This drew a great deal of discussion over at Daily Pundit, but I thought it would work well here, too.
Why do we think that a person won’t buy a print book because in theory they could read it for free online? What is it that people are buying? What is it that people want? In many respects what people want is to read it on their own terms, so in many cases, people don’t want to have to read it on a screen.
This is an interesting discussion, and you really should read the whole thing, but I believe the above is a misperception that lies at the heart of most wishful thinking about the future of books and publishing.
It’s all tied up in the notion of books and objects. What they really should be thinking about is the objectification of perception as related to the story form.
A book is nothing more than one way of presenting a story – or some other discrete bundle of information – in a particular physical form that allows a reader to perceive the story itself.
We have had other such objects – scrolls, chapbooks, writing on walls, whatever. We have also had non-object methods of accomplishing the same goal – storytellers, chants, songs, and so on.
The form of the object of choice for presenting the story is changing. We are rapidly moving away from a form that has been ubiquitous for several hundred years: the bound paper book. There are a number of reasons for this, but suffice it to say that the shift is proceeding with ever greater rapidity. That tipping point is long past, and will not be reversed.
That particular story presentation object – and the production, marketing, and distribution system that grew around it, is dying. The many object, one story model is now a relic of the past, as we quickly shift into a one-object, many story model. That object is your digital book reader. You buy a Kindle, say, or just a Kindle app for your smart phone, and then you buy many stories that do not come inextricably attached to individual objects (books), and read them on your single book-object (your digital reader).
This shift is exposing another huge fault line in our understanding of books and what they are. For several centuries, book-objects and stories have been one: in order to perceive an individual story, you had to buy an individual book-object. That is no longer the case, and because that is so, we need to take another look at the difference between the story itself and presentation/perception object that channels the story.
The core of the matter is story, not object! I cannot emphasize this enough, because it is a basic understanding that seems all too often to go entirely missing in discussions of the future of books and publishing.
Books have no real future. Stories have just as much of a future as they ever did, perhaps more.
Where do stories come from? They come from human minds. They have certain rules and conventions and talent requirements that have been developed over thousands of years to mesh with inputs that give pleasure to human minds. We have certain basic understandings of what makes good stories and bad stories. Writers whom we consider to be good (ie, we enjoy them more than writers we don’t think are good) usually follow conventions and use techniques (and draw on talents) that appeal to lots of people like us – and, for the purposes of this analysis, most people are like each other when it comes to making judgments about what is, and is not, a good story. Why? Because story is perceived far more deeply than on conscious levels. We like stories in which heroes survive, because we subconsciously become those heroes and our own survival instincts are triggered in support of the hero. If the hero fails and does not survive, at some level we fail and die as well.
We mostly don’t like those stories, even if they are beautifully crafted and all the hard-learned conventions and techniques are employed, that force us to “die,” if only in our own imaginations and subconscious identifications.
And then there is the issue of craft. We don’t like stories that are, for reasons of spelling, punctuation, grammar, style, continuity, and a host of other reasons, make a story difficult for us to immerse ourselves into.
“Good” writers generally craft stories that many, many people like. That word “craft” entails a lifetime of hard work, trial and error, self-education, and, yes, native talent. Not everybody can do it. In fact, not very many people at all can do it relatively well or successfully. And therein lies the issue over which the dying world of book-object-story is currently dashing itself to pieces. The commercial structure undergirding our previous method of story delivery – the mass-marketing of book-objects that present individual stories – acted as a gatekeeper that prevented all but those regarded by hard-eyed editors using a definition of quality that included notions of profit – Will this story sell enough books to make a profit in our current commercial structure? – from reaching a significant number of readers.
That structure is dead – and the gatekeeper function it performed is equally dead. And that is what the argument is about these days, because here is a simple truth: Good writers are few and far between, and good writing is very difficult to produce. In short, producing good writing is very hard work, and should therefore command a certain amount of value in the marketplace for the person who can do it. If it does not, then good writers will not, for the most part, make the effort. We are talking about simple matters of opportunity cost here. If a writer puts in 40 hours a week producing a good story, that is 40 hours a week that cannot be devoted to other income-producing endeavors. If the time devoted to writing produces zero income, then the writer starves, along with his family. This is why most writing prior to contemporary times was produced either by religious writers supported by their churches, or by aristocrats or others with private wealth who didn’t need to work for their daily bread.
As with so much else that the onrushing technological singularity transforms, we have here yet one more vast, long-developed cultural structure, accepted and well-understood by all, being destroyed in a few short years, far more quickly than the replacement structures to support a new paradigm can be established.
That’s what we’re fighting about right now: How are we going to incentivise the production of good stories within a framework of an entirely new delivery system that does not involve the marketing of individual physical books-as-objects? I’m sure that we will eventually find ways of doing so, but until we do, the outlook for publishing – and for story-creators – will remain unsettled.