A very depressing article in the UK Guardian sees out the old year – depressing because it suggests that many intelligent and cultured journalists and pundits have still not got their heads around what ebooks are about and are swallowing the dumb headlines that serve Big Media. Recounting “A heart-warming twist in the tale of the books industry,” Peter Preston declares that: “The most fascinating and, in many ways, cheering story of 2014 is almost wholly counterintuitive: the survival of the printed book. Turning pages back from digital grave shock! Legacy longform wins fight for life!”
I’m sorry, but who here was ever proclaiming, let alone celebrating, the death of print? I don’t think that Hugh Howey, David Gaughran, and all of the other advocates for ebooks and digital publishing were ever arguing that printed books were destined for extinction. However, headlines on the Death of Print provided great rallying cries for Big Media, its allied vested interests, and unwitting apologists – like Preston – in instances like the Authors United crusade against Amazon’s trade terms (which suddenly had the brakes slammed on when Hachette decided it no longer served its commercial interests).
It’s an easy, lazy equation to draw. Amazon is out to destroy the printed book. Amazon is bad. Forgetting for a moment that Amazon built its dominance via printed book distribution, before ebooks and the Kindle really came on the scene, traditional publishing had a huge legacy of loyalty and natural affection, as well as plain conservatism and Luddism, to enlist on its behalf. However, has that legacy been engaged in a battle of the books to promote reading standards and to drive readers to enrich their inner lives through reading? And to foster a love of books? No, by and large it’s been used by the Big Five to try to get the pricing structure they want and to continue to gouge authors and bombard readers with dumbed-down drivel.
What got me up on the soabox, alongside Howey, Gaughran, et. al., was the opportunity to break some of the shackles that traditional publishing had put on book production and distribution, and allow independent authors to reach their audiences through alternative channels. And the opportunity to put the world’s great literature in everybody’s hands, on demand, anywhere, any time, for free or for an easily affordable fee. That goes along with pressure on copyright law, public domain limits, licensing, pricing, authors’ rights and royalties, etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with any demise of printed paper. If every indie bookstore in the world could have a print-on-demand printer to run off bound copies of the latest self-published bestseller to order, I’d be perfectly happy.
IMHO, traditional publishers and Big Media are still the ones doing far more harm to the world of books, culture, and intellectual life than Amazon ever did. I’ve filled Teleread with example after example this year, and I don’t need to add to them now. But just to let The Guardian unwittingly make my case for me, what image do they choose to illustrate this mess? A picture of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his book You Are Here, to illustrate the fact that “handsome, glossy and sumptuously illustrated books are surviving in triumph.” For which, read, Big Publishing is still massacring trees to produce celebrity-driven trash. Yay print. Way to go.