaced. The novel, as a form, is not really in a bad way right now. And it has a longer, more robust and diverse history than comics, which may allow it to adapt easier to change. (Question to serious comics readers: is it really that bad? I gather that the Superhero stuff is still pretty clique-ish, but that there’s tons of good work being done that falls outside that particular niche.) And, furthermore, the novel is not the only kind of book. Reading is going to survive, and the “book,” i.e., the long-form, sustained argument/thought/story, will continue. The economics of the situation are very uncertain, and I wouldn’t want to be at one of the Big Six publishers right now, but I don’t see “reading books” as something inherently in danger.

(I take Bjarnason’s point about public libraries, though. A democracy which can’t support its public libraries is not fit to call itself a democracy.)

If, like me, you read a lot of blogs and tech-ish news sites about the publishing industry and eBooks, it probably feels like Ragnorak is upon us. But it’s not. The key for people who care about books, whether they are publishers, writers, or readers (or, as many of us are, a combination of all three) is to encourage institutions which foster quality and accessibility of the written word. And by “institutions,” I mean not just presses and booksellers, but also democratic states focused on supporting healthy communities of engaged citizens. A robust reading culture and a robust republic are mutually supportive of one another.

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