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Comment from the book world in January 2009

January 2009

Last column in Times Books

26 January 2009

'Times Books as we know it will be no more, but books themselves, thankfully, seem shockproof against change. Neither economics nor e-readers will oust the beloved book. We don't stop reading because we are poor, any more than book lovers will give up books for their electronic lookalikes...

As a writer, change is necessary, otherwise writing becomes a kind of copying out of what is there already. That may make money but it won't make new imaginative space. But then, neither will ceaseless technological innovation, which is simply distracting. I don't see that Shakespeare or the Brontes or Eliot would have written better if they had laptops. I love my Mac

The time when computers were toys for bright boys and had names like Apple, Tangerine or Pet are history. Apple evolved into Mac or Macintosh after a brief flirtation with the lovely Lisa. The original company name lives on in the website title for the Mac. Downloads

but I can work without it...

Readers of this column will know that I believe in art and literature as a counterweight to prevailing values, and that for me, fiction and poetry are not leisure activities but active energies at the centre of life...

Writing this column has been a way of thinking through much that is important about books, about creativity, about what it means to read seriously and think poetically, when everyday language is both non-stop and trivial. And it has been a meeting-place, or so it seems to me; as though on Saturdays we sat on a bench with our books and talked.'

Jeanette Winterson, in herfinal column in the last separate book supplement of The Times.

The post-Gutenberg revolution

19 January 2009

'The primary goal of publishing general fiction and non-fiction was never profit-though profit was essential to stay in the game. Publishing is a vocation in which the work is its own reward, an insufficient goal for today's conglomerates.

The business as it exists cannot survive, but in the miraculous way such things happen, a shining future is at hand. The 500-year-old Gutenberg system in which copy is delivered to a printer who ships inventory to a publisher's warehouse from which it is consigned to bookshops is being displaced by the combined impact of digitization and the Internet, whose vast implications for the existing supply chain have yet to be fully exploited or perhaps grasped by today's industry.

In theory, every book ever published in whatever language can now be stored and delivered in digital form as cheaply and quickly as e-mail to be downloaded onto a variety of devices from dedicated readers, to more versatile handheld devices and to free standing machines that quickly and cheaply print and bind a selected title on demand wherever electricity and Internet connectivity exist...

Authors' complete works may be downloaded practically anywhere on Earth from appropriate websites, their property protected and royalties conveyed by secure software.

The effect of this post-Gutenberg Revolution will be to radically decentralize the marketplace for books and greatly reduce the cost of entry for would-be publishers... Meanwhile, through today's gloom we may discern a spectacularly bright future in which the rewards to writers and readers and even to publishers will be unprecedented as world-wide multilingual backlists expand online in a cultural revolution orders of magnitude greater than Gutenberg's world-changing technology generated five centuries ago.'

From An Autopsy of the Book Business by Jason Epstein, Chairman of On Demand Books, LLC, who was for many years editorial director of Random House US during a 50-year career and is the author of Book Business, now available in 10 translations.

Sucking the air out of the system

12 January 2009

'The heart and soul of any publishing business is its editorial department, the men and women who, crudely, acquire the 'content' on which the imprint depends. In the past 20 years, editorial freedom has become eroded. Sales people have increased their influence as bookshops have gained power at the expense of publishers. Gone are the days, with rare exceptions, when an editor's positive enthusiasm for a new book could trump the negative anxieties of the sales department, almost the only books that now generate much excitement among publishers are would-be bestsellers...

Bestsellers are not intrinsically bad. But they suck the air out of the system, and distort the delicate ecology of the book trade. The publishers make a pact. In exchange for turnover, they supply the bookshops with the kind of merchandise they can sell in large quantities. In this world, the little book - novel or memoir - struggles to make its way...

There is perhaps a sliver lining to these clouds of recession. Books remain comparatively cheap, and excellent value for money. Most paperbacks are approximately the price of a cinema ticket. Is it not possible that the downturn will purge the trade of vacuous bestsellers and bring the British reading public back to better books?'

Robert McCrum in the Observer

'A primitive pleasure'

5 January 2009

'In times gone by, poetry was always the word-form most immediately associated withstrong feelings. What is surprising is finding that in the present day, when articles in newspapers about 'the death of poetry' come round as regularly as a lost sock in the washing machine, these ancient offices and values are still so honoured.

It's because poetry is a fundamentally primitive thing. We understand this before we realise it, when we chant and recite in the school playground, taking a basic human pleasure in the rhythms and rhymes and games that language allows...

...Poetry, which belongs in life, should reflect the whole experience of life. It should be as happily diverse as the society which brings it into being, and... as manifold as the relationships it will describe, Sometimes rejoicing in things as they are, sometimes criticising them, sometimes welcoming, sometimes rejecting - always keeping its eyes peeled, its ears open, and its devotion to meaning as intense as its passion for mystery.

A primitive pleasure? Absolutely. But a primitive pleasure that is endlessly transformed and re-invented.

Andrew MotionEnglish poet, novelist and biographer; Poet Laureate of United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009; during his laureateship founded the Poetry Archive, an online resource of poems and audio recordings of poets reading their own work, UK Poet Laureate, in the Sunday Telegraph