The Future is Now: Books in a digital age

In today’s paper edition of Dagens Nyheter there’s yet another news item about a smallish book publisher in crisis. Last year was all time low for the book business in Sweden, with a record low turn-over in bookshops all around.

So, let’s look at bookshops. Do they sell books? Well, yes, but not mainly. The people owning the large chains, like Akademibokhandeln, have decided people don’t buy books… so instead they have turned into miscellanea shops. Things like paper and pens – that’s no big leap. Same with magazines. DVD’s? Chocolates, olive oil?!?! An instore Apple store?!

Well, I can actually see the justification for the Apple store BUT if you’re really committed to the digital age, perhaps you should have other brands as well… But no.

Space isn’t infinite, and these new things has pushed actual books to the back of the shops. And as someone has made the (insane) decision that people shop based on book covers covers should be exposed, not spines, which results in even less books per available shelf. And with little space you have to restrict yourself to a few best selling titles… and suddenly the difference between the book rack at the line to the check out counter at the supermarket and the bookshop has diminished beyond recognition.
And I don’t go there, because I can’t find the titles I’m interested in.

Talk about digging one’s own grave.

At the same time lots of people are talking about ebooks. I’ll hereby state that I love paper books. I love my shelves and the atmosphere the lend our flat. I love the touch and smell of books, of pulp and printers ink. I also enjoy ebooks, for their portability and for sheer reasons of space – my shelving space, like that of the bookshops, is not infinite. Those books that I own in an electronic format are actually e-editions of books that I already own, in paper format. This, to the publishing business, is actually a chance to larger sales. But the people up there doesn’t read books, apparently, and don’t socialise with people who do it either, not beyond the supermarket trash/flash. So they don’t know about patterns and opportunities like these.

On another level ebooks are considerably easier to make – yes, some manual work if the original file doesn’t use correct mark up, but beyond editing and proofing it’s just straight to the desired medium – no stock except the digital file, no costs for printing, no costs for shipping, no costs for handling unsold copies…
Marketing and editing still will be very much needed, but at the same time the possible audience has grown to encompass the whole globe and just not a specific country or region.

The possibilities are overwhelming. An online acquaintance, situated in Australia, complained yesterday that getting his hands on a certain graphic novel because the shipping, from France, would equal a week’s salary. So the publisher won’t do that sale.

Some of them publishes some books in e-format. But often just odd books, or best sellers.

In reality book sales would benefit hugely if all back catalogues were reissued as ebooks – especially for genre writers, like crime, mystery, science fiction… the back catalogue is essential, because they tend to write more than one book featuring a special character, be it officially labelled as series or not. Not to mention that niche writers would be cheaper to publish, and would more efficiently find their way to their readers.

But we all know why the publishing houses won’t rise to this. They would have to scrap most of their present infrastructure, including the knowledge of how to write contracts. Hugely impopular, especially with leaders, owners and managers that are clueless in the digital landscape.

So they sit there, with their financial losses, watching sales decline and blaming it all on the “financial crisis”, while we, the readers, lose our access to good books.



Rereview: Deceiver, by C.J. Cherryh

Yes, I know, I reviewed it not long ago but since I have a) reread it, and b) people now have had the opportunity to read it, so now I can go ahead and be as spoilerific as I want :)

Most books I don’t read twice at once and I must admit that part of my motivation for doing so with this one was to be able to discuss it with my fellow Shejidanites – I just might have done it anyway, but I’m not 100% sure. Because normally I deem life too short, especially in relationship to all those unread books out there in bookspace.

Deceiver starts with the shortest and fastest recap in the history of the Foreigner series. The story go almost present-time in a record 15 pages or so, when Tabini storms into Bren’s office, demanding an explanation for the actions taken by the aiji-dowager; the aiji then proceeds to a shout-out with Ilisidi herself… and this pretty much sets the general mood of the book – non-stop action, and with lots of things that feels nice for the real fan, in terms of interpersonal relationships of all sorts.

Cajeiri gets to mature incredibly but believably fast, which makes for certain turns as not everyone recognises this and reacts as if he’s still just a kid behaving irresponsibly.

Toby and Barb gets their respective selves in their own kind of bad spots, and I generally agree with everyone who thinks someone should just, hrm, eliminate Barb… but she does provide the story with some humorous moments even if she herself doesn’t recognise it.

And the dowager… ah, well. A real piece of work, that lady. It’s entirely possible to sympathise with Tabini’s frustration over his meddling grandmother, but really she does know what she’s doing. Her agenda is hers alone, though, and as always it is risky. Which Bren gets to realise in a real hard way, this time around.

My only complaint is a rather large inconsistency in back history regarding a character in the supporting cast, but hey, I can live with that. The character is not that important, long term. And the atevi universe is one of my favourite unreal places, stuffed with wry reflections on our own value judgements, communications deficits and social or economic or political order, sneakily packaged as easily digested action.

I know this series isn’t for everyone, and the first parts of the first book… well, you have to read it, obviously, at least the first time, but it isn’t really what the core story is about. At all. Still I can’t but think that every fan of science fiction should at least give it a try.