Late last year I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Lights Writer’s Conference, an event part sponsored by the Manchester Literature Festival, and in only its second year.
I was bought the tickets by a couple of friends as a birthday present (pays to have good ones) and so, having never had the opportunity to attend one of these gigs before, I was keen to see what it would be like.
And I have to say I was impressed. The whole thing (as you can see above) was high quality, with engaging panel discussions featuring the likes of Orange Award winning novelist, Joanna Kavenna, and the multi-talented director of the UK’s National Poetry Day, Jo Bell. However, my favourite part of the day was the keynote delivered by literary heavyweight, journalist and writer, Will Self.
He had a number of interesting things to say but the one that struck me most was this
‘People have a limited amount of consciousness to spend on culture.’
He was talking about the books trade in particular, passing a jaded eye over what he sees as the steadily diminishing relationship between it and mainstream culture. In short, he doesn’t believe novels have a future (quite a bold statement to make at a writer’s conference, monies from sponsors and likelihood of future invites notwithstanding).
Self believes that with all the varied media streams out there – boxsets on Netflix, ever more bombastic 3D movie blockbusters, computer games, social media, user-led media sharing platforms – the cultural real estate novels used to occupy is a fast shrinking island in a rising tide.
People have neither the time nor the inclination to consume narrative content in novel form. Books are too long. This is the twitter generation etc., etc.
And let’s be real, the argument is not a new or groundless one. Ever since the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in 1997 the likes of Amazon have been taking hefty chunks out of the market share of traditional publishing houses, a squeeze that has adhered faithfully to the trickle down effect to shrink advances and royalties paid to authors.
The very measures that were intended to ‘widen the market for all kinds of book,’ as one advocate for the NBA’s dissolution put it, have done just the opposite, straitening the profits of booksellers and squeezing the industry.
Since then publishing houses have been in a double bind, needing to take risks on new kinds of writing to recruit a broader audience, whilst at the same time hindered from doing so by the narrowing profit margins brought about by the removal of the NBA safety net.
Meanwhile the proliferation of online media platforms is filling the void, taking a stranglehold on the market share the books industry has been hamstrung from claiming.
Who needs books when you can watch Breaking Bad on your smartphone? Or even better, make your own content and upload it to YouTube, or a blog. Welcome to the 21st century, brave new digital world.
It’s this kind of thing that has had everyone from Will Self to Tom Wolfe forecasting the death of the novel. But the question is, are they right?
Shark or Dinosaur
In 2013 British fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, delivered a keynote at the Digital Minds Conference in which he recalled a conversation he’d shared with the author of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams. In Gaiman’s words
‘Douglas said; remember that sharks were around at the time of the dinosaurs, some sharks even pre-date the dinosaurs, but they are still around. And that’s because nothing has ever come along that is as good at being a shark as a shark is, and so they last. The book is really good at being a book.’
Gaiman’s own view echoes that of Adams – the novel is a literary format so well adapted that it hasn’t needed to evolve since the invention of the Gutenberg press, and likely never will. Although the delivery methods may change (digital formatting, ebooks etc.) the essential product, he predicted, would not. The interesting thing is, a look at the statistics may suggest he’s right.
Although e-readers are not a threat to the novel as a form, it’s still interesting to note their sales declined last year. Meanwhile ebook sales have stabilised at around a quarter of the market share, failing to usurp its material counterpart as many suggested it would. Which makes sense. Most books are sold at Christmas (ebooks don’t have quite the same shine as a festive gift).
And as Gaiman himself said; books ‘don’t die if you drop them in the bathtub… they keep going.’
Meanwhile, according to research firm, Bowker, around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued in 2013, over 8000 more than in 1960. At a time when books face more competition for the attention of their prospective audiences, they are being produced in greater numbers than ever before.
Now, this isn’t to poo-poo Self’s warnings. On the whole he’s right. People don’t read as much as they used to, especially novels. Which may have wider implications we’ll need to think seriously about down the road.
As mentioned in a recent (excellent) article by The Economist, books
‘are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought… [they] have not merely weathered history; they have helped shape it.’
Translation: books are a big deal, and any threat to their continuance should be given due thought.
All that being said, for now the landscape may be more complicated than Self’s doomsday forecasts suggest. So what do you think?
Shark or dinosaur?
Are books here for the long term, or will they soon be usurped by the growing number of entertainment alternatives?
And if they are, will that be a good or bad thing?