Thursday, 28 July 2011

Putting all our eggs in the digital basket

"But will e-books make out-of-print history?"

The question (on twitter) came from Katherine Roberts, author of I Am the Great Horse and the Reclusive Muse blog. She is also the founder of Kindle Authors UK.

The answer is both 'yes' and 'no', of course. Any author who cares enough and has even minimal technical ability can convert their out-of-print books into various e-book formats. As long as they own the copyright, of course. That last point means those interminable character-led series (Animal Ark, etc) will disappear as soon as the publisher can't be bothered with them. And no bad thing, you might think.

At the moment, everyone is in a honeymoon period with the Kindle, Nook and their cohort. They can do no wrong (unless you believe they will 'kill the book'). Perhaps this is because most writers and agents (and even publishers) embraced technology very late in the day. How many of you have a manuscript on a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk, written in WordStar or View? I have. That book is out of print. And, to be honest, it would be easier to scan it in, OCR it, and lay it out again than to work from the files. I'd have to dig around in my historic computer collection for all the bits and remember how to use them, and then find a way of getting the stuff off (no USB, no internet connection - we're talking things that were operated by a keen hamster in a wheel).

What did you do with your LPs? What did you do (if you're old enough) with your 8 mm home movies? What about those cassette tapes and video tapes? [Aside: I worked as RLF fellow in a university department where scriptwriting students had to submit their final pieces as audio cassette because that was what the rules still said. There was a healthy black market in C90s but a very long queue of people wanting to borrow the only known cassette recorder. This was 2008.] That's my first computer on the right: 1977. It used cassette tapes.

Just now, the iPad and the Kindle look shiny and new. Well, the iPad does. The Kindle, being mono, looks like a Z88 but relies on most people not remembering the Z88. Fast-forward 20 years. Actually, first of all, rewind 20 years. Let's line up our dinosaurs.

1991: No worldwide web (outside CERN); no text messages; no PDFs; no InDesign (1994); no Quark 3.3 (that was when it became real). We had email, of course, and the Internet for moving stuff. The book I published in 1991 was written (I think) on an Acorn Archimedes and delivered as a plain ASCII text file on a disk, with a paper print out. The book I delivered yesterday was written in Word, sent by email as a .docx file, and if I suggested posting any physical objects the publisher would think I'd gone mad.

Now let's go forwards. 2031: The Kindle will be a museum piece. Yes, of course data can easily be converted to other formats. Just like it's easy now to convert your WordStar documents. Ahem. You have to keep converting at every point of change or it gets hard. Try using your Quark 1.0 files now. It's always possible to write a converter - but as rule, it gets harder to use old files as time passes.

We will all be twenty years older in 2031. How much time will we be spending on converting our old books to new formats? Who will bother if we don't? Certainly not publishers, unless the book is a bestseller. Who will convert when you're dead? No one, probably.

I could reproduce the book from 1991 now because I have a printed copy. I had an electronic publishing business in the 1990s. Nothing we published can be read on modern technology, even though it was distributed on CD-ROMs. It was a proprietory format (like Kindle is). This doesn't bother me - the need for those books has passed. But it's a salutary warning.

Most of our e-books will disappear into the ether over time. They will be worse than out of print. You can get an out of print book in the library. I spent years working on books that had been their version of 'out of print' for 700 years. Digital archiving is a good and useful thing as long as we don't destroy the physical copies in our arrogant assumption that our formats are forever. But in two hundred years, will anyone be able to read a Kindle book? Will they in forty years? If we really needed to, we could convert something, yes. But not as easily as we can call up a physical book from the British Library stores.

If we write only for Kindle, we should consider those books to be more like magazine articles. Ephemeral, delivered for obsolescent technologies, ghosts of books. That's not inappropriate for many books, but some writers think they are writing for eternity (or at least for future generations). And as someone who has used a lot of popular culture for research, and found the copyright libraries lacking even in printed material, it will be a significant loss to future social historians. They'll have this year's vampire novels in 2211, but will they have whatever the craze is in twenty years' time?

We like to write post-apocalyptic novels. Post-apocalypse, none of the e-books will be available. We'll be thrown back on those old books and manuscripts that can be read by candlelight, and the Kindle-generation of literature will be lost. So no, electronic publishing will not make OOP a thing of the past. It makes it a thing of the future.


  1. Don't you think the authors who publish to Kindle will transfer to the new technologies as they arise? Witt the auhtor involved rahter than just the publisher, isn't this more likely to happen - of coursem, thast is if the author deems the book to still be worhty of being "in print". I suspect new editions will occur as we move throuhg the technologies.

  2. Yes, for a while. And then we'll die, or not bother as there are too many books to bother with, especially if they only sell a few copies a year. I have around 150 books. I would not bother converting most of them. And books with pictures present a particular problem, as the author doesn't own the copyright or license to the pictures.

    Remember that non-fiction books vastly outnumber fiction. And fiction includes a lot of crud, like mass-market genre fiction and character-led fiction that no one, not even the authors (that includes me) will bother converting. And it's stuff that there's not much point in reading in twenty years time, true. But it's still an important part of contemporary culture that will have academic interest in the future. It's not all about our pride as writers.

    And actually - even now authors are picking a platform and ignoring the others. Kindle authors often ignore e-pub, for instance. That's encouraged by Amazon's contractual terms. For now, it's a 'look-at-me' moment, but it will soon become a chore.

  3. Agree completely! Thanks for very interesting and informative article.

  4. This is a great article, but I would like to raise a couple of alternate points of view (not necessarily in disagreement, but parallel points I think are worth considering):

    The rise of digital media and intangible products has made people a little bit wary. They can't hold the things they've bought, or protect them in any physical way. They can't be onsold or pawned to offset the purchase cost. As far as I know, they can't be insured either (though I might be wrong about this).

    Thus, the permanence (or permanent availability) of these files becomes a big issue for the consumer.

    I resisted upgrading my games consoles until I could be sure that my save games could be transferred across AND that the new console was backwards compatible.

    My guess is that for the next generation of consoles, backwards compatibility is going to be an even bigger issue, and a must-have feature for any gamer who has purchased digital games and/or Downloadable Content (DLC). No reason to not apply the same logic to readers of ebooks.

    People with massive ebook libraries that they've spent a fortune on aren't going to embrace any new technology unless it will read all the books that they've painstakingly collected over the years.

    My guess is that you're right: the books probably won't still be for sale 20 years from now in any form (i.e. they will be for all intents and purposes out-of-print), but the people who did buy them will still own them, and read them (just like any out-of-print hardcopy book).

  5. That's an excellent point, Shane - thank you for raising it.

    I think everyone is intent on comparing publishing with the music industry, but the games industry is really far more relevant in many ways. Two reasons: digital encoding of audio is a very simple thing compared to games and illustrated books (though an essentially text-only Kindle book is simple); and both e-books and computer games replace something (physical books and games) that could be used without any item of equipment, unlike music which has always required technology (record player, cassette player, CD player).

    I absolutely agree - people want to keep their precious libraries and that will drive hardware producers to maintain backwards compatibility, at least for a while. (But we can't play Frogger any more...)

    What will happen when someone dies? Will their books be lost/deleted? It's easier to chuck out an old Kindle without realising what's on it than to empty a library. There probably won't be the market in second-hand books there is now that keeps OOP books in circulation. I can't foresee - though it may come about - anything equivalent to the serendipitous discovery of a wonderful title you'd never heard of in a secondhand bookshop. So perhaps one difference is that OOP books won't find new readers.

  6. Just found this! Interesting post, Anne, and of course you are absolutely right about the technology moving on and Kindles eventually becoming museum pieces, and maybe sooner than we think. Having been a computer professional in the early 1980's, I've moved from enormous reels of tape you had to change halfway through the program, to a little gizmo on my keyring that will store thousands of times as much data.

    But the programs are still basically the same underneath, so I think there will still be some kind of digital book and e-reader in the future. Of course I won't care what happens to my own books after I am dead, so maybe that is when they will go "oop"?

    I think my question referred more to paper books going oop after only 6 months, and e-books maybe being a way to keep them in print for long enough to build a readership, as they used to do when they were allowed a longer shelf life.

    As for paper copies, paper deteriorates too (albeit much slower) and is also vulnerable. The Great Library of Alexandria was wiped out by a fire. In future I think I'll go for one handwritten and beautifully-illustrated version of each of my books stored away in a safe somewhere, and a digital format for whatever futuristic e-reader people are using at the time.

    Meanwhile, Kindle Authors UK are busy kindling their books for future museum pieces!

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  8. Completely agree, though personally I still have all my old LPs and just bought a record player again. I'm not a fan of ebooks for a variety of reasons - I don't find them as pleasant to read from (can rarely bring myself to do it) and I'm also afraid they'll eventually kill the writing profession both through piracy and driving down prices. Really though, they just add a piece of trendy (and unnecessary) technology to reading. The fervor for ereaders feels like an emperor's clothes thing to me; I just don't get the excitement.