Sunday, July 05, 2009

William Golding meets the Borg

Years ago I read one of those books that sticks in a strange sort of way. It's never far from one of the founding titles that I always go back to thinking about, but I've only reread it once.
The Inheritors by William Golding is similar to Lord of the Flies in that it was written after World War Two and was full of comment on the primitive nature of 'modern' man, equally given to broad commentary and telling detail.
Essentially the book deals with a band of Neanderthals who come upon a group of early humans. The Cro-Magnons have the obvious evolutionary advantages, certainly the superior weaponry and the main Neanderthal character Lok, rises to prominence among the small band after several Neanderthals are killed during an initial encounter with the early humans.
The Neanderthals are awed and fearful of the race before them and after tensions between the tribes conclude in a final battle, Lok loses his partner Fa and as the novel concludes he displays the beginnings of a larger self-awareness (at least as we understand it) and rather than be alone, chooses death.
It's a simple, profoundly moving book and I find myself coming back to it often whenever I read articles like Sarah Sheard's in the Globe and Mail this weekend.
She asserts that it's time writers took publishers out of the equation and used the Web and ebooks to keep more of their earnings.
"If everyone else is so hip, why aren't writers? Why are they still so stuck on the Gutenberg model, hugging boxes of returns to their breasts like life preservers in sharky electronic waters? Why are writers - seemingly the last people in the universe to have trouble grasping change - so willfully ignorant of this empowering technology? A 16-gigabyte iPhone can store roughly 30,000 English Patients plus a few hundred The Lovely Bones. Get it? Lots of shelf room. E-rights are valuable. They turn into e-books, which turn into money for the writer. There is no earthly reason for writers to accept minuscule remuneration from paternalistic publishers for their creative contribution. Technology now connects writers directly to readers, virtually for free."
Sheard wraps up with "The e-book will encourage a thousand literary flowers to bloom, good news for visionary editors, freed from the bottom-line/bang-for-buck economics that have been squeezing the breath out of publishing for most of the last decade. And that's good news for readers of literature everywhere."
Her notions that writers should have a decent income are correct and she's right that publishers and booksellers have gotten too big and shirked too many responsibilities to writers, who after all provide the critical element. Independent bookstores and publishers are a small part of the pie and I assume, a footnote to her argument since we're only mentioned in terms befitting an obituary.
Sheard is with the Writer's Union of Canada, an organization that advocates on writers' behalf, so I worry about her all-in statement that the ebook will seemingly solve writers' woes.
If she decries writers influence with Canadian publishers I'm not sure how that influence gets stronger with Amazon or Google. As for letting a "thousand literary flowers to bloom" we're already there, and then some.
In the U.S market, the number of books published as short run or Print-on-Demand books actually exceeded the number of books made by publishers. Say what you will about the dubiousness of publishers being the vanguards of quality, that ship has sailed and there is a lot of stuff out there that no one needs. If everyone gets into the pool at once, even the vastness of the Web isn't going to guarantee an income. It's more likely as pointed out here that the digital revolution is going to be a more effective blockbuster delivery system, rather than the reverse.
Michael Antman's essay has a lot in it, and one can cherry pick to support either pro or con digital argument, but on balance I find it awfully hard to share Sheard's optimism.
She's right insofar as it's only midmorning in the ebook world, and the huge growth (and the relentless marketing) so far is undeniable. But as for a better income for writers in the digital future?
Tread carefully, and for what it's worth I thought Sheard's early novel Almost Japanese was terrific. If you deign to put the new novel out in paper, I promise I'll read it and get behind it.



Anonymous said...

Every day is the day to quote Next Gen references at Words Worth Books. I just want you guys to know what you're walking into, people! Dave is away at the London Book Fair for two days so he is helpless as I insert Borg pictures into his stories.
Perhaps I should be nicer as he is on a particular mission to get me a special advanced reading copy. More on that later.


Clare said...

David, we talked a lot at Book Camp Toronto about the role of publishers; not surprising as there were a number of publishers in attendence. I recapped it in one of my blog posts here

There are publishers and then there are publishers, you know? I know you do. But it was very interesting to hear people scoff at the idea of publishers as gatekeepers or garantors of quality. One author in the room was convinced that the only role a publisher should play is marketing. I can't imagine marketing a book we've had no other involvement in. Go hire a PR person for that.

Must pop into the store to meet you Mandy. I like your irreverence with Dave's post.

Anonymous said...

I look forward to meeting you too. You have great taste in books!
Dave and I are a pretty funny team at the store. :)


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