Transcript of Session ‘The Death of Print’ at 2011 Perth Writers Festival

Chair:  John Harman     
Panellists:  Geordie Williamson, Angela Meyer, Lev Grossman, James Bradley



(introductions) James, what do you understand by ‘the death of print’?


I had dinner last night with Jonathan Strachan, a science fiction anthologist, and Jonathan had just bought a copy of The Book of the Ocean. Jonathan produces anthologies all the time and he said, we were in fact talking about this panel today, he said: ‘The interesting thing to me is that this, as a book, could not be an e-book. I guess I’d not thought about that with this book before but I actually think he’s right. It’s a book that – I’ll hold up a copy of it in a really grotesque, self-advertising kind of way – but you know, it’s a beautiful object. It’s got photographs within it. It’s arranged to be read as a whole. And he’s actually right, I think. It’s the kind of book that does not translate into that sort of digital medium easily.

Now, I have a couple of responses to that. One is to say, well, you know, if you wanted to turn this kind of thing into an e-book, well certainly you could turn it into something like an app so it becomes something where you’ve got text, images, possibly sound, all kind of layered together. But you quite quickly then, I think, end up hitting a question which is, well, at what point does that stop being a book, in the sense that we understand a book, and become some kind of multi-media thing. I think also you then have a whole series of questions that sit around that.

So if this is the kind of thing you can’t turn into an e-book easily, does that mean that, as we transition to e-books, books like this won’t get produced any more? Or will books like this continue to get produced and because they are beautiful objects and become things in themselves that sell? Which then raises a series of questions about the economics of all of that.

Most of the industry is transitioned over to selling e-books at $10 each. Who’s going to fork out $30, $35 to buy the physical object? I guess what I’m trying to say is that it seems to me that you’ve got bundled up this whole series of quite difficult questions. Some of them are questions about the economics of publishing. Some of them are questions about the way we read and what we read. Some of them are questions about the way we write and what we write. Because I think one of the things that gets forgotten in a lot of these conversations is that the transition to digital actually alters what’s been written, how it’s being produced, what it looks like.

Technology is not neutral. The codex book produces a great many of the things that kind of describes the grammar of the book, the chapter, the page, typography, all of those things. They are actually functions of the codex book. The novel is not what it is because it exists on its own. The novel exists because the codex book exists. So if the codex book starts to go out, what happens to novels? These questions are all kind of bundled together.

I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I know what the answers are. I’d say anyone who says they know what the answers are is talking out of their arse, to put it politely. What I would say though is that we are in one of those moments of massive change. The music industry has gone through this change and is coming out of the other side. The newspaper and media industry is stuck in the middle of it at the moment. Publishing is just going into it.

Clay Shirkey, the thinker, provided a great line about revolutions and things where, periods in time where things get broken faster than anyone can make new things. And we are actually in that moment at the moment. It’s fascinating, it’s terrifying, but it’s also really liberating.

I actually think one of the things worth thinking about in this context is, you look at the music industry, and what happened in the music industry, about 10, 15 years ago, is that two things happened. First of all, the means of production got democratised, people started being able to make their own music, distribute their own music, and the old business models got broken by piracy and digital distribution.

Now those two things did dreadful damage to the industry, to the institutions that supported it. But what they actually engendered was a kind of wave of creativity that went through music and it’s incredible exciting. People started making music, sending their own music around and what’s come out the other end is a really vibrant industry that doesn’t look anything like the old industry. It’s a really vibrant culture that doesn’t look anything like the old culture. And that’s actually beginning to happen right now.

You can look around and think it’s doom and gloom or you can look around and say it’s actually incredibly exciting. There’s all kinds of new things being written and there’s all kinds of mutations of form and there’s all kinds of experimentation in terms of distribution, in terms of what’s being written, and it’s actually incredible exciting.

So what I would say to you is there’s a whole pile of questions bundled up together and they all feed into each other and reflect off each other and part of what we need to do is be careful about not confusing it, one for the other. That’s probably my spiel.


Okay, thanks very much James. Lev, you’ve written about this at some length in Time magazine quite recently haven’t you? So what’s your take on the death of print?


Well, I’m going to strain to make a point that James hasn’t already covered. That was admirably thorough. Do you know what James means when he refers to the codex book? This word ‘codex’?

‘Book’ is a generic term for a bunch of words that are all stored together and there are different ways that that can happen. The one that we are most familiar with is the codex book.  A thing like this, which has a spine and pages bound together in signatures, you open it, you flip the pages, there is actually a technical term for this. This is a codex.

And one of the things that I think is instructive in understanding what’s happening now, that we are seeing the rise of a new technology, a new book technology, is to look at the last time, or one of the earlier times, in which a new major book technology arose, to see what happened then. I don’t think we can understand the future of the book until we have a good sense of the past.

People often talk about Gutenberg and the invention of movable type in this context. I think about the invention of the codex, about which not as much is known as it should be. But the codex has not always been with us. It arose and became popular and mature as a technology in the first century AD. Before that, you had all those things you see in Asterix comics. You had, you know, slates and people chipping on tablets, and particularly the scroll. The scroll was the hot new medium of the last few centuries before Christ. People read on scrolls and that was the dominant technology for accessing text. Well, it was not a perfect technology. It was kind of a pain in the ass because you couldn’t quickly flip the pages. You had to do that thing where you were scrolling, scrolling, scrolling with your wrists. It probably caused a lot of repetitive stress disorders in the ancient world.

And then what happens in the first century AD is that – the codex had been around, it existed – it became popular. People started actually using it. It was popularised as a matter of fact by early Christians as a way of disseminating the Bible. And it arose and obviously had a lot of great advantages. It’s very compact. You can access the text. You can jump around within the text very quickly. You could do that thing that Saint Augustine did which was close your eyes and stick your finger in a random page – that was exciting.

However, what I want to stress is that the scroll didn’t go away. Scrolls, very little in use now, but it stuck around as a major form of the book for at least a millennium and a half and probably a bit longer, which is a way of saying that I don’t actually think a revolution is going on here. The rise of a new book technology does not mean the death of the old one. In fact, what will happen is the whole book ecosystem becomes more complex, becomes more biodiverse. These two forms, the codex book and the e-book, will co-exist in a more complex ecology but they will co-exist I think in a positive way. There will actually be some synergy. They will each, the strengths of both will come to the fore. But I don’t see this as a revolution at all. I see it as something more positive and, I think, more interesting.


Okay, thanks Lev. Now, Angela, you are really the only representative from Generation Y on this panel, with respect to all these other young people..


Happily so.


..and you’ve had thousands, hundreds of thousands, of words published but none of them in book form. So what’s your take on this?


Well, I have been published in print but it’s been in newspapers, magazines and I think that’s another question. I mean we’ve talked about the book mostly today but I think the death of print – often people talk about newspapers and magazines. A lot of that has gone online.

I just had a couple of points I thought I’d raise and maybe we can go back and address them further and, yes, the first one was the difference between articles and then long-form books, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I think that’s a different question.

The other thing I want to talk about is that I think print is far from dead and, particularly in Australia, we are a little bit behind the US. I mean, I only have one friend I think who has an actual dedicated e-reader – and this is different from an iPad or an iPhone and I think we can go a bit more into the actual differences of those things, the technical differences, during the panel today – but I’ve had countless conversations on airplanes or just out with people when they find out that I’m a writer who writes on-line, they are really interested in knowing, yes, if print is dead. But some of them have never heard of e-books or e-readers.

I grew up in northern New South Wales and I don’t know anyone back there who’s gotten into reading books on e-readers or on-line. So I think that it’s actually happening, yes, at a lot slower rate and I absolutely agree with Lev that there will be co-existence of these different forms.

I think that there’s also a wonderful opportunity for writers to sort of self publish short or long works through some of these new forms as well. But the question that raises is ‘who are the gatekeepers?’ because there’s so much information out there and there’s so much good writing out there but how do you find it?

And that’s where people like me have started to pop up who do book reviews and talk about books and things like that on-line and on social media. So if you find people whose opinion you trust, just like you would a reviewer perhaps or a columnist in a print newspaper or something, they can act as the bookseller would when you go into a bookstore and give you recommendations and if you follow, like someone’s been following my blog for a while, they’d have a pretty good idea of my sensibility and whether they fit into that and if they’d enjoy the same sorts of things and they can actually jump on and agree or disagree on that forum on-line.

So, I’m talking about a bunch of different things here but we can pick up on some of them. I was just going to share too, some stats that were in the Bookseller the other day, which is the UK book trade magazine.

There was a survey in it the other day of teenagers and 41 per cent of them had read a book on a computer, 17 per cent had read it on a mobile, 13 per cent had read on an iPad, and 9 per cent had read on a dedicated e-reader. But both adults and kids, and teenagers in the survey, when asked said that they preferred print books ahead of any other form, ahead of e-books, news magazines, comics.

I just thought that was a really interesting statistic because this is mainly young people they were talking to and I think people get really worried that they are just going to forget about books. I don’t think it’s as dire as that.

We can talk a bit more about the actual physical book and what’s so great about it as well. Personally, for me, I do – and you put up an article on your blog the other day about marginalia – I write in the margins and dog-ear my books and it is a very physical experience, reading a book. And I have had a chance to try out an e-reader and, yes, it was really great actually, this e-reader they have e-ink technology. So this is different to reading on a computer or an iPad or something. An actual e-reader which you download books into, like a Kindle. The one I tried was a Sony e-reader. It’s not backlit so it actually looks like a page. The technology is called e-ink. And it was really good, light – you could actually lie down and read, like this, without getting a tired arm – and you could fit hundreds, thousands of books in it. I read Animal Farm and it was a great experience. I didn’t notice what I was reading it on.

So they are getting cheaper and I think the publishers are starting to get on board and publish print and e-books and I think people are going to have the choice. And there’s another question of pricing and writers getting paid and things like that but maybe we’ll come back to that.


Thanks very much Angela. Now, Geordie, you had a very good piece published in The Australian Literature Review just last Wednesday, on this very subject. I enjoyed reading it and perhaps you might want to refer to that in your comments now. But what’s your take on the death of print?


I think we should perhaps return again to the idea of what we are talking about when we’re talking about print. In the 1890s, there was change to the copyright situation with regard to novels and their sale at railway station bookshops. Still Doubledays, even then. And what happened was, it became uneconomic for publishing houses to publish three-decker novels, as they had done very successfully for the, you know, the long 19th century. The disappearance of that three-decker lasted about five years and this is entirely a material issue of raw economics. Material factors, not literary ones. But in that five year gap, you move from the novels of Thackeray and Dickens to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the vertex of what we think of as literary modernism.

The form of the book made the content, as a vase decides the bouquet and we have to keep this in mind. I think that James touched on this, the notion of the book or what is ‘print’ is one that we can, e-book boosters say what you have in your battered Penguin Classic will be available to you on your screen. But of course anyone who’s actually used these readers will know that they are capable of so much more.

Who hasn’t used their web browser for something other than the job at hand? These screens are endless. There’s this wonderful academic blogger in the States, Justin Smith, and he said the unprecedented thing about the Internet is that it suddenly concentrates all aspects of our life in one machine. Work, eros, creativity, friendship – all in one device. And the point being that our 19th century anxieties about, you know, cotton looms, are entirely beside the point.

My argument is that Smith is right to say that the Internet is the nuclear option for literary culture. Everything that came before is going to change because the book, once in its new form, becomes untethered and James makes very good points, and has been making them to me for years, about ‘Why do you need pagination? Why do you need chapter breaks? Why not include music? Why not include images?’ If you Google enhanced e-books, you will see expansions in the idea of the book so great that it’s no longer possible to speak about there being an organic connection between the two.

Knowing that, in the early years of Gutenberg’s press, the books that were produced were made, very consciously, to look like manuscripts. In other words, no-one had yet explored the possibilities of movable type in that way. They wanted it to look like manuscripts had always looked. It took them a while but they discovered that print had its own logic and its own virtues and the manuscript and the printed book as we know it diverged.

When Lev says we’re not in the middle of a revolution, he’s right. And when James says we are in the middle of a revolution, he’s right. Because what we have is a brief period of historical co-existence which is ending almost as we speak.

In my pocket is an iPhone with Eucalyptus e-reader. I have more books in there than any Renaissance princeling ever had in his library and it cost me $12 at the app store. But when I pull up my page, and this is what got me in the first place, the book, the page literally flickers under your finger, giving the illusion of a printed page. When I see this, I think of those wannabe manuscripts that were produced when early printed books made their appearance.

The e-book is some very other thing to print and my concern, because my life, my livelihood, is tied up with the old thing, is that, in our excitement to make the transfer, we have, instead of seeing technology as a tool which must be used carefully and judicially, we’ve set the technology as a virtue in itself. And it’s just something that, I don’t want to be reactionary about it, I don’t want to look back fondly, but there’s something in this development which should give everyone disquiet.

Wikileaks was a little bit like the gossip sheets that used to be distributed, pages passed, hand by hand, prior to the French revolution, where information about the decadence of various noble men and women were distributed amongst the general population. They could not survive the widespread education of an angry public. Much in the same way the Tunisians, having heard about what their rulers were doing with their money, became very angry indeed and we all know what’s happened since. So this development can change, it can shape, the very notion of our settled, political situations. What will the death of print actually do to our literary culture?


Okay, excellent, we’re off and running now. We’ve got another 10 minutes to kick this around on the platform and then I’m going to open it up to questions and I hope, I expect many of you are going to have lots of questions.

Let’s just broaden the context slightly. I thought it very interesting that in Wednesday’s edition of the Australian Literary Review, the article immediately preceding yours was written by David Free and it was about some of the great works coming out on DVD, some of the great American television. And he is certain that the literature, the literature, of the age is now on DVD.  In other words, some of the great writing is in movies. Now, whether that’s right or wrong, I tend to think there is some great writing in movies and in television, marvellous writing. But what is the effect of screen, moving images, upon young people who are much more to not reading at all, but getting virtually everything from the screen and the only reading they are doing is on text, Twitter, Facebook, essentially that. Now we are told time and again this is the case. Now let’s kick that around. Who wants to start?


I do think that is quite reactionary, so I’m going to argue. I’ll just go back to the stats that kids still love reading print books. And I just want to make sure that this is out there, that not all e-books are enhanced e-books. I know you are saying it’s becoming that way, it’s going that way. A lot of them will be and particularly children’s books will have little videos instead of pictures and things like that. I don’t know what the effect of that is. People probably are learning differently. I don’t know if that’s something to be worried about though.

But I do feel, maybe I’m an optimist, but I feel there will still be this hunger for lengthy narratives with no interaction and pictures. The e-reader that I tried only had, it had a dictionary, and you could notate but it didn’t go on line. You had to plug it into a computer to put the books on it but you couldn’t just go on the wireless. So it wasn’t like you could be distracted by things. But a lot of them do have that capability. It’s still being worked out what we’ll be reading on in terms of when we’re reading digital print, digital text, but I’m just more of an optimist about that I think.


Okay, the effect of screen, who else?


Socrates deplored the coming of written texts because he said it would destroy people’s minds because they would no longer have to remember things. I think moral panic about technology changing and reducing us to gibbering idiots is a kind of ongoing thing that we have again and again.

That said, you know, I must say one of the things that drives me totally insane is if I buy something like a, you know, you buy a coffee machine, say, and instead of coming with an instruction booklet – because I read quite quickly, I absorb information reasonably well when I read – but they don’t give you an instruction sheet, they give you a f’ckin’ DVD. So you move from this situation where you’re absorbing information quickly and efficiently to a situation where you’ve got to sit through some drongo doing his…that drives me totally insane. So it is also about trying to remember what, you know, things work differently.

There’s all that very funny stuff in that Gary Shteyngart book about the kind of repulsion of text, you know, why would you want to do that? But I don’t know, I do think if the novel fades away, there is a kind of loss. If those long-form narratives fade away, there is a kind of loss there. But I’m not sure they actually will fade away. I think they will take on different forms. Will we watch long-form TV instead? I mean, I’m not sure that that’s actually realistic.


You’ve brought up a really good point with the instruction book because I read an article a little while ago about the interactive e-books and stuff, why the book in its forms that, maybe reading it digitally, will prevail. Because people want to use their imagination. That’s why they read. They don’t want to click a thing and find out exactly what the character looks like. You know, people get so disappointed often when their favourite book is made into a film because that’s not how they imagined it. They want to have this space for imagination and writers would know, a novelist would know, you probably get all different interpretations of your work, you know? So I think that’s another reason why the long form book will prevail.

And you look at what teenagers are reading and they are reading massive fantasy novels and things like that. Their attention spans, it might be changing, they might be taking breaks and tweeting about the book as they are reading it but they are still reading the book. They are getting through it.


It is worth noting, though, that they’re reading fantasy novels. I mean, one of the things that’s changing is the sorts of things people are reading, the sorts of literatures they are engaging with. Everyone wants to have a conversation here about technology but I think it’s actually worth having a conversation here about the way, as well, that critical and educational cultures have changed.

It used to be you got a very hierarchical knowledge of literature. You had an extremely hierarchical system and culture where people explained what was good and we all knew what was good because we’d been taught that. It’s not like that any more. People follow their tastes in a much more different kind of way. So I do think you’ve got a rise of the kind of books which, this is going to sound snobbish but it’s not meant to, but I mean, in a sense, you have a movement away from books which I think people find difficult to read towards books they actually just enjoy. I’m not trying to make a moral judgment here but I do think that is one of the things that’s going on. Lev may disagree.


I don’t. I was going to keep my powder dry on this. I want to just voice the point of view that I think an important thing to remember about technology is that more is not necessarily more. You know, because you can embed video in a book doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. I do not believe that such a thing as a good enhanced e-book has ever been produced. That animal does not exist. I suspect that it never will.

One of the interesting things about those early printed books that retained so many of the characteristics of the manuscript that came before them, that were shaped by the technologies that they were rendering, if not obsolete then secondary, is that they were some of the most beautiful printed books that were ever made. And, you know, in some ways they have never been surpassed.


Yes, I thought that on your article, which had a picture of Trinity College in Dublin and says ‘will this disappear?’ and I can’t see Trinity College disappearing because it’s got the Book of Kells, which is one of the most beautiful illustrated books ever produced.

Okay, so let’s expand it slightly and say, let’s look at the promotional and financial aspects of this because publishers are worried and publisher are mainly, there are some small publishers, but many publishers are owned by big conglomerates to whom the bottom line is everything and with bookstores disappearing or on the verge of disappearing, they need sales. If more sales, if you could, and I’ve just done this, I’m in the minority, I’ve just bought Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for 99 cents for a Kindle. I also own a copy, and I’m in a minority because I like Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not many people do. But what is the threat to the actual production of books? We are talking as if this is going to go on, publishers are always going to publish good writing. But they publish good writing in the hope that they can make some money somewhere. Now, can you see any effect? There must be an effect. What does the panel think? Who wants to go first?


I guess I covered this a little bit when I was working at Bookseller & Publisher magazine, a book trade magazine. It is a terribly sad thing that bookstores are closing down but that doesn’t necessarily mean the print book is dying. It just means that people are buying print books as well as e-books online.

The bookstores that prevail will be the ones that create a culture around themselves. That have events, that get online and sell their books online. I think Readings bookstore is a good example, in Melbourne. It’s five independent stores and people are proud of shopping at Readings, you know, it’s got this sort of culture around it. I’m just thinking of the publishing side of things. I think that’s where a lot of what James was talking about comes from. Publishers are publishing to trend and it is the smaller publishers, I think, that are picking up a lot of the other types of book and then of course there’s that opportunity for self-publishing. I’ve read quite a few stories recently of people who’ve sold books on Amazon, sold them for 99 cents, and then given up their day jobs. But the thing around that is, they have to already have a name a lot of the time or they have to write something that’s in a real niche, which you can’t get anywhere else. Or the other thing is people who have already published books and have a name.


You know, what I find most interesting about e-books is e-books not really as a way of presenting text but as a way of distributing it. This idea that in order to be published, you no longer need to impress an agent and the agent impresses an editor and that acts as a kind of filtering mechanism. Anybody who wishes to now publishes themselves on Amazon or any number of other places.

It’s going to be very, very interesting to see whether in fact we do see an explosion of innovation, the kind of thing you talked about, and new voices. I’m starting to wonder if maybe that’s actually not going to happen.

I have a feeling, it’s just a theory, which I’m debuting here, that in fact in order to build a following as a self-published author, it’s actually important to be extremely conventional and to give people things that…when you buy something from a self-published author, you’re taking a chance because they don’t have that official stamp of approval on it. I think when that happens, people publish extremely conventional stuff. They don’t take risks and it actually takes a publishing house to bring a risky, innovative voice to the public.


I think it’s fair to say that there have been some very good results from this shake-up. The corporate consolidation of global publishing, which was a feature of the landscape in the 80s and 90s, kind of reached its total. It was just one monolithic organisation.

It, I think, inculcated in its staff a kind of a tendency towards publishing more, getting it out more quickly, taking it back off the shelves if it didn’t sell, of elevating authors’ first books to kind of stellar positions on the back of the strength of the amount of money they were given, which was unfair to those authors when, say someone like Grahame Greene, where the water didn’t start running clear until his fifth book.

These publishing houses actually hastened their own demise and one of the things that Angela pointed towards is that it’s the smaller, the indies, the little publishing houses, that have been more nimble in their approach to publishing.

I think Lev mentioned a really good point that if the self-published direction is one that actually creates an environment where you tend to be conventional, the global publishing has often been conventional and this shake-up allows us to return to books that are odd, that are different, that are wrong-box. There’s a woman in Sydney who has recently self-published a title which no normal publishing house would have dealt with. A review of this book will appear in The Australian in coming weeks where the reviewer will say this is splendid, it’s the kind of book that would never have been published under the old regime. So, as the barriers break down, I think we actually will see good books and there will be a return to coterie publishing, the kind of publishing we had before corporate consolidation.

What we may lose and what’s most worrying is to lose the editorial apparatus and that’s what I think Lev is referring to when he talks about the significant role that continues to be played by the analog publishing community.


I actually don’t disagree with Lev that there is a kind of highly conventional writing that comes through from a lot of self-publishing. There’s a lot of very same-ish writing. But that’s not what I was talking about. When I was talking about an explosion of creativity, that’s not actually what I was talking about.

What I was saying was what you’re seeing is a kind of boom in a series of genre writing, which is incredibly healthy at the moment and very exciting and very energetic. But also you’ve got a lot of things happening about people using online distribution to publish comics that they write each week. You know, producing graphic novels. Kind of small, and you were talking about coterie publishing, coterie publishing producing interesting little monographs, interesting little literary magazines and things like that. Now they are not really blips on the international publishing horizon, you know, in terms of the economics. They have very small readerships and that kind of thing. But I feel like there is a kind of energy underlying the scene at the moment which is actually very interesting and I think it compares interestingly to the absolute exhaustion of literary publishing.

You know, literary publishing, and I don’t think that Lev would disagree, looks exhausted at the moment. It just looks totally exhausted. And I do think that is connected to…something has happened to the way people read. If I read another kind of well-mannered collection of short stories about middle-class people having moments in the suburbs of Wisconsin I will stick a fork in my eye.


I think a temporary ban on Wisconsin will benefit us all..


I do think something is going on. I suspect that we’re all kind of saying the same thing in slightly different ways.


Okay, well look, we could go on forever and this is fascinating but I do want to throw it open to the audience. (instructions)


Thanks. I’d like to hear a little more from the panel about the impact of e-publishing on the art of editing and the role of the editor but also, following on from that conversation, we hear a lot about the impact of music piracy and film piracy on the film and music industries leading to some kind of commercialisation. That the only musician who can get a record deal is the one who can also sell products and be a manufactured pop star, I suppose. The same with book piracy, when I lived in China I could buy very good copies of books very, very cheaply.  Can you only get a book deal if you’re going to be a best seller?


One thing I find interesting that’s happening a little bit is, you know, the editorial process, well, is it vital to the production of books, is it not? One thing I found very interesting online is the way that the editorial process is getting a little bit crowd-sourced.

I don’t know if any of you follow the fan fiction scene at all. But, fan fiction writers, huge, huge shadow world of literary production – shadow sounds pejorative – just very large and not visible to everybody. And there’s a class, there’s a role that’s evolved within the fan fiction community which is beta reading. Beta readers will read your fan fiction for you and give you feedback, do copy editing and stuff. So it’s very interesting to see that editorial process not going away, instead being transferred out into the public, crowd-sourced realm.


All power to editors, editors are wonderful. They are terrific.  I suspect you will see a move within the scene, where, as people begin to self-publish more – and I know one quite significant Australian writer is about to self-publish their own book because they can’t be bothered dealing with a publisher, and they’ve hired an editor to work on it – I think you will see a move to more kind of agency models. I suspect most writers will stick with publishing houses simply because, if you can get a deal, you know, I’m a writer, I’m not a publisher. Publishing is actually really difficult. People think that it’s not but it is actually really difficult. You want a professional to be doing it for you.

But I do think there is a kind of romanticisation of editing in literature. I don’t mean for a minute to diminish the work that editors do which I think is very important, very difficult. But I think, when you look at something like TV, we’re extremely untroubled by the notion that the production of TV is an industrial process. Writers write scripts, they come in, the script editors tidy them up, they call them show-runners in the States but, you know, they come in, the writing team deal with them, they polish them up, they re-write them, they change them, they go on and then get made. Now, we’re completely untroubled by the notion that that script, which might be very good, is a collaborative process. A highly industrial thing.

We get very, very angsty about it when we’re talking about books and I suspect the difference is one of degree rather than anything more than that. It’s worth remembering that, going back to this crowd-sourcing thing, it’s just a different way of doing something that’s an industrial process. And I think you need to be careful that you’re not getting caught up in the whole romanticised notion of the author’s genius, the beautiful relationship with the editor. That does exist but it’s only one expression of something that can be done a number of different ways.


I’ll talk about the second part of that. I find that really fascinating as well. I think you’re talking a little bit about the cult of the author or how they build themselves as a personality, perhaps so that people feel loyalty towards them so they don’t buy the pirated book? (clarification from audience member) Yeah, whether book piracy is having that kind of impact. I don’t know that much about book piracy yet. I know that it is going on, but it is really interesting with the online world and authors are having to build, or wanting to build, public profiles and coming into that social media world and have blogs and Twitter accounts and Facebook and I think perhaps that would help in some ways build loyalty but I’m not 100 per cent sure.


I want to say something quickly about the piracy thing because it’s something that interests me a lot. I’m one of those journalists who, 2003, 2004, was loudly proclaiming that in 10 years, Hollywood and the big record studios would no longer exist. They would have been taken apart by pirates and picked clean. The fascinating thing is that it hasn’t happened. Those are still viable businesses, very viable.

There was actually an attempt by the US Government – and you when they get after something , you know it’s going to happen – to do a comprehensive study of what the impact of… they wanted to prove that piracy had substantively damaged the entertainment industry and their report came out last year. They couldn’t really do it. Either it doesn’t happen on a big enough scale or the extent to which people pirate works, when people pirate works, it gives artists exposure and leads to actual legitimate sales. They actually could not prove that the music and movie industries had been damaged by piracy. So I’m cautiously optimistic that book publishing as well is going to work with that.


It’s useful to think of piracy as market failure.  The reason that the music industry ended up with the massive piracy problem is that CDs were too expensive and too hard to get. If TV is cheap and easy to get, people will pay $1 for it. But, I mean, it is about pricing and it is about the market recognising pricing. Now, the problem is that the market wants books to cost $2 and they cost more than that to produce. But I think it’s useful to think of piracy as market failure rather than anything else.


Hi. I’m Ian Nicholls. I’m a reviewer for The West Australian, a writer, a publisher and an editor of a small press magazine. So I have some credentials in the industry. There’s one part that we haven’t examined in our discussion here and that’s the other side – publishing as an industry in itself. I was talking to the editor of Baen Books over in the States, a couple of years ago and he was saying that there is no good economic model for e-publishing. This is on top of Baen Books having a vast library of free e-books. You can download them, you can put them on your computer,  you can do anything you want. But the conclusion that he came to and this was later supported by other authors, particularly Scott Sigler, is that e-publishing is a very, very effective form of advertising because people go out and buy the books after they’ve read them.


Okay, thank you. Is that the question?


Well, is it better advertising than actual publishing? It is a revolution in the publishing industry or the advertising industry?


That’s a good question. Thank you.


I think it’s a little too early to say how this will all pan out and the most important thing is yet to take place and that’s going to happen in the US and that’s when a judge decides on the final form of the Google book agreement. What happens then is unprecedented because it’s a little bit like a Norman landowner in England going and putting a very, very large fence around the entire nation and saying ‘that’s mine now’.

There are all kinds of positive events that will flow from the Google book deal, the settlement, if it is done carefully. It’s also a massive grab of our patrimony. But once those orphans are in the public realm then you actually see e-books at work because, for a long time, many of the books that are not the immediate best sellers on your shelves have fallen into a kind of half-life where the rights owners have disappeared or it’s unknown who owns the rights. The books are not being republished because no-one can do it.

A combination of e-books and the Google book settlement suddenly means that 10 million books that weren’t available to you unless you went down to the library and hunted through the stacks at a copyright library will now be available and at that point, presumably, it becomes a very lucrative deal for Google.


Sorry, I’m just going to disagree with something Geordie said then which is the notion of orphan works, which is really what you’re talking about. It’s one of the arguments that publishers use against kind of shifts in copyright regimes. It’s actually crap.

All of the studies into orphan works demonstrate that the problem is actually much smaller than the publishers estimate it to be and the most of the books that are orphan works – and orphan works are works for whom they are still in copyright so someone has got to deal with the rights in order to publish them, but no-one can work out who the rights holders are – are actually reasonably few and the reason they are not in print is that no-one buys them. So they are not actually a big issue for the industry. That’s a small point. I mean, I think the large point that you’re making is right but that is worth pointing out. That’s one of the things publishers want you to think. It’s actually not true.


Hello. I was just wondering, if people still like to read books, and we’ve all heard that Borders in America has closed, and why is it that some book stores still survive, like Dymocks here, for example, are still going well. So I was just wondering, did Borders have a better business model? What was the reason for it closing?


There’s a lot been written about it, a lot of theories about it but yeah, my opinion is that, culture, I think also that Dymocks, they have their loyalty club which I think they use quite well. Also, I think pretty much all the Dymocks stores are franchises and that means that they are bought by someone very passionate about books. I’m not actually 100 per cent sure how many of the Borders and Angus & Robertson stores here were just company stores but, I’m not 100 per cent sure, but I think a lot of it has to do with the culture and the feel around the bookstore as to whether people will keep coming back. Anyone else?


Readings in Carlton saw off…one of the chain booksellers opened across the road and one of the fascinating things was to actually watch people actively not go into the big chain store. They’d go across the road to Readings. So I think the trick of being a bookstore…it’s actually a really great time to be an independent book dealer or a book seller in the right part of town with the right clientele, because there’s always that third space between work and home where people wish to congregate and bookshops provide that. I think as Angela mentioned earlier, there’s probably an enhanced role for those spaces in the future, for discussion and for things that surround the literary act that are just beyond selling a book.

I spent years behind the counter of an independent bookshop in Sydney and I would have been a millionaire if I got a dollar for every person who came in and said ‘it smells so good in here’. What we sometimes forget is the tactile pleasures. The full spectrum sensoria of the book experience is one that people are probably going to still be willing into the future to maybe pay a premium to have.


Sorry, just a quick remark, whilst we’re delivering eulogies for Borders. I owe a large part of my career as a novelist to Borders. One of the reasons that my last book did as well as it did was that there was a buyer at Borders who saw it. He read it, for some reason it really worked for him. He put in a really outsize buy for that book, put in a big order. Barnes & Noble got word of it and thought ‘oh, we better get this in’ and Border put a lot of muscle behind it on a national level. No-one else could have done that for me, so I feel a twinge about Borders.


We should point out they’re two different fish. Borders US, which began as an exemplary bookstore that sort of took over the nation. Ours was run by some money men who really didn’t know what they were doing.


I would actually say, I love bookstores, they’re wonderful, I love booksellers, they’re wonderful people. As an author I love them. I wouldn’t be a bookseller now for quids. When I was a kid, which was 30 years ago now, there were CD stores on every corner. Every high street there was a CD store, except they were record stores because I’m that old. But we won’t go there. Every single thing that Geordie and Angela have just said about bookshops, the tactile smell, the community, all of those things, you could have said about those CD stores. They are all gone.

I’m not saying that I think it’s necessarily the end of bookstores. I think there will be bookstores that find a way to survive. I think they have a very difficult period ahead of them and I think we need to be careful about making these arguments about community, smell, you know, the happenstance of finding music you hadn’t heard before, because you could have said that about all those high street CD shops.


The other thing about Readings actually is that they sell books, music and DVDs so, I don’t know if that has something to do with it.


I think one of the things that doesn’t get said about this though is that, talking about music again, when I was a kid, music was like a lifeline and it was incredibly rare and precious and books were the same. You all must remember that thing about saving up to buy a record to give to someone, you know, and then you had it to listen to over and over again. That’s all gone. It’s all about profusion now. You can have anything you want and that has a whole set of other challenges because we’ve gone from scarcity to over-abundance.


Do you think we’ll see a shift of book-reading going from a solitary experience to a more social experience where now you can say have a book club or a class room where everyone’s reading the same book literally, where you can all see where everyone else is in the book, you can share notes about the book, using an e-book itself?


Have you seen, I think it’s called You’ve got a musical track and at every point along, individuals have actually uploaded their comments. So you can literally go through the song and some kind of collaborative reading experience will follow from that kind of thing.


It is happening already. There are websites where people are reading classics together and there are comment boxes and things like that. I have a role in talking about books, I’m reading 20 classics this year and there’s a bunch of people who read my blog and are getting on board with that and commenting on the blog, commenting on my Facebook page and, not necessarily reading them in the same order or anything but being a part of that.

I think people just love talking about books – I mean that’s why we’re all at a writers festival as well – and I think that they will continue to do that online just like they do in real life. But yes, the actual collaborative reading of something is a really interesting one. I’m not sure it would work as well for, say, like a new book, but when it’s something that people have studied and want to talk about, yeah.


I attempted to jump in early on with the one sentence answer ‘God, I hope not.’ There’s a great book by Jonathan Franzen called How to be Alone. Books are how I learned to manage solitude, to learn how to concentrate, to have extended trains of thought by myself, developing my own ideas, my own kind of imagination. I look with horror on the idea of book reading becoming social because fricking everything else is.


I would agree with everything Lev just said. Look, I feel that the kind of collaborative book club thing is one of the things that’s actually changing the nature of what’s getting published and where.

Book clubs are wonderful. I’m excited that people want to read books like that, I think it’s really interesting. But when I listen, my partner is in one and when I listen to the way that they talk about books, I just want to scream. They come over, it’s all about ‘Did you like that character? Did you not like that character? What did you think of that character’s arc?’, you know, and I sit there thinking this is the most asinine critical language you can use in talking about that book, it reveals nothing that, as an author, I want people to notice.

As an author I want them to notice the textures of the book, the psychology, there’s a series of things I want them to see, and yet they are talking about stuff that sounds like it came out of Christopher Vogler’s screenwriting manual and I think if that then feeds back into the kinds of books that get published and the way they get published…

I know as an author, I don’t know if the others would feel this way, but one of the things you feel is that there is a series of literary devices that you want to use because you assume that your readers will know about them. Readers are becoming so literal that it’s actually kind of difficult to use lots of them now. ‘How did they know that? They weren’t there.’ It’s a novel!


Also, speaking as an author rather than a reader, if there are book clubs out there that are interested in my book, we’ll talk later.


Okay, look, the sign of a good panel is when you’ve got to kill it while it’s still alive. Thank you all for coming and please thank our panel.


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  1. Pingback: The Death of Print? Maybe Not | Waxings

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