Sarah Loud,head of digital publishing at Pan Macmillan, has published a much talked about Publisher’s manifesto for the 21st Century over at The Digatilist.
It’s a long piece, and well worth reading. It starts with a fairly common position, that in this social-media/internet/mobile entertainment world the days of the book are numbered.
“More and more books are produced, but there is less and less choice on the high street. Leisure time is transferring away from books and reading, away from television even, to the Web; to social networking sites, blogs, instant messaging, video and music file sharing sites. The attention economy is shrinking, fast. “
Last night I picked up a moderately hefty hardback of Raymond Carver’s selected stories, and read the sparse story Menudo:
Two days ago, in the afternoon, Amanda said to me, “I can’t read books anymore. Who has the time?” It was the day after Oliver had left, and we were in this little cafe in the industrial part of the city [the narrator is having an affair with Amanda, whose husband Oliver has, as a result, left her]. “Who can concentrate anymore?” She said, stirring her coffee. “Who reads? Do you read? (I shook my head)> “Somebody must read, I guess. You see all these books around in store windows, and there are those clubs. Somebody’s reading,” she said. “Who? I don’t know anybody who reads.”
That’s what seh said, apropos of nothing – that is, we weren’t talking about books, we were talking about our lives. Books had nothing to do with it.
Published in 1988, well before this interweb thing, it’s an eloquent example of the fact that the “attention economy” problem isn’t new (the phrase was coined in the 1970s by American political science Herbert Simon), and that books have precious little to do with it.
Loud’s article is eloquent and rightly addresses the conservative nature of the publishing industry in a world that has access to digital content. It raises various important questions, and interesting themes (interweaving of texts, mashups, copyright and more) – but a careless reading might force a reader into a false dichotomy: the rise of digital content = death of the book.
A dichotomy that seems unlikely, given the major drawback that digital content has – it needs hardware to be accessed.
To finish, it’s well worth reading Horatio Morpurgo’s lengthy article about Allen Lane (his Grandfather), the man responsible for the biggest revolution in publishing during the twentieth century with his introduction of Penguin paperbacks.
The conservative minds at Bodley Head dismissed Lane’s revolutionary idea, to their cost, much the same way as many – including myself – dismiss the idea that digital content will revolutionise the publishing industry in the near future. The key difference, though, is that Lane’s idea was based on reducing the cost of culture, and making it more widely accessible. Digital publishing at the moment necessarily increases a reader’s cost, and as a result makes it less accessible. That’s a key obstacle.