I often peruse the news in search of any articles about books. Partly because it’s something I’m interested in and always happy to read about, but also because it’s a section of the news that is pretty guaranteed not to ruin my mood. New books are always exciting. And let’s face it, the news doesn’t tend to report the raindrops on roses, or whiskers on kittens.
(Maria doesn’t mention books explicitly in the song, but we know what’s in the brown paper packages tied up with string.)
So comparatively, the books section is nearly always a source of the good. But in perusing recently I was struck by the way a few different articles all engaged, on some level, with a dialogue that seems to dominate how we think about books and the publishing industry in general. And it was a theme that actually, when I thought about it, wasn’t rosy at all. My bubble of happiness was burst. Let me explain my dilemma.
The first article I read is about a new regional 24-hour library. It reports that a rural community in the Central West, called Tullamore, has recently been trialling a system where the library can be accessed 24 hours a day, you just need to sign up for a membership and become a key holder. Prior to this new arrangement, the library was only open a few hours a week, which made it very difficult for residents to take out and return books. Now that the changes have been made, significant increases have been shown in borrowing. Compared to the last financial year, borrowing is up 80%. A pretty substantial increase. The article quotes residents who are delighted with the changes, local Pam Mortimer calling the upgrade a “new freedom” for the area. While before books and borrowing them was unpopular and inconvenient, the library barely serving its purpose, now it seems the tables have drastically turned.
The second article is about a new, and very different type of novel, which comes in eBook form. Richard Lea explains that the book, A Universe Explodes by Tea Uglow, requires you to add one word and remove two from each page. Only after making these changes to the novel can you then pass it on to it’s next owner. And thus a process of transfiguration is enacted. Lea notes that while at first the experience is strange and uncomfortable, it becomes a very interesting project as each new reader contributes new aspects to this ever-evolving work. The idea is intriguing and engaging. It forces you to be a part of the development of the novel itself, something you can’t achieve in the same way with traditional press. Again innovations and changes have been made to encourage reader engagement. An important element to note about the idea and how it was conceived is that this experimental type of reading was not, as you would assume, for the sake of being experimental. Actually, as Uglow explains, the drive behind the idea was making eBook’s more similar to their printed counterpart. By making this eBook more physically accessible, changeable and personal, it becomes more like the beat up novel in your bag and less like the digital novel you can only own the licence to read. So in doing something quite different to the traditional book, Uglow is actually striving to replicate the traditional reading experience.
The third article I read is about the resurgence of consumer preference for printed books over eBooks. Much like my last blog post, Alex Preston looks at the change in the market and consumer choices and why this could have happened. He similarly notes the beauty and intricacy of printed covers and the importance of appreciating cover art. Cheers for backing me up 😉
At first these three article seem to be quite different. They look at distinct and separate news-worthy things that are happening in publishing and reading communities, one as simple as giving keys to borrowers, another totally transforming the very process of reading itself. But despite their differences the major similarity between them, that I couldn’t help but notice, was the sense that these changes and new ideas were necessary, even crucial, developments that were needed to keep the industry functioning and to keep books being read.
The library changed it’s hours so that people would actually engage with the neglected books in their library. The strange structure of the eBook A Universe Explodes aims to bring something new to the reading experience, to jazz it up and encourage interest, but also to mimic the new demand for traditional print. And the conversation about eBook versus traditional printing is hinged on discovering how to get and keep consumer interest. All these areas are tapping into the idea that we must keep frantically striving to achieve interest in books. What underpins all these articles is the knowledge of potential failure without adaption. The idea seems to run through the back of your mind while reading, that this is yet another attempt to curb the the loses of the industry.
Sure the publishing industry has had it’s fair share of challenges. The last article was the most outright in its recognition of this background consciousness of failure. Alex Preston writes, “the appearance of e-readers seemed to flummox a publishing industry reeling from the financial crisis and Amazon’s rampant colonisation of the market.” He lists the issues the industry has had to face in recent years so that they’re there for us to see, blatant and unquestionable. And with this knowledge now in the forefront of my mind, all these different attempts to promote reading that are discussed in the articles, became tinged with desperation. Like the end of the industry is nigh. Like there’s a real possibility it could all go up in flames.
Suddenly, all these changes seem to come off not as art evolving, or creative people trying new creative outlets, or simply extending library opening hours, but more like a lifeline, a defibrillator for the heart of publishing, willing readership back to life. All industries change and develop over time, it’s the nature of society, the nature of creativity, the nature of humanity. So why then does the publishing industry seem to be painted with the sense of it’s imminent death? A paranoia of possible failure seems to loom over us. I think it’s about time that the bleak, outdated fallacy is rejected for what it is, and that we come to celebrate the tenacity of an industry that will always survive. After all, it’s an industry of invention, of imagination, of introspection, of observation, of originality. Of course it’s going to change, and of course it’s going to survive.