Author Gavin James Bower has written this post for FutureBook: The future of the book, if you believe the hype, hinges less on publishers and more on one of the retail and technology giants – Apple, Google, Amazon – dominating the space, both in terms of market share and platform.
That 85% of ebooks are now purchased through Kindle at least covers the former – for now. But what of the latter: format? Some commentators – very few, but some – have argued that there's no impending death of the book at all, and the question of hardware’s moot. As Dan Franklin’s maintained on this blog – James Bridle with his Open Bookmarks, too – reading won't go away. Only the experience of reading will change.
So how does that impact on me, an author?
It’s fairly clear that publishers of printed content have dragged their heels. This is because they're spinning out about retailers, distribution and price. There's no industry standard. No NBA equivalent or consensus on discount. Just look at how the agency model's been rammed down everyone's throats – and now even agents are publishing ebooks.
To paraphrase Moe from The Simpsons, even when it was the supermarkets publishers knew it was the agents.
More worryingly, however, there's a sense that they’re all just waiting for things to settle – and a convention to emerge. Thing is, the somewhat hackneyed paradox with digital applies here: the only constant is change.
While traditional publishers wait for a digital Gutenberg moment – a day when one platform comes to dominate all others, becoming the conventional way of reading for everyone – today’s authors are left floundering, albeit smug in the knowledge that this day will never come.
How do authors (and writers broadly) expect to make money, though? The traditional channels are closing for all but the top (and burgeoning bottom; self-published authors who can often be both agile and opportunistic). It's a revolutionary time to be a writer – but a scary one, too.
With the models that have been so reliable for so long consigned to the dustbin, we’re at the mercy of two things: technology, and the market. Around 300,000 books were published last year, alongside another 2.9 million self-published titles. It's a bottom-up culture like we've never known before.
Is this the end of history, so far as publishing’s concerned? Maybe.
Or maybe not. Optimists – and there are even fewer of those – suggest that the industry already accepts consumer reading behaviour will progress organically, based on the technology on offer. The market will decide.
But what simultaneously frightens and excites me is that authors have never been granted such an opportunity for agility, tailoring their wares for each and every format as it comes off the production line.
500 words on a day in the life of a Ridley Road Market trader called Al, whose favourite song is ‘You Can Call Me Al’? Flash fiction – and free.
A 3,000-word, Carver-esque short involving Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals and self-mutilation? 99p via Shortfire Press.
That wizard, I mean, vampire trilogy you’ve been sitting on? Well you’re going to need a ‘proper’ publisher...or are you?
As traditional publishing remains static, trapped in a web of caution and ineptitude, the rest of us have been given the chance to skip modernism altogether. Now's the time for everyone – the general public included – to embrace a writing and reading experience that’s cross-platform, defies convention and adapts with its audience. For the first time, reading will be truly social – and popular.
We’re all postmodernists now.
Gavin James Bower is an author and journalist. His second novel, Made in Britain, is published in September. He lives in London.