Some businesses trade in inconvenient physical artefacts as the vehicle for something else that’s actually desirable: the record industry sells CDs to people who want music, the film industry sells DVDs to people who want movies, the publishing industry sells books and magazines to people who want words. CDs and DVDs are niggling technological upstarts compared to the mighty book, and while the record and film industry have choked bitterly on the idea that consumers can now get what they want through the internet without the intermediary of a shiny little disc, books have been pretty much aloof from the internet’s ravening appetites.
Not any longer, according to Colin Robinson’s diary piece for the LRB, in which a redundant book editor explains the changes in the book market which led to him losing his job and ends up foretelling the DEATH OF SOCIETY. No, really. After totting up the sales of the Kindle, Robinson turns to look at “a wider, if less concrete threat to book publishing from the internet”:
Perhaps the problem has to do with more than just the way in which words are transmitted. People bowl alone, shop online, abandon cinemas for DVDs, and chat to each other electronically rather than go to a bar. In an increasingly self-centred society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.
This is your basic social-networking-is-killing-social-life keening, a gentler version of the pathetic ‘Facebook is a terrifying instrument of youth decay (maybe)’ story that was knocking around the other week. The depressing thing about Robinson’s version of the ‘internets are bad’ theme is that he’s using it to discount what should be publishing’s best hope and mimicking the stupidities of the record industry by fixating on the idea that publishers sell books – instead of understanding that what readers want isn’t a hunk of paper, but the words printed on it.
Fair enough, Robinson’s just lost his job and that’s got to shake a body up. But ranting against mass literacy and specialisation is pointless: you can’t undo social developments just because they’re bad for publishers. Either the industry works out how to make a living from the internet, or it dies – and when the Authors Guild Of America does things like pressuring Amazon to remove the text-to-speech option from the Kindle, it seems as though publishing has already decided to go down fighting everyone.
There are a few assumptions in Robinson’s piece that feel right. Word processors and the internet make the production and distribution of text easier. The ability of the internet to put you in touch with people like you possibly gives more people the feeling that there’s an audience for their idea and encourages them to write. That’s not exactly the “increasingly self-centred society” that Robinson is berating, even if it does suggest likely problems with confirmation bias. And worse, Robinson has sort of missed the whole nature of publishing on the internet. Bloggers perpetually link to and comment on each other. Robinson’s piece, which is a straight posting of print material, not only doesn’t link to any other pages, it doesn’t even mention any other writers or what they have to say. From the evidence of his own column, it doesn’t seem like it’s the internet that has the problem with reading and listening.