Monday, 13 January 2014

The shedding sanctity of books

My country’s leading newspaper ran a feature today on the future of publishing. Looking towards to 2025 – such visionaries – the industry insiders gave their opinion on what the publishing will be like in my country in a decade. Already the premise was out-dated, every person interviewed behaving as if self-publishing didn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. So needless to say, their future vision isn’t particularly remarkable.

But the details aren’t important. What caught my attention was the title of the piece that asked if the book was “shedding its sanctity”. Books have traditionally been revered here; in the absence of a glorious past, we set out to create a great future by educating and sophisticating the masses. Books played a pivotal role in that. In a way, books have been held sacred, and the future of publishing outlined in the paper reflects that.

But the reading population has changed, even here, something that the article doesn’t take into consideration. Books have become products of consumerism and mass consumption.

Have you been on a Netflix binge recently, or watched every single episode of your favourite series on DVD in one sitting? The search for instant gratification is common among the consumers of TV programmes. And the same is happening, or has already happened, among the reading population. We finish a book in our favourite series and we instantly want the next. If we’re lucky, the next book has already been published so we download it with a click of a mouse. If we’re unlucky, we’ve finished the latest one and have to wait for the next for months, or even years. When we can’t get our fix where we seek it, we turn to something similar in the hopes that it will answer our need.

One of the reasons indie authors are doing so well is because they can answer the readers’ constant need for more, as Hugh Howey recently noted. They are an answer to the consumerism of literature. Flexible in their publishing practises, indie authors are able to provide their readers with a constant stream of books, simultaneously keeping the graving in check and feeding it too. Getting a new book is easy and cheap, which is good for the consumers. But it has a flipside.

We don’t respect books the way we used to.

We don’t have leather-bound, heavy tomes with gilded letters to revere, nor do we really need such things. We have bytes that move instantly to a reading device, there to be forgotten or deleted when we run out of space. Whereas the idea that we would destroy or burn books fills many with horror, deleting e-books doesn’t cause the same reaction. We’re not even circulating the books to new readers.

As we have stopped respecting the artefact, we have stopped respecting the contents too. In a world of instant gratification, the story has value only as long as we’re consuming it. Books are valued by the satisfaction we gain from them. And as with any item of consumerism, the satisfaction fades, lasting a shorter time with every book we read, feeding the need to have a new item, a new story, to consume.

For authors trying to get their book noticed, the consumerist culture is a good thing. A market exists that already expects their next book, no matter the content, offering opportunities for an increasing number of writers. But their books are equally fast forgotten. Not because they would be worse than books written a decade ago, but because they are treated differently. Readers don’t make a difference between books based on their quality, or the manner they have been published, as long as it satisfies their needs as consumers.

Quality literature still exists and will continue to be written. It’s the readership that values quality content that is on the wane. So, in a way, books aren’t sacred anymore.

Should they be?

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