The Future of the Book: An Introduction

This is my first entry on a subject that I want to address: the future of the book. It’s something that matters to me very much, of course. Many internet enthusiasts maintain that the book is dying, which I think is naive. The book is suffering right now, but it’s not going to die. The internet will die before the book ever does. I’ll go into why I think that’s true in future posts. For this first post, I want to look at a brief exchange in an interview with the poet and ecology activist Gary Snyder that I saw on YouTube. This extract confirms a hunch I’ve had about one of the beliefs of cyber-intellectuals, a belief they tend to keep in the background. I’ve put into italics the specific point that I’m referring to.

Interviewer: Do you think that there is any literary vocation, in the largest sense of the word—literary, not poetical—one that may be assumed by so-called prose writers?

Gary Snyder: Maybe. I don’t know. The publishing business is falling apart. Books are not selling. Bookstores are closing. Everybody is saying the Internet is the new thing. What do you think? It’s your generation. What do you think is going to happen?

Interviewer: I think we will still need literature for some reasons.

Gary Snyder: By literature, you mean books or do you mean writing?

Interviewer: Writing.

Gary Snyder: Is it okay for writing to be online?

Interviewer: Honestly, I do think so.

Gary Snyder: Do you think writers should be paid?

Interviewer: Um… Well, that’s a difficult issue.

Gary Snyder: Well, you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living.

Interviewer: Yeah, that’s true. Um…

Gary Snyder: Unless you want to be an academic, but that’s not a real writer.

Interviewer: But would you say it’s just to write for a living? To earn money?

Gary Snyder: Whatever you do you have to earn enough money to feed your family.

Interviewer: Okay. So you’re a pragmatist.

Gary Snyder: Of course I’m a pragmatist. I’m a grown up. You know? I’m an adult. I know that I have to feed a family.

The interviewer is around 20 years old, a student in Krakow, Poland. I’ve looked into him a little. He’s an urban technofile. I’ve long had the sense that the real attitude of these people toward writers, musicians and other “content providers” is that they should be doing their work for free in their spare time, that to make a living doing creative work is elitist. I feel that my hunch has been confirmed here — “Well, that’s a difficult issue.” For cyber-intellectuals, the internet fanatics, the most vital aspect of the digital lifestyle is gadgetry. You need content to give the gadgets something to do, but that’s secondary. This is another example of form over content — the medium is the message — which is backwards. We live in a backward, or an upside down, era. (I’ll do a future post on Marshall McLuhan, of whom I used to be a big fan.) Listening to the interview, when the interviewer agrees with Snyder’s assertion that you can’t be a writer if you can’t make a living at it, he’s not being sincere. It’s merely a tactical retreat. A grown man has challenged him over something he has not thought through, so he backs off. But his real attitude, which he’s not willing to push too hard here, is one of the most widespread that those who write books, make films, take photos, or make music have to deal with nowadays: Your work should be free, and if you’re not willing to give it to us, then we’ll simply take it from you. Can someone offer support for this idea? I’d be interested in hearing from you.

You can watch the entire 25-minute interview here.


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13 Responses to “The Future of the Book: An Introduction”

  1. Jean-Luc Picard Says:

    It’s not so much we don’t want to pay, as much as we don’t believe the existing ecosystem is sustainable. Think about it, everyone reads books, but not everyone goes to a bookstore. Even in a post-digital-economy world there’ll still be bookstores, the only real difference you can’t be BAD at it like so many used bookstore owners were before Amazon drove them out of competition– the bookstores I still see around can be as disorganized as they want, as long as they make up for it in customer service & realistic pricing models. The internet IS a medium (the medium of mediums, as it can control any telecom or broadcast network these days), but in this specific metaphor it’d be better to think of it as the distributor, with Apple, Amazon & Google being the publishers. Hate the publishers for creating a flawed fixed-pricing model that raped a budding e-book economy from the get-go, not the distribution network which, by itself, is actually kinda grounded deep in Buddhist philosophy but it takes like an hour to explain in detail. Remember, writers have been getting fucked by publishing contracts for decades if not centurii, especially with 3/5-book contracts. BTW, even the more prominent e-book self-publishers (including the ones that give away their books for free online) more than make up for it in online & retail hardcopy sales– it ends up growing their paying fanbase than shinking it usually, but of course they’re also subsidized by out-sourced merchandising & donations.

    • markbittner Says:

      I wanted to respond to this comprehensively, but it’s too sprawling. So I’ll make a few random, sprawling points: I don’t want to be published by Apple, Amazon, or Google. How under this new system would I be able to choose not to be? None of this (tech, internet, computer, etc.) has anything to do with Buddhism, which teaches simplicity and direct contact with reality. The fewer mediations, the better. At least publishers once had editors, people who cared about the quality of books. Amazon, Apple and Google don’t give a shit. They sell books like they were shoes or mountain bikes or camping stoves. (I despise e-books, by the way.) And I didn’t get fucked by my publisher. They were a little inept business-wise, but I don’t particularly admire people who are good at business anyway. One last random point: Steve Jobs was not a Buddhist. You can’t be a billionaire and a Buddhist. That’s a very important point.

  2. Jean-Luc Picard Says:

    I wrote all that under mental distress (had a bad morning) but I’ll attempt to clarify & apologize: Sorry for implying you would even WANT to be caught up in the whole e-book debacle as it stands currently– I was more implying the internet was what replaces the bookstores for a lot of people, with books still flourishing & overshadowing the nich-ier but still sizeable e-book market, & bookstores still existing but shrinking down to mom-&-pop-standard. The Internet-Buddhism thing was more a passing remark (my bad), but put short it stems to it running on some fundamental standards & the software running it stemming from a set of rules which, once time passed, became more & more obviously yet unintentionally linked to many basic Buddhist precepts. Now, it may have been the budding zen culture in the area at the time (1968-75-ish for this team of programmers) but to this day, many programming books include koans at the end. I’m also sorry I implied you were one of many modern-day writers that got fucked by a big-name publisher– I’m only 23 so I can only see things with so much relativity beyond a few decades, & for those decades there was alot of money at publishing firms to be made warming seats. I was more implying a more level landscape with them out of the picture w/ online distribution (both hardcopy & digital, with miniscule digital returns currently). Those who opt for publishing their work digitally tend to crowd source their editing– they put their draft online for a limited period & allow the public to comment before they ship their final draft to the printers or publisher for distribution, or they’ll include extra content in the hardcopy. Also it’s no secret to my generation that Jobs was an asshole– it was Wozniak that was cranking out the brilliantly simple (& therefore robust & expandable) computers. Jobs was considered more a hippie with a token VW T2 & abandonment issues that knew how to find people with real talent, manipulate them to make him money & then claim their inventions as his own. These days it’s called ‘Management’ but if you see any fictional portrayal of Jobs or real-life interview, you’ll know what I mean. He also abandoned his daughter for 10 years. Wozniak lives with relative humility & I hear he’s a cool dude to hang with if you bump into him.

    • markbittner Says:

      There’s a passage in the Tao te Ching that says “The wise man is not learned, the learned man is not wise.” I used to have trouble with that one, but I don’t anymore. Wisdom and knowledge are two different fields. If you want to be wise, that is, truly understand what is happening in the here and now, you have to give up mastering knowledge, which is endless. You should learn what you actually need to know given your circumstances, nothing more. Your technical knowledge should never exceed your depth of character. You can apply that to music, for instance. If a musician knows tons of scales, chords, and rhythms, but his experience of life is shallow, his music will sound hollow. I apply this to how much technology I use. I use what I actually need, and no more. I’m down to a desktop and a landline. I don’t have a television, radio, smart phone, GPS unit, or anything else. I could be quite happy with just a snailmail box, but that’s not possible under the current circumstances.

  3. Anne McCann Says:

    Hi Mark, I don’t know if this is the best place to post this comment, but I want to tell you that I just finished reading The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. I couldn’t put it down. I love the story of your lifestyle and the daily dramas with the parrots. I think you are a fascinating role model. It takes bravery to listen to your own inner voice and not cave in to the pressures of society to “be productive, work, make money, stay busy, be efficient, look good to the neighbors, etc. So many people are just spinning their wheels. After reading your book, I relaxed a little, and backed off on the constant pressure I put on myself. I believe we all need to slow down, live deeper, and connect more with our communities and environments. Thank you for introducing us all to the wonderful world of the parrots and their individual personalities and stories. You are an inspiration! I’m looking forward to your next book! And yes, I do buy books. I like holding a book in my hands and am willing to pay for the pleasure of owning a paper copy.

    • markbittner Says:

      Thank you for your kind words. My new book will explain how it is that I managed to live the way I did, that is, explain to a degree I couldn’t in the Parrot book.

  4. Anthony Paul Says:

    I want to know the interviewer’s starting point when he asks if it’s “just” to earn a living and to make money through writing. It’s too open-ended. What does he even mean by the word “just” in this context? Is a system that essentially forces you to make money in order to live a “just” system? He needs to justify his premises before he asks if it’s just.

    • markbittner Says:

      He meant “just” as in “only.” He was trying to ask if Snyder was writing, or if anybody was writing, “only to make money.” It’s not quite pertinent—especially in Snyder’s case.

  5. Anthony Paul Says:

    OK. I thought watching the interview would make it more clear to me but it didn’t. I’m not sure I understand the English of the Polish folk. Joseph Conrad would be annoyed with us all.

  6. Jean Luc Picard Says:

    I feel I should probably disclose that I live off the internet, not just an IT tech but also as a communications medium. Maybe I felt like I had to ‘defend the internet’, sorry…

    • markbittner Says:

      We’re all here to say our piece. I think you would be quite disappointed in my opinions on tech and the internet if I were to reveal them fully. My preoccupation is with my book right now.

  7. Tim Mueller Says:

    Either you’ve broached so many topics that I can’t get a foothold on where to begin, or a week-long spiritual retreat has left me unable (unwilling?) to pontificate. I guess I’ll wait for the McLuhan expose…

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