Monday, January 14, 2008

Predictive Text

Why do we believe that the future is bad? Why do we look backwards believing that the world we knew before served us better and that books as we knew them then were the best they could ever be?

Today we read in the Independent, Century’s Mark Booth’s thoughts on reading, digitisation and the revolution that is quietly happening around us. Having read his faultless grammar, prose and references to days lost, we somehow felt we disagreed. Rarely do we read something several times to make sure we have read it right, but we just had to this time.

The ‘glass certainly was half empty’ in fact we doubt it was even that full!

There are many points we could make about the article. For every negative expressed we could find many positives and it’s sad that such an article received the column inches it got in a broadsheet.

We would make three observations:
The argument that booksellers, in whatever form, are to blame for the celebrity writings and the current best sellers, is a bit like ‘Buster’Edwards and Ronnie Biggs pleading innocence on the grounds that they were mere reluctant bystanders to the Great Train Robbery. For Mr. Booth to blame the supermarkets, ‘This is because in the 1990s it was Waterstone's that set the tone for the trade. Now the supermarkets do’ – is a bit rum. The rise of celebrity writing certainly puts a new twist to ‘pulp fiction’, but the decision on what to publish is in the hands of the producer. Booksellers do not determine what is published, but publishers do and it is they that pay the high advances, determine the market and market the books and finally seek a financial return.

We agree novels and creative text will change, but it always has. From Biblical days, through to the troubadours, the subscription letters and writings of the early Robert Dodsley era, the instalment works, by the likes of Dickens, to today’s novels; a good story has always survived. The thing that often dictated the format, was in fact the format. We now have digitisation which is in fact exploding the book spine and breaking us out of the bound format that defined the story for so long. We see the emergence of the mobile novels in Japan. We can predict, that novels will be broken into digestible chunks, maybe even delivered in chapters a la Stephen King, or merely packaged thus. Is this bad? Well maybe for the printer or the publisher, who want only to work in complete books. However, it can create a whole new reading dimension that may be interactive and participative, or may just deliver branded fiction in a more sustainable way. The glass is certainly not half empty but half full!

The paper book will not disappear but the current economic publishing model and value chain will change. The only certainty is that there will still be authors and there still will be readers but everything in between is up for grabs. Will still be producing the volume of new titles at the current rate – no? Will we be reviving and becoming aware of past treasures and the long tail - yes? Will some books go fully digital- yes? Will some books remain in paper – yes and for many years these will be the majority of the market. The challenge is finding the balance and being able to respond to changing demand.

However, before we all herald in the new ebook age, we have to recognise that at best guesses there are less than 200,000 titles digitally available today. Forget the ereaders and the consumer where is the content? Why are publishers dragging their heels? We are still analyzing a market in a vacuum.