From Zadie Smith to The Kindle
May 25, 2008 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Observer literary editor Robert McCrum, retiring after ten years in the job, writes about the revolution in the book world he's seen over the last decade.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting article but Robert could have at least gone to 11:

* the revolution of Google Books, etc.
* podcasts and other audio/video adjuncts
* web 2.0 sites like LibraryThing, Wikipedia
posted by stbalbach at 7:06 AM on May 25, 2008

It must be because I was still in elementary and middle school during the 90s, but I hadn't realized the book world has gone through such an upheaval. Interesting article.

As far as the "iPod moment" for books, I think a lot of the population still has something to say for the nostalgia of a nice, worn paperback or the crisp pages of a new book. Though it might be the same part of the population that pushes the superiority of vinyl.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:15 AM on May 25, 2008

Worth a read, thanks, with two caveats.

The 'iPod moment' in the book world, so often postponed, is expected to happen this year, probably in the autumn. It's an awesome prospect.

The tipping point where downloadable books take off to the point where ebook sales overtake the paper kind is expected to happen in a few months? Is there some new product on the immediate horizon I'm missing? Because that seems totally insane. Unless you count web site reading as books, which it seems is how he's calculating the "iPod moment in the book world." That's not right.

The business end of books - WH Smith, Dillons and Waterstone's - was run by anonymous men in suits whose judgments were largely ignored.

In 1996? The business of books in the UK was really that independent of the bean-counters in 1996? Sounds like rose-colored glasses...
posted by mediareport at 7:23 AM on May 25, 2008

Let me know when I can "rip" the books I already own on to my eBook reader. That's when it will take off.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:50 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

If it means anything, I didn't realize Joyce Carol Oates was such a good writer until I started reading her in McSweeny's.
posted by plexi at 7:51 AM on May 25, 2008

things change
posted by Postroad at 8:47 AM on May 25, 2008

I think blue_beetle is correct. The whole iPod/mp3 upheaval never would have happened if mp3's had been under the control of music companies. Music got dislodged from physical media because it was/is so easy to do: any CD can be torn loose from its physical form in a minute or two and flung around from device to device.

I don't see the equivalent in books. RSS can be close -- blogs prosper because the content is so liquid and easily transferred. But reference books, novels -- no. As long as we have to rely on (and pay them) whenever we want to move content it won't be volatile enough.

Also: an iPod is aurally identical to a CD player and easier to use. The Kindle, no matter how crisp its screen, is harder to use and less enjoyable to read than a book. (Or so I hear -- I've never seen the bloody thing.)
posted by argybarg at 9:05 AM on May 25, 2008

You know the game is up for traditional publishing when the CEO of Random House delivers a lecture entitled 'New Chapter or Last Page? Publishing Books in a Digital Age.'

I believe that lecture went something like this:

New chapter or last page?
Publishing books in a digital age
I hear this internet is all the rage
Have we at last reached the next stage?
When paperbacks are just used as kindle
And every last bookstore will dwindle
And diminish into the east like an elf
Bringing with it the very last bookshelf
posted by Kattullus at 9:19 AM on May 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

For McCrum, "publishing" means trade publishing, specifically literary trade publishing. It is not surprising, given his position and interests, that he would neglect to acknowledge other key sectors of publishing--STM (scientific, technical, medical), legal, educational/textbook, financial, journalism, etc--but it does limit his analysis considerably. For although these areas of publishing are not as sexy as literary trade publishing, taken as a whole they actually make up a far more substantial portion, money wise, of the industry than fiction does.

Even within trade publishing, literary fiction is generally (though not always) a smaller piece of the pie than nonfiction: especially compared to mass market and genre fiction, religious books, business books, how-to books, self-help books, cookbooks, computer books, illustrated children's books, etc.

Publishing is a fragmented industry, and this fragmentation exists because different areas have totally different business models and different informational needs to fulfil: for example, college textbooks have a captive audience that results in overpricing and constant "revisions" of core texts in order to stem the tide of used books; scientific publishing in peer-reviewed e-journals is dominated by a few behemouth aggregators whose primary market is academic libraries willing to pay exorbitant subscription fees to ensure researchers and library patrons have access to what they need; and the legal profession and the financial industry pay hefty sums to subscribe to a myriad of real-time databases.

B/c of this fragmentation, there will likely not be--google and amazon kindle and open access notwithstanding--a single one-size-fits-all repository for all of publishing. Buying mass market fiction or the latest business book at the airport bookstore is not going away any time soon, and firewall protected databases for certain kinds of content will remain a viable model within certain industries. Electronic publishing will continue to alter the trade landscape (reference publishing and travel publishing have proven especially vulnerable from the free information on the internet), but the alteration will occur gradually.
posted by ornate insect at 9:40 AM on May 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

For eBooks to succeed, it will take the end of copyright as we know it. In addition, where is the opportunity to sell my ebook once I've read it? Can I trade eBooks with friends? Loan them out? Transfer them to other devices? Buy them anonymously? 2nd hand? Out of print?

Boo-urns I say.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:50 AM on May 25, 2008

blue_beetle: trade publishers like amazon-kindle b/c the format is proprietary to the device, and thus one cannot, as I understand it, just copy or attach text and email it to someone else. The benefit to publishers of having an e-reading device that is seperate from a laptop or handheld device is threefold: to eliminate copyright abuse, to not be cannibalized by any 2ndhand/used market, and to keep e-texts perpetually in-print (i.e. to cut back on the burden of hardcopy inventory, especially with books with smallish print-runs). The drawbacks to the consumers are numerous, but the kindle does appear to be selling well.
posted by ornate insect at 10:03 AM on May 25, 2008

Oh, I'm not saying that there isn't a place for eBooks, but I don't think they have any more chance than for displacing "real" books.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:51 PM on May 25, 2008

Ten years ago, the Observer's Review section wasn't the empty, brainless shell it is today. Now, it has been choked by lifestyle fluff. Probably not McCrum's fault. But he certainly wasn't part of the solution. The lists! The endless fucking lists! Celebrities choose their summer reading. Celebrities choose their Christmas books. Celebrities choose their books of the year. Celebrities choose their favourite children's books. Celebrities choose their favourite toilet books. Celebrities choose the books that changed their lives. Celebrities choose their favourite Zadie Smith books. Because every freaking week, Zadie Smith would be in the freaking Observer Review. Sure, the Guardian Review's not above Summer Reading lists, but these Observer lists seemed to be the only time actual writing about actual books pushed music, film or my-battle-with-piles off the front page. Ugh. What a waste the Observer Review is. Good luck to McCrum's successor, I say.
posted by WPW at 2:18 PM on May 25, 2008

Yes, McCrum left out the 'decline into uselessness of the Observer books pages under Robert McCrum' part.
posted by Mocata at 4:33 AM on May 26, 2008

Would Robert McCrum recognise a cliché if it leapt up and bit him on the nose?

The world of books and writing has been turned inside out by the biggest revolution since William Caxton set up his printing shop in the precincts of Westminster Abbey.

Heaven or hell? It's too soon to say. This is a story whose outcome remains mysterious. There's no doubt that this transitional decade from the 20th to the 21st century has been decisive, but no one knows when or how it will end.

Is the book dead? Or is there still another chapter to be written, another page to be turned, in the great saga that leads from Gutenberg to J.K. Rowling? Only one thing is certain: time will tell.
posted by verstegan at 10:11 AM on May 26, 2008

The Kindle as the ultimate evolution of books? What hype...
posted by limeonaire at 3:49 PM on May 26, 2008

« Older Bill Henson's censored photographic exhibition.   |   Puss puss puss Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments