The future of the book

Sam Harris talks about the pressure facing the (print) publishing industry.

If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?


The honest answer to this last question should disappoint everyone: Publishers can’t charge enough money for 60-page books to survive; thus, writers can’t make a living by writing them. But readers are beginning to feel that this shouldn’t be their problem. Worse, many readers believe that they can just jump on YouTube and watch the author speak at a conference, or skim his blog, and they will have absorbed most of what he has to say on a given subject. In some cases this is true and suggests an enduring problem for the business of publishing. In other cases it clearly isn’t true and suggests an enduring problem for our intellectual life.

Interestingly Harris goes on to discuss his success in publishing a $1.99 ebook. For an established author it may actually be easier to independently publish work in digital format. Of course this doesn’t address the problems of physical publishing and the work involved in marketing, editing and distributing both physical and digital content by publishers. There are lots of arguments about the future of the book with most arguments settling on the side of digital. A few pundits argue that there will be a mixed model which seems most likely at least in the short term.

What is most unclear, and of most interest to Mycroft Books, is the future of literature.

The penny dreadful was a type of sensationalist fiction printed on cheap pulp and are in many respects analogous to the straight to video film market. Books of a certain quality, books that seem destined for the airport lounge or bus stop, will perhaps be consigned straight to ebook. Similarly, but for different reasons, manuals, non-fiction works – I’m thinking specifically of text books – might also be best served in digital format allowing readers to take advantage of the quality of hypertext and the ability to easily search indices.

Of course literature* will also be published in digital format but also, hopefully, as a traditional book. And the reason for this desire is not simply a conservatism and fondness for the object. Nicholas Carr in his excellent book The Shallows examines the way reading on the screen is in fact shaping the way we think. The plasticity of the human brain means that we are starting to adapt to shallow reading, the constant interruption of email and other notifications, the lure of hypertext and the skimming of ‘posts’ online.

The book as an object is well suited to deep reading. It offers no distraction just linear, page-by-page advancement. And so the book is perhaps the best place to publish and write complex ideas so that they can be read and understood. It would seem a shame to lose complex, rich prose, and possibly our capacity to read and understand it, because there isn’t a suitable economic model for the book.

Comments are closed.