jump to navigation

Better Dead Than Read? March 1, 2011

Posted 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.

Sign up to get this blogs automatically, read previous scrawls, check out my website or make a coruscating comment in the panel on the right. Or left.



1. tony rooney - March 2, 2011

agree with you, i cant get into electronic reading. On a working stint in west africa so catching up with half a dozen books that i’ve been struggling with for months whilst i’m stuck in a hotel room between flights. Still a browser in old bookshops as i regularly find things that i would never consider if i had to find electronically . anyway keep up the blog , always entertaining !

markswill - March 4, 2011

Thanks Tony, and see my response to Jan Buxton’s comment below.

2. WTK - March 2, 2011

The printed book has had a pretty good run since the 1400’s. Media changes. And, like it or not, practical considerations play their hand in indulgent times. The iPad can hold 1500 books, in color if printed as such,searchable, printable, noteable, scrawlable, and more importantly, adds other forms of media transparently and user selectable. In addition, of course, to the daily newspapers, essays, white papers, magazine subscriptions, live broadcasts, seminars, professional journals, email, and word processing with editing on-the-fly. All in a package smaller than a hardbound. Pretty compelling stuff. And as to marketing, without the cost and natural resource use of print,and the need to recoup the cost of lesser selling tomes, the marketing actually broadens over the landscape. What is lacking is the nosing around book stores, the musty smell, the discovered long out of print volumes, and all the other nuances that make book browsing so rewarding and relaxing. It’s certainly a hard trade-off. Now, your commentary on the banking situation is spot-on, and believe it or not, I was discussing this very subject with Ian of Pollock last night. What usually is missed or glossed over is the history of the destructive nature of the 1996 CRA Act, the $1.2 Billion lawsuit against Bank of Illinois by then HUD director Andrew Cuomo in 1997; the forced lending by the US government to red-lined areas, the banks scrambling to spread risk in these faulty mandated mortgages, AIG insuring a nearly worthless and unknown quantity of assets, and then YIPPEE—the banks turned that whole mess into unmitigated greed, lies, deceit, a gluttonous feeding-frenzy that was played on a rigged table. I still believe that several hundred bankers should be hanging from the lamp posts along Broadway as a Spartacus reminder to play fair. And the idea that the government bailed out these thieves by reaching into the pockets of middle class Americans is unconscionable, and I further suggest that key officials of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations should be hanging next to the bankers. The whole situation is a travesty of the worst sort. And after this rant I still don’t feel any better…

markswill - March 2, 2011

Well Tel, I am of course something of a Luddite (after all, I own a Lancia), as my references to bookshop browsing and tactile pleasure rather betray. But I still the world will be a less interesting and companionable place if/when books are gone. But maybe you’d be happy living in a soulless, antiseptic cocoon bereft of almost any human contact which is where digitisation and centralisation are taking us? The latter of course is where we’re going with banking, a point I didn’t really make in my scrawl but is one more frightening consequence of the economic meltdown.

WTK - March 2, 2011

Yes, I heartily agree about bannking being even more soulless and controlling. I will miss the bookstore mightily and the ambience that can’t be matched, but call me silly, as I am more concerned with content than form. And yes, I enjoy Blue Ray with it’s added features, and Blue Ray players that update the firmware by streaming from the Internet more than movies on 35 mm nitrate. Maybe I like the choices as it seems that our dear governments are daily limiting the choices we can make. Figitalisation is sterile—very much agreed, but the content is not. We are only talking about the delivery mechanism, not the substance. As an aside, did you note that under the EU’s guidleines of equality between genders the High Court ruled yesterday that it is acceptable to raise the driving insurance rates for women up to 50%. Apparently they have no ability to finesse a Lancia through the curves, or avoid stanchions on the way to the DIY Superstore. Goodness, I hope that is Politically Correct.

3. col - March 2, 2011

For an avowedly analogue soul, the digitisation of print is deeply depressing. A book is more than its words but like recorded music, I fear the game is up for ideas in print. Without paternalistic publishers taking a chance those ideas will in all likelihood remain virtual.

4. Alex Ramsay - March 2, 2011

Would that by any chance be my copy of the John Lanchester book? Lent to someone and not seen since . . .

markswill - March 2, 2011

How dare you impugn my character in such an irresponsible manner? I bought my copy. From Knighton Bookshop! So there! (It may’ve been the last book they ever sold).

5. Paul Blezard - March 2, 2011

Great reading Mark, as ever. Only one small quibble from someone for whom all typos leap from the page, whether on a lap-top screen or ancient velum: give your pearls of wisdom a proper proof-read before you press that send button! PNB (tapping on a lap top in the wi-fi hot spot of a hotel on Lanzarote)

markswill - March 2, 2011

Nobody likes a pedant, Paul, even one as erudite as yrgdslf. On t’other hand – what typos?

6. jan buxton - March 2, 2011

you didn’t mention (this time) the hybrid and a most significant player in this – the online book sellers like Amazon and errr….. well, like Amazon. The digital means to an analogue end. Of course the whole browsing experience is different but it is not missing and increasingly being able to preview some pages improves it, I find books on Amazon I’d never find in some droughty, dusty old shop that only opens when I’m at work (yes I’m one of the few not yet jettisoned by the County Council), has very limited space greatly taken up with misguided purchases in which no customer will ever be interested, alas. An online store should in theory be good for the small, specialist, niche or completely mad book-sellers – they do not rely on a sufficient footfall in a particular Marches town on the right day of the week but the interwebby-connected world is their market so making an otherwise uneconomical publication viable, especially combined with digital production techniques.
So if we see book sales falling perhaps it is due to regrettable (IMV) changes in society and is despite, not because of, the e-age we live in?

markswill - March 4, 2011

Jan’s comment is well taken, but I haven’t myself yet managed to replicate the bookshop browsing experience whilst perusing Amazon or Alibris. And of course on the subject of electronic booksellers, well of course they’ll be the main beneficiaries if (when?) Waterstones goes to the wall which raises the spectre of a few mega online and retail park stores controlling society by stealth. Tesco would certainly applaud that as a goal. Roll on Brave New World’s ‘Stuff Central’ ?

7. noelsquibb - March 3, 2011

Good that you’ve watched ‘Inside Job’ Mark.

Pity so few are able to take the time to try and comprehend the largest fleecing of the ‘middle classes’ ever.
The lack of outrage over this vast swindle of taxpayers is beyond my understanding, or is it because its beyond the average taxpayers understanding ….

As for your faithful ‘proof reader’, he will make a mistake one day.

Dangerous to set yrslf up as t’expert I reckon (-;

markswill - March 4, 2011

Well thank god I’m not an expert… but then name me a journalist* who is anything but an expert on, well, journalism?

* I am, of course, using the term loosely.

8. Riviera Don - March 3, 2011

Very sad about the disappearing books. Thank god I don’t do that for a living anymore. But imagine if you were involved with someone who still was. Like a girlfriend, say. Doesn’t bear thinking about does it.

markswill - June 4, 2014

No, it doesn’t. I’m thinking of divorce.

9. andy tribble - March 4, 2011

2 subjects, books and banking, this is about banking. OMG I’m coming over all right wing again. What nobody says is that the banking crisis was not originally the fault of banks at all – it was the fault (unintentionally) of the poor. The gov’t encouraged mortgage lenders both in the UK and the US to pour cash into helping people on low incomes to buy houses. This was social engineering. The idea was to get them out of renting and into property ownership. The massive risk was that property ownership is just not right for people on low or irregular incomes – they default. If the market had been allowed to operate normally then normal risk assessment would apply and the trouble would never have started. Every time a government distorts a market like this, bad things happen; not at first, but somewhere down the line. If the government had wanted to lend mortgage money to poor people they should have just done so and taken the risk themselves. But instead they got banks to do it instead and encouraged them to package up the risks and sell it on into the financial markets. Then it all screwed up. And then somehow the governments who had pushed this dangerous idea in the first place, acted like it was all a surprise and down to naughty, naughty greedy bankers. It’s not at all that the banks were ‘not properly supervised’. It’s the opposite; the banks did exactly what the governments told them to do, day after day, as you can see in the number of disastrous forced mergers organised by Gordon Brown (economic illiterate, destroyer of pensions, seller of gold reserves at the bottom of the market). The underlying idea of GB and his mates was that basically you can ‘steer’ a capitalist system to generate the social benefits you want. Possibly you can steer it; but you can also darn well crash it; and that’s exactly what they did. And then, climbing out of the wreckage, the poor sodding bankers found that the politicians had brilliantly pushed all the blame on to them, and it was all about greed, bonuses, fraud, drinking champagne etc.
As we sail away from all that, I hope that the top bankers who set policy are quietly reminding each other: don’t ever do exactly what the government wants. Things will screw up and they will make it look like your fault.

WTK - March 4, 2011

Yessir Andy, you hit the nail on the head, and it’s OK to be conservative because you’ve seen what a mess the ponces got everyone into over the last 4 decades. I agree with your diagnostics on the situation and just add this to clarify: the greed came about at the very tale end because the banks overleveraged their already untenable position. Greatly so. As an example, Lehman leveraged themselves to a 34:1 ratio position, worse than a school kid with a new credit card. Since they flipped packages at a premium, they kept flipping for easy money, not paying attention to their position if the music stopped. They should be hung for bad corporate governance. In the US no body knows who holds over 40% of the mortgage papers as packages were flipped in excess of 26 times. Makes it sticky when it comes to buy or sell a home. BUT, this wasn’t the cause as you rightly pointed out. It was the dang social engineering nonsense which postulates that 5 suits sitting in a room can control a market better than 3,000,000 micro-decisions a minute shaping the market. Markets are dynamic and legislation is static so when a market is constrained you can bet that all Hell will break loose. And as usual, the very people the pontificators attempt to help get destroyed. A real-life example: when Clinton changed welfare (the dole) to workfare (the dole), and NYC copied the program, 346,000 New Yorkers went off the teat in the very first year, all filling newly created jobs and gaining dignity to boot. Great examples of government intervention are the Post Office (bankrupt), Fannie Mae ($178 billion in the hole),social security (bankrupt), the Federal Reserve (no monetary control and the worst of the lot), Airport Trust Fund (gone), and the beat goes on and on. So, it’s fine to be a fiscal conservative and a clear-sighted market-driven social theorist with a heart. The refreshing punch of your post is that I now realize that I am not alone in these opinions. Quite frankly, I don’t like idealogue crap, anyway…

markswill - March 4, 2011

Social engineering, a thread of both Terry and Andy’s comments is highly relevant, but I haven’t yet come across a government that doesn’t practice this dark art, albeit usually dressed up as promoting, protecting or fostering the public good. All sorts of agendas lie behind this – just look at Libya and Egypt – but with anarchy the main alternative, how can this be avoided?

markswill - March 4, 2011

Andy is of course correct: the banking crisis was a consequence of what in another era might be cruelly dismissed as ‘proletarian naivete’, and also perhaps, avarice. But that is as nothing to the avarice of those running the banks likes casinos, and it doesn’t not excuse the Brown and Bush governments from letting financial deregulation run riot.

10. linda stokes - March 4, 2011

Whine…whimper…sob…oh well, at least I’m old,
and will probably be dead soon.

11. markswill - March 4, 2011

Not as old as me Linda, not as old as me… and I’m still alive. Just.

12. Frank W - March 10, 2011

Back when we were young (and I will always be younger than Mark), Harlan Ellison (I think) remarked that the medium is the message. I hated that. Although of course it may be true.
I fear that e-readers (of which I possess none, and intend to retain that lofty status) will prove him correct, and that overall book sales will fall as readers buy an e-version, which is less satisfying in an ownership, tactile, visual on-the-shelf sense than a paperbook. So the same message in a different medium will reach fewer readers overall.
It is also interesting to read how many of those impressive ‘sales’ figures for e-reader books are in fact those provided FOC with the purchase of the reader.
As for the banking, it is always depressing for a small biznizman (in some senses) to listen to Our Leaders beating banks into loaning moolah to unsound biznizzes and house-buyers who can’t afford the repayments. Market-manipulation at its worst.
Meanwhile, back to the Cunard catalogue. A boom year for them, apparently. Hurrah, etc.

markswill - March 10, 2011

It was actually Marshall McLuhan who coined that particular truism, but nobody likes a smartarse so I’ll simply concur with everything you say… except for the Cunard catalogue browsing which, of course, I heartily disapprove of. But then jealousy is a cruel mistress.

Frank W - March 10, 2011

Then it must have been H Ellison who coined ‘only medium was the massage’ unless that was me in a moment of 1970s weakness.
Cunard’s big black — and so modestly priced — ships are great places to pick up e-readers left laying about by pensioners who’ve mistaken them for coasters. Or something. I’ll send you a postcard. Florida next (I think, although I could have got that wrong too).

13. WTK - March 10, 2011

Mark, it is high-time that you Man-Up and break the silence to confront the disdain that hardbound buyers have for paperback buyers. Never mind the eReaders. Personally, I still prefer my type to be hand set.

markswill - March 15, 2011

Coming up Terry, coming up…

14. London Dave - March 15, 2011

Mark, it is worse than you think… with both magazines and books available in free to download PDF formats any business model is going to be smashed to bits by those internet savvy enough to think up the right google search phrase. Worse yet for magazine publishers the PDF downloads lose all the important advertiser clickable links, so in the end it will either be free stuff from talented writers (with some google adverts) or free stuff from big companies with lots of embedded advertising. Not sure where that leaves the paperback publisher – I quite happily pay anywhere between a quid and £3.50 for brand new paperbacks but read free ebooks on my smart phone also quite happily.

BTW I think you look about thirty years younger than FW!

markswill - March 15, 2011

Well Mr London Dave, I agree with you about PDF mags, but am less worried than you commercially because so few publishers (that I know) are using them so that the advertising income isn’t really an issue. Don’t quite understand why you buy paperback books though if you “quite happily” read them digitally? Whose side are you on?!

15. Frank W - March 15, 2011

Try Zinio and ZMags. Your day it will be made. I am in the muddle of a venture for a pubbling co on that very topic.
Age is a terrible thing, as is the appearance of age. Pass me the Cunard brochure…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: