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Nigel Hamilton

Nigel Hamilton

Posted: October 13, 2010 06:20 PM

Apocalypse in Print

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Gutenberg started this craze for ink-and-print. Before then, we had woodcuts and copyists, laboriously transcribing the prophets, the words of the Almighty, the words about the Almighty, and almighty words, mostly onto parchment... After Gutenberg, though, sales of books about non-religious subjects began to proliferate.

Finally, five hundred years after Gutenberg, in the wake of World War II, everyone went to college, either on the GI Bill or his or her parents' wallet, and a vast new market for non-fiction books mushroomed out of what had been paper-marshland. It was like agribusiness -- with a proliferation of publishers' imprints. Soon, every self-respecting graduate (whether of college or the school of knocks) wanted to "be published." It was Everyman's fifteen hours of fame calling to us, long before Andy Warhol reduced it to minutes for the pictorati.

New technology aided and abetted this publishing trend -- simplifying typesetting, mass binding, and printing itself. The advent of paperbacks allowed publishers to appeal to two classes of consumers: libraries and the "general public" -- with richer customers still buying the library hardbacks for their private libraries. Despite radio, film and television the dream of "being published" lived on in our culture -- indeed the rewards of being published were, in hindsight, remarkable. Where very few writers in history had ever been able to live off of their royalties as authors, suddenly there was a whole class of post-WWII "professional writers" who often supplemented their pay with journalism and teaching, but primarily relied heavily on the fruits of their book-labors -- fictional and non-fictional.

Money was both a lure and a problem, though, for the publishers -- and just as whole industries saw the rise of mergers, takeovers and "multi-nationals" that came to dominate what had once been multi-owned, geographically dispersed, independent firms, so mainstream publishing gradually devolved onto a few international parent companies, who amassed subsidiary imprints and benefitted from the supposed economies of scale. Even bookselling succumbed to the trend -- Barnes & Noble, Borders and other chains crowding out the independents.

For authors who were successfully "marketed" by such conglomerates (such as the Bertlesmann, Hachette, News Corporation, Pearson, etc groups) the pickings were wonderful while they lasted. Rather like the housing market -- and Wall Street!

But then came the dark cloud: a cloud that has seen the publishing industry go into sudden crisis mode -- unseen, unreported and unknown to the general public.

Have you heard of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest annual publishing get-together fest? Heard that it took place last week? Heard it reported on television, radio or in our newspapers. Heard anything about it?

No? Small wonder. The Frankfurt Book Fair, this year, has gone unreported in America, even though the bleak future that was discussed there behind closed doors (and in publishers' booths) represents probably the biggest change in writing and publishing since Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith, experienced what he called "a ray of light," and started up his first-ever movable-type press in 1440 in Strasbourg, then in Mainz.

Five hundred and seventy years later Frankfurt-am-Main, on October 5, 2010, found publishers from across the globe "in buoyant mood," according to London's Guardian newspaper last week -- having banished 2009's "mood of austerity," and busy toasting Alfred Knopf's advance of $2.5 million to a second-time Indian novelist Kiran Desai. (Heard of her?) This offer was based on a four-page proposal given out by Andrew Wylie, the New York literary agent. Brilliant!

But wait a minute! Wasn't it Andrew Wylie who, in July, said he was going to sell digital rights to his authors' books direct to Amazon, without bothering with publishers -- like Knopf -- at all?

Mmm. When in doubt, read the small print. On the web, that is. Track down, if you will, the London Times' brave reporter, Helen Rumbelow, who wrote a piece called "Dead Or Alive" last week from Frankfurt itself. She said the people "in charge of the world's books" had gathered for a great junket -- and had encountered instead "a bloodbath"! "Nearly a quarter of a million people will arrive today at the glowering conference hall in Germany with an unprecedented mixture of fear and excitement," she wrote. "The reason is digital." She quoted one agent talking of "an industry in total flux and chaos," another saying: "it's like wrestling in fast-setting concrete." And one previous, best-selling, chair of the Society of Authors opining: "I hope to God I'm being apocalyptic, but I'm deeply worried for the writers of the future."

Summarizing, Helen noted: "The role of agents, publishers and retailers is up for grabs." Print goes down the sink, digital takes over among young people -- but without them being willing to pay the sums people did in the old days for a hardback book, and without the same number of books actually being read. Ergo: little or nothing left (at 10 per cent) for the poor author!

One literary agent declared the secret mood of Frankfurt as "vague hysteria" -- with no-one having any idea what to do, or how to do it, "in a market changing so quickly."

Well, authors: welcome to the same world that recording musicians have known for some time! It's not the end of music, or even the end of people listening to music. It's the end of being paid to make it! None of our author-societies -- or newspapers here in America -- is willing to tell the plain truth, but it is staring us in the face, and it's called ruin by any other name!
An editor from a university press gave a confidential talk to my biographers group, here in Boston, a couple of weeks ago; she said her university press was reduced to printing only 300 copies of a new hardback.

Three hundred copies? Anyone wanting to live on (let alone fund research on) the 10 per cent royalties from 300 copies, please raise your hand!

Understand why I've been in a funk since visiting with publishers and agents in London last spring, as I explained in an earlier blog (Born Again Biographer)?

And my epiphany, as the garage door squeaked and protested, but finally opened over my four-year old, dusty hybrid (a trusty Ford Escape that I and my dog, Harvey, love)?
It's this:

The printed book is dead -- at least, the book as we have known it since Gutenberg. It's going digital not only among the young, but even the ancient. And nothing can halt that -- any more than medieval copyists and aficionados of hand-made parchment Bibles could in Gutenberg's day. E-reading is a'comin'. The party's over -- and authors will have to adapt.

Part of that adaptation involves re-thinking the roles of agents and publishers. Did authors in Gutenberg's day employ such middlemen? No - the printer acted as publisher/bookseller, securing advance subscriptions from interested customers. So what is to stop the modern -- or postmodern -- author from getting Amazon to print, market and distribute his or her work, from the manuscript e-text? Even audio-book it, if the author is willing to read it onto a digital tape? Why bother with an agent? Why bother with a publisher?

The editor who spoke to us the other week predicted the wholesale collapse of publishers, as an industry, in America in the next 24 to 48 months. Out of the ashes, yes, there will be niche areas of paper publishing -- as in educational textbooks, perhaps -- where specialist knowledge of a defined market will prevent the complete collapse of an imprint. But in terms of general printed books, fiction and non-fiction? Their future is science fiction, metaphorically as well as literally. It's a brave new world in which the author is guaranteed: Nothing! You will be your own agent/publisher -- responsible for your own digital editing, your own digital typesetting/formatting, your choice of e-jacket, your "book's" advance publicity, and its marketing -- the latter in co-operation with Amazon. Or Google, once they go into distribution.

My epiphany -- such a big word for such a simple realization -- is that my days of plenty are over. The years of the locust lie ahead. Out of the back of my beloved Ford hybrid I shall, grey-haired as I am, be in the future encouraging people to buy and download my digitized work, or hauling boxes of instant-printed books to sell at readings/talks I shall give around the country, into my dotage, on my chosen topics: the American presidency, military history, German literature, biography...

"Hang on to your day jobs!" one of our members remarked, at our biographers meeting. (Each of us is devoted to resurrecting a chosen life in biographical form, and we gain comfort from sharing our common concerns with fellow biographers.)

You know what: she's right. Writing's a great and wonderful craft, like painting or pottery, or playing jazz in front of aficianados. A few, like Kiran Desai, may actually make it big in the looming digi-world, especially if film rights attach; but for the rest of us, it's going to be a matter of returning to our roots as authors rather than as commodities -- and that may not be a bad thing. If we know at whom we're aiming our work, we can surely match 300 copies -- even exceed that modest total. We won't get rich -- but we'll be published. And proud.

Nigel Hamilton is President of Biographers International Organization (BIO), and a senior fellow in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, UMass Boston. His Biography: A Brief History, and How To Do Biography: A Primer, appeared in 2007 and 2008 (Harvard University Press). His latest biography is American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush (Yale 2010).

 

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