Last week I took a light-hearted look at… well, at men in shorts… so this week I thought I should take a serious look at the current state of the book market. Turns out it’s looking every bit as ugly as Tony Blair in his floral shorts.
A leading chain of bookstores is closing five branches, including a flagship store in central London. Not so long ago bookshop chains were the bullies in the playground, chasing independents off the swings and roundabouts. Now the chains are being pushed aside by supermarkets and online suppliers, themselves under threat from a new gang on the block - eBooks.
What’s wrong with eBooks? In a word: quality. eBooks threaten to make publication accessible to everyone. I wouldn’t claim that all self-published books are inferior, or that traditionally published books are necessarily good. Far from it. But experienced publishers put their reputation and their money on the line when they publish a book. They demand quality, whether literary or commercial, and they pay professionals to hone the product.
It’s no secret that people are queuing up to be published. Literary agents receive as many as 50 manuscripts every day. Remove the constraints imposed by publishers and you fling open the floodgates. As increasing numbers of writers produce eBooks, paradoxically fewer people will read them. Readers will be overwhelmed with choice, much of it third rate and poorly produced.
And there is a further worrying aspect to our growing dependency on technology. In 1909 EM Forster wrote a short story. Set in the (then) future, he posits a world where man has become so dependent on technology that he has become virtually paralysed. People lie in beds, their limbs withered and useless, as a vast machine tends to their every need. The title of the story is: The Machine Stops.
So let’s support real books – they are an endangered species, and, if we’re not careful, we could be next.
(I did warn you my post this week was going to be serious. I’ll be cheerful next week.)