That pithy quotation from Greek philosopher Heraclitus comes readily to mind: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Except that where large swathes of technology are concerned, it’s almost obligatory to watch the ever-changing river without stepping in it at all, simply because the pace of change is too rapid to comprehend. I have read that the next generation of smart phones will be bendy, because of the advent of flexible glass and rubbery components. How do we know if this is a great advance or a completely obsolescent fantasy driven by an advance in material science and manufacturing?
Equally, I have heard that almost all of the thousands of apps available through Apple’s app store are now considered ‘zombies.’ They are not being tended to by their original creators, and they are not being downloaded. Heraclitus’ river turns out to be a tidal estuary. While the incoming tide is a feast of new and exciting, the outgoing tide is just as swollen with failure and shrugs.
I’m the first to admit that this all this is massively exciting. But it is also very difficult to know what’s next and who or what are the winners — and more importantly, the losers.
Take publishing. During the past few days, I have had a plaintive cry from an Oxonian author, terribly apologetic for having self-published a memoir. He explained that after enormous effort to attract a real publisher, he was offered a contract, but it stipulated that he would pay them, for very little effort on their part, and the book would be marketed as ‘social history’, which it patently was not.
The same day I met a famous author, by association, who has just spent £5,000 self-publishing her book, both paper and e-Book, completely fed up with the “stupid world of publishing.” Then, a day later, I reviewed a disgracefully shoddy book by a tiny regional publisher, about cycling. I ended the review:
Weird, but I ended the 'book' thinking that it is further evidence for the demise of the book. Not as long as a magazine (at 127 pages) nor as svelte as a 'bookazine', and not detailed enough to be a serious treatment of any particular subject, it is an uneven instance of a marginal genre. If this was an app, I'd be recommending it just for the training schedules, which are (possibly) worthy of the (steep) Kindle price of £7.99.
These recent conversations have coincided with a real enthusiasm for my first Kindle, which I purchased earlier this year. Until then, I had watched nonchalantly from the bank of that particular river, firm in the view that until I needed an e-Reader I would not buy one. The turning point came when I needed to read, for a work project, a niche title only available as an e-Book. At that point I was stuck, so I jumped off the bank and straight into a Kindle Paperwhite.
It suits travel, it saves my flat from sinking under the pressure of more books (there are at least 2,000 titles hogging space), and it is brutally efficient where you just want the text and nothing but the text – content rather than artistry, and searchable too. This tells me that e-Books will rapidly devour most ‘utilitarian’ publishing, including 99% of academic publishing. It’s incredible that this hasn’t already happened, and I feel myself swimming hard with that particular tide.
However — there’s always a ‘however’ where technology is concerned — I don’t know what I’ve really bought with an eBook. I can’t sell a title on. I don’t know if Amazon’s proprietary encoding format Topaz will be eclipsed by something else that I can’t yet imagine, meaning that I will be required to re-buy my library from scratch, much as I re-bought my audio cassettes as CDs, and then again as MP3s. Worst of all, yesterday I went to buy a very mainstream, very famous American title that is taught to millions of undergraduates almost as a right of passage — Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man — but it doesn’t exist as an e-Book.
No wonder there is turmoil in the world of publishing. Sir Max Hastings compared it recently to “Paris in the reign of terror.” He was referring to a situation where in the course of a single week in July, the female bosses of HarperCollins and Random House, Victoria Barnsley and Dame Gail Rebuck respectively, were ousted, to be replaced by digital content meisters Charlie Redmayne and Tom Weldon (Weldon is an Oxonian, incidentally).
You could spill loads of ink over the meaning of any of this, but the only point here is that Redmayne had previously launched Pottermore, the website devoted to Harry Potter, and also where you (have) to go to buy the digital versions of all seven Potter books. The future of books is content like the digital extension of Harry Potter, where the reader becomes a co-creator, where there is all sorts of rich media allowing you to hear, see and explore, jump off, go backwards, digress.
At best, it will bring a dusty piece of Shakespeare to life, with a bravado performance by Emma Thompson just a tap away. At worst, I expect, it will be the equivalent of 3D spectacles at the cinema. A new breed of authors — perhaps content creators is a better term — will hash up bad plots bent to the needs of flashy animation and other digital tricks that deprive your imagination of all its natural fuel. This battle will rage with a peculiar intensity where children’s literature is concerned, because of legitimate worries about education versus entertainment.
I am also reminded of US TV presenter and car nut Jay Leno’s view, that horse welfare rose with the advent of the automobile, and by extension, his beloved collection of gas-guzzling supercars will be rendered acceptable by the mass adoption of zero-emission electric cars. By extension, the world of paper publishing is thriving where it is celebrating its (high) art, unapologetically, and at a certain (high) price point.
In the past month I have received my regular subscriber edition of cycling publication Rouleur, an extraordinarily physical rendition of thick paper, ink, photography and careful words that smashes down onto my doormat with emphasis, and is deemed to be ‘collectible’ (which justifies a high price).
I have also received the most astonishingly ornate book I have ever seen, from a certain cognac producer in France celebrating a major anniversary. To say that it is a work of art is to underestimate the result. I would not even want to guess what it cost to produce; it is an instance of vanity publishing. But I am glad that it came to be, because it is beautiful and would be meaningless on a Kindle.
What does all this mean? Maybe very little. When Barnsley made her farewell speech to the assembled troops at HarperCollins, she wisely noted that at the heart of the enterprise there are words and stories. “One thing will survive,” she noted. “[T]he inspiration of stories, the power of words.”
My gut says that she’s right. The channel is by no means irrelevant, but the ideas and words are more important still. If the digital extensions enhance the ideas and words, then they will be popular. If not, they’ll die a rapid commercial death.