Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Golden Age of Reading.

Kaiapos people, Matto Grosso, Valter Campanato, Agencia Brasilia.

by Louis Shalako

We are entering a Golden Age of reading. Yet the industry has suffered some disruption, and some have said it will ultimately fail, in its present form, possibly within twenty years.

None of this implies a Golden Age for authors in general. Some authors might be doing insanely well, and others might scrabble along on fifty dollars a month in sales.

Some say the printed work will never die, and in some sense that might be true. Collectors will still love the printed edition. But the vast majority of books will eventually be in electronic format.

The rationale is simple: paper and ink cost money. An ebook costs nothing in terms of paper, ink, set-up time, labour, transport, and shelter, (in a brick and mortar bookstore, which must also be lit and heated) and of course all that must be supervised, and insured, creating a huge tooth-to-tail ratio for the printed book

I know some will rant and rave and foam at the mouth as they disparage all the unedited books on Amazon. 

It is purely reactionary.

The funny thing is that they never mention a title or author’s name. They don’t seem to know that Amazon has spell-check on the English publishing page, (and you’d have to be a real fool to ignore it) and that iTunes is now screening foreign translations for spelling and grammar.

(I find that interesting, because these are the same guys who aren’t accepting that a machine-assisted translation can be well-done. I would like to know what program they are using.)

But the fact that at least a million books a year are now being published, the fact that the price of traditionally-published ebooks* is coming down, and the fact that there are thousands of new authors entering the market every day is extremely positive.

Traditionally published authors by the thousand are now uploading the books they own as rights revert, and sort of forget it was some enthusiastic newcomer on Facebook or Twitter who sparked their interest in the first place.

People who began as self-published authors have been picked up by big traditional publishers, they have made the big best-seller lists, and some have amassed fortunes.

The readers benefit from having more choices and lower prices. They can buy and read more books.

The world benefits from a staggering increase, not just in the overall literacy rates, but also in the quality of that literacy. Some are predicting ‘universal authorship’ in the future.

That must scare the hell out of people who hold some pretty conservative view-points. That's because people who can read, can also understand issues and express an opinion effectively. They get a lot better representation for their cause, which often involves land, resources, human rights, social conditions and ultimately, human dignity. That's just what the bad guys don't want, isn't it?


How many times have I read it?

Some well-meaning person person says on their blog that we are not in competition.

I disagree, but rather than get into that, I would like to point out that we are definitely in competition with television, radio, movies, games, social networking sites, and many other forms of entertainment. We are in competition for eye-balls on the page, and for people’s free time.

Time just seems to get a little more precious every day. Everyone is just so busy these days.

At one time, reading was practically the only form of entertainment that even came close to accessibility for the common man. Cheap, mass-produced books helped to create the middle class that so many claim is the cornerstone of democracy. They created the world we know today.

Gutenberg probably had no idea that his invention would spawn the Thirty Years War and the Reformation. 

There will be a downside to every great new thing. The world as we know it would not exist without those cultural paroxysms.

We’re a little more sophisticated these days, with the benefit of a little hindsight and a lot of affordable history books that have been produced over the years. So we can see that there might be some disruption.

There is no doubt that some are just plain frightened of any change.


I saw a book on Amazon that I had read as a boy. The author is still alive. He has a website.

His book was somewhere down in the twelve million range in the rankings. My independently published books have never been down in that range. Yet I’ve only been around for four years, and have never had a traditional publishing contract.

And it’s both daunting and a bit of a mystery to the authors when that happens.

Some say the product presentation algorithms are based on velocity, and it is entirely possible that the author in question sold one book a few years ago, and none since.

That’s not much velocity, in relation to other titles that might have only sold one copy this month, and so what is a pretty good book plummets straight to the bottom.

Publishers are loading up back titles and keeping them ‘in print’ (in the purely electronic sense) which means rights do not revert to an author because the contract might state that a new edition renews the license on the author’s copyright for a further period of several years, or until some stated time after the book goes out of print.

That’s a nice little clause for the publisher, for if the book is selling in reasonable numbers in English, the publisher paying someone $100.00 to translate it into Swahili might actually pay off. The book might never sell a single copy in Swahili. But the English version might still be selling, just for example, about $600.00 worth of books a year. All the publisher had to do was to email the book to the translator, and when it came back, upload it to the service provider’s website, say Amazon or iTunes. The publisher has done a few minutes work, the translator is a contractor.

The author’s work has just been sewed up for another few years; and if there are problems, the translator would be expected to fix it for free.

For an advance and some small royalty payments, an author might never regain control over their work. Yet to many authors, a few books bringing in $600.00 a year might make a real difference in their retirement plans. The royalties on the English version, the only one that is selling, are of course much less that that figure.

The danger there is that the publisher is not promoting or pushing those books at all, only relying on ‘passive discoverability,’ and playing a volume/numbers game which will last as long as they have any stock of unpublished titles.


I still read printed books. I read more books than the average person in a year, I’ve always been a reader and of course it’s part of my job. But the bulk of my reading over the last four or five years has been online.

I’ve never read an entire book online, but then I don’t have an iPhone or a laptop and reading books at a picnic table in a park, or sitting in my car in the parking lot, was never my thing.

Online reading is often much shorter. It’s often news or industry related, sometimes it’s short bits on Wikipedia, or websites that involve subjects in my area of interest, all sorts of things really.

It also involves a lot of stuff I wouldn't have had access to otherwise, which tends to boost my own educational level.

I read a lot of blogs, and posts on Facebook, etc.

I have gone from zero hours of electronic reading to several hours a day of electronic reading in a very short time. There is no doubt my own reading habits have changed. 

For those who like to read, this really is a new Golden Age. And so much of it is free for all to read.

What’s really interesting is the probability that New Guinea hill tribesmen will go from reading very little, even in print form, to reading quite a bit, hours a day even, without ever going through a protracted period of reading print books, unlike in our own culture.

The whole cultural fabric of our time is being altered, re-woven, even as we speak.

What the consequences of all this will be remains to be seen, but the temporary disruption of an industry is only one small part of it.

One thing for sure, the changes will be vast, and the world will hardly know itself in a few short years.


*traditionally-published ebook is a bit of a non-sequitur.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment on the blog posts, art or editing.