Better Dead Than Read? March 1, 2011Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Politics, Schmolitics.
(c) Words and pictures Mark Williams, may not be used without permission
Dunno about you, but my reading habits are ever-changing and it seems, I’m not alone. In a good month, I’ll consume four or five books, rising to six or seven if I’m on holiday or work is slack. When it isn’t, then I’ll be lucky to get through two or three. But all that could alter drastically if a recent Pew Internet poll is anything to go by. Apparently the over-50s (that’s me, sadly) now consume 6-7% of their literature in e-book form as opposed to 5% of younger readers. I am, you may recall, opposed to e-books for a number of reasons, more on which later, but I’ve recently found myself contemplating the benefits such devices might bestow on a lifestyle which currently involves traveling frequently between several different addresses. Which in turn means that I have to carry whichever books I’m trying to finish at any given time and, rather capriciously, at any given time I tend to have more than one on the go. Which if one’s traveling light, can be a bit of a bore that an e-reader would pretty much overcome.
Moreover by chance I just met an old acquaintance who runs a major publishing house and having gee’d up up my hobby horse, he informed me that 9% of his US sales and 5-6% of those in the UK were now in e-book form. Then came the bombshell: apparently the biggest Australian bookshop chain, Angus & Robertson, had recently gone bust and he was very concerned that Barnes & Noble, the only major chain left in the USA, is on the brink of going into Chapter 11 – the legal haven that allows yank companies a breather whilst they try and sort out their financial problems or find a buyer. This intelligence came hard on the heels of the news that HMV is closing many of its Waterstones outlets as it, too, struggles to address falling sales of not just CDs and DVDs, but books, too.
Which makes the closure of my only local bookshop seems like small beer, or at least small print. Actually, The Knighton Bookshop was a tardily-run outfit which, given that their stock levels were, perhaps understandably, tiny in such a tiny town, regularly frustrated my own pathetic efforts to keep it going by not getting the books I ordered, or denying the existence of titles I then found in stock at Waterstones 24 miles away in Hereford. But if that only reflects the snail-like, thoroughly unprofessional way the book business as a whole operates, then arguably, as an e-book-entranced friend sarcastically remarked on the Knighton Bookshop closure, “roll on the Kindle”.
Well yes, perhaps. But as my publisher friend warned, and my literary agent affirmed a few days later, there’s a danger that whilst choice of titles may remain wide, and possibly expand a bit if everyone reads books electronically, marketing will become increasingly concentrated on the big sellers, and the tactile delights of books will be lost to subsequent generations. This will have a deleterious knock-on effect for lesser authors who don’t follow formulae, and for those of us who, perhaps perversely, tend to read them. This is of course already evident both in Waterstones heavy reliance of 3-for-2 deals and the rising power of the supermarkets who pile high and sell cheap only books of the Katie Price and Dan Brown persuasion. (Both of which, by the way, put pressure on publishers to reduce margins and spend big on marketing only blockbusters, adversely affecting good if less conspicuous authors who may spend two years producing a book which publishers don’t promote and barely anyone stocks).
With Waterstones tottering and the other national chains we had as little as two years ago now gone, namely Books etc. and Borders, things don’t look great for the future of the printed word and the guilty pleasure of bookstore browsing. If you care not a jot about that, moaning on about lost jobs in the retail and printing sectors will probably also leave you cold, as will the fact of any little economic slack there is being taken up by electronics manufacturers in the Far East.
Having said which, one of the books I did manage to finish recently was John Lanchester’s Oops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (Penguin), a searing but highly readable critique of the economic recession we’re all being walloped by. My consequent depression and indignation were turned into despair and rage having just seen Inside Job, the documentary movie which compellingly demolishes the (largely American) banking industry which precipitated the global bust. If you haven’t see it – and you should – as well as the more obvious venal greed, Inside Job identifies Collateralised Debt Obligations and their pyramid-stylee transmutation throughout the financial system as the reason it all went tits-up. It also points out that much of that wouldn’t have been allowed to happen had not successive American administrations dismantled the frameworks that (sort of) regulated the banking industry.
But any residual reassurance we might’ve after Obama’s election promise to haul that industry back into line and punish the obscenely paid senior executive who threw us into penury evaporated at the end of the film when we learnt that not a single banker had been prosecuted and, even more shocking, the self-same power-mongers who presided over if not precipitated the mess now guide the Presidents’s economic plans. Step forward Ben Bernanke (chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and staunch advocate of money-printing and unlimited debt) and Timothy Geithner (Treasury Secretary, tax avoider, expenses fraudster and staunch advocate of massive bonuses to failed bankers)… Be afraid, be very afraid.
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