Monday 11 February 2013

Are We in a Golden Age of Books and Not Noticing It?

By Candy Gourlay

I've been binge-blogging these past couple of weeks while on a writing break.

After a long period of trying not to blog because I had to finish writing my novel, I crawled out of the Writer's Cave and blogged here, here,  here, here, here, here and here.

But now I've got edits to do so I'm back in the Cave again. If anyone asks, I'm not here ;)

I've been thinking about golden ages recently after hearing Helen Mirren on the radio talking about cinema's Golden Age being that transition between silent films and sound when nobody knew what to expect from the new technologies and so ANYTHING could happen.

(Dame Helen's starring in a new movie about Hitchcock who famously straddled those two eras)

The idea of Golden Ages made me wonder if, with the digital revolution, we were going through several golden ages now.

Has the advent of mp3 downloads and discoverability via YouTube ushered in a musical Golden Age?

With the video-streaming  company Netflix now in the business of premiering major drama series like House of Cards, are we entering a TV golden age?

News delivery has been transformed by social media, news platforms like the Huffington Post, and instant access online newspapers - is journalism entering a Golden Age?

And what of the book world - with revolutionary self-publishing technology, e-books and the shift from bookshops to online?

We scratch our heads and often discuss these developments as problematic ... but wait - are we missing something? Have we in the book world entered a Golden Age but have been too busy fussing about change to notice?

Michael Pietsch, soon to be CEO of Hachette, seems to think so. "I think we're in a Golden Age for books — reading, writing and publishing,' he said in  an NPR  interview. 'And the ways that publishers can work to connect readers with writers now are the kinds of things that publishers have dreamt of doing since Gutenberg first put down a line of type."

The comments under that Pietsch interview are fascinating. 'R Evening Star' says the issue is not whether e-books will kill traditional publishing but HOW e-books are changing the industry.
eBooks haven't made big publishers obsolete and they haven't suddenly diminished the quality of literature any more than the introduction of trade paperbacks many decades ago. EBooks have, however, given mid-list authors and new authors another option, another open door, another way forward.
And yet, it seems authors continue to fight the fight to get published by a traditional publisher. Asked why authors still prefer the traditional route, Pietsch replied: 'For marketing. They want someone who can help them take what they've created and get it everywhere.'

Pietsch drew a response from the editorial director of Digital Book World, Jeremy Greenfield who pointed to a survey of 5,000 authors by DBW and Writer's Digest in late 2012, questioning them extensively 'about what they thought was important in the publishing process and what factors influenced their decision to go with a traditional publisher or to self-publish'. You can view an excerpt of their findings in this piece titled Why do Authors Choose Traditional Publishing or Self Publishing? (I think they must mean 'over' self publishing because the findings try to pinpoint what advantage a traditional published book has over a self published book)

The answer to the question of the title didn't put Marketing at number one - but reflected the greatest challenge facing self publishers.
1 Wide Distribution 
2 Distribution into Bookstores
and finally,
3 Marketing

Discussions of self publishing vs traditional publishing often lead to unbearable confrontations - with one side doing down the other in order to emerge on top. Personally I find such confrontation unbearable and a turn off.

So last week it was refreshing to hear industry pundits sounding excited and optimistic about the future, believing that traditional publishing would be revitalized by self publishing. Read the closing quotes of my blog post last week.

Apparently you don't know you're in a Golden Age until it's long over. A Golden Age happens when people embrace new technologies, lead change, escape the limitations of experience, experiment, imagine beyond their wildest dreams.

How amazing would it be if we really were on the brink of a Golden Age in books. Can we do it?


  1. The more forward-looking publishers have been saying this for years. I was at a meeting of independent publishers in Faber three and a half years ago where that was precisely the point and it was already an old message - but there are a lot of others who either don't want to hear it or can't dissociate the general golden age from their own immediate fiscal difficulties (quite understandably - and many silent film stars felt the same about the change to talkies). As always, a golden age is a benefit for consumers but often a very difficult time for suppliers.

    I have got sick of arguing with publishers about how it's a wonderful time for writers. Everyone sees the gold going somewhere else! A golden age for books is not necessarily going to be golden for anyone involved in the industry - it's already proved pretty ungolden for bookshops and libraries.

    But I agree - the interest in books is massive, their consumption is increasing. It's just that the delivery mechanism is in turmoil at the moment. It will sort out eventually!

    1. I have to admit it's difficult to keep the faith when many traditional parts of the industry are under threat of extinction. There are other ways to achieve things but they might not have been invented yet!

  2. Change means choice, which is a double-edged sword. It'll be painful for a while, but change always is.

    The problem at the moment is that amongst all the new voices are a few great ideas and some spectacular writing talent, but they are swimming in an ocean of flotsam and jetsam.

    The consumer has to work out how to sort the good from the bad, but the market is evolving fast. Established publishers don't get it right all the time, after all - there's plenty of rubbish in print, and word of mouth has always been the best route to bestseller.

    1. There is indeed a lot of jetsam out there and many authors might not be as good at writing as they are at self promotion. But people are reading more and ways of being discovered are constantly becoming more sophisticated. Hope has always been key in this business.

  3. No point in worrying then - Just do it :)

    1. I absolutely agree Heather. Create it, polish it, and then look for the best available route into a child's hands.

  4. Great post, Candy, very positive and a refreshing change from all the doom and gloom. Yeah, the transition is painful and many businesses are suffering, and it's tough for authors and illustrators to make a living. I think it's more important than ever that we all support each other and stick together to ride out the wave of change and hopefully we can all enjoy what's to come.

    1. I have this vision of us all on one of those boats riding Hokusai's Great Wave painting.

  5. Time helps sift but what's exciting I think are the new ways and venues for reaching kids and parents.
    It's not just about blogs and online bookselling. I think the best bookshops are tuning into how much much more interest there is in direct contact with authors and illustrators. They're promoting us and themselves via school visits, pop-up book events, festivals and fairs.
    And museum and gallery shops are flourishing; receiving waves of school kids with pocket money during the week and interested parents at weekends - and a great place to appreciate how books are evolving - concepts and stories contained within beautiful, collectable objects as a counterbalance to reading on screen.

    1. That's interesting Bridget - about the museum and gallery shops and books as collectables.

    2. I think the independent bookshops are going to come to their own with the falling away of the big franchises. This is the time to be really experimental - there is less and less to lose and so much to gain.

  6. Accepting change isn't just about welcoming in new ideas, it's also (unfortunately) about letting go of ideas that have become outdated. Whether these outdated things include printed books, libraries and physical bookshops remains to be seen. I hope we can keep all of these things in some form as we move into the future.


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