The great speculative fiction writer, Octavia Butler, once did an essay for Essence Magazine in which she discussed how she studied the past and the present to predict the future, and the difficulties of predicting it accurately. She said, “How many combinations of unintended consequences and human reactions to them does it take to detour us into a future that seems to defy any obvious trend? Not many. That’s why predicting the future accurately is so difficult.”
But she also said, “I didn’t make up the problems [in my books]. All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now.”
Butler was speaking of major social and economic problems that she felt could lead to the collapse of our culture, but what she said is true of attempting to predict any trend: it is difficult, but with a consciousness of the past and present, it’s certainly not impossible.
Within the publishing world there is a loud and ongoing debate about what the future of the book will be, or should be. The industry has been in flux for a good five years now, since the rise of the e-reader and tablet and the highly visible, increasingly aggressive stance Amazon has taken against “brick and mortar” bookstores. The major corporations of our lives are all a part of a data revolution: Google quietly collects user information, and Adobe is capable of rendering a generation of e-readers into bricks with a simple code change (fortunately they decided not to, this time). Netflix’s hit remake of the BBC classic House Of Cards was written using analytics on the viewing activity of Netflix users.
All of these things impact the art of storytelling, and they are changing the world very quickly. They require us to ask questions: how will we buy books in the future? How will we read them? What will become of paper books? What will become of bookstores? Of libraries? And what will become of authors, agents, editors, and publishers?
I don’t have a lot of answers about most of that; if I did it would be a book in itself. But I can talk a little about the central worry of most readers’ lives: that the book will disappear. It won’t, not in any vital sense, and I’m here to use history to tell you why.
Until the turn of the century, books had changed relatively little for hundreds of years. You can pick up a book published in 1850 and it will hold together fairly well; you read it the same way you read any modern book. Because of the seemingly eternal nature of a book, we forget that society has experienced this kind of flux before: there was a time before now when the book became cheap, accessible, easily distributed, and thus available to, as it were, the peasantry.
In China, printing presses existed as early as 1041 CE, when Bi Sheng, a “man of unofficial position” (a commoner) created clay characters, baked them, and secured them in plates covered in resin and wax. A few hundred years later, around the same time Johannes Gutenberg was developing a printing press in Europe, a Chinese printer named Hua Sui was adapting Bi Sheng’s design to include durable bronze moveable type.
In the west, the legend of Gutenberg is more well-known: Johannes Gutenberg adapted a screw-press, a device originally used for pressing wine and olive oil, so that it took trays of moveable type and pressed them to paper. A Gutenberg press could put out about 3600 pages a day, and became the dominant literary technology of Europe.
Bi Sheng and Johannes Gutenberg’s creations, a hemisphere apart, became the heart of publishing on a global scale.
Before the advent of the printing press in Europe, block-printing and hand-copying were the only ways to produce manuscripts, and thus books were rare, expensive, and heavily “gatekept” — only someone with the economic means to employ a copyist or print a book could distribute it widely, reinforcing the domination of the moneyed classes. What the Gutenberg printing press did, more or less immediately, was make the printed word accessible to vast numbers of people at a relatively low cost. It was a new distribution channel, and it totally messed up every previous tradition associated with the written word.
That was roughly five hundred years ago. When was the last time you encountered someone who either owned or made hand-copied books? People do still produce them, but they’re generally…short. And made in very small runs. Even self-publishers use copy machines, or lulu.com.
So, five hundred years from now, will books still be printed? Presuming we don’t encounter another dark age, what will the book look like when our descendants are as far from us as we are from Gutenberg?
Well, we’ve seen the result of that revolution: hand-written and block-printed books became the province of the artisan, the hobbyist. The end of hand-copying signalled the reduction of visual expression in most literature, such as the beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages. Any illustrations for a mass-printed document had to be carved to be inserted into the press, and one-color printing became the standard because mass production didn’t allow for multi-colored pressings except in very expensive editions. You can still see the habits of the last fifty years of printing when you pick up a modern book. We have the capability now to easily insert images directly into text, but most books printed in the last ten years still insert any images they may have into a special section in the middle, or specific designated pages throughout the book.
But is all this automatically a bad thing? The book as a physical cultural item is important, and can be beautiful, but I think it is generally agreed that the contents of a book are more important than the container. Mass production saved many books that might otherwise have fallen to dust long ago. And the question of whether the physical book will indeed fade away depends on whether e-readers can be made so affordable as to be common, even disposable, items — we may think the preponderance of e-readers is a sign of things to come, but for many they are still fiscally well out of reach. The day an e-reader is as common and as cheap as a wristwatch is the day we really need to worry for physical books. That day may never come.
Perhaps most importantly, the printing press encouraged the spread of information and knowledge. We know the internet does this; it is literally a data-based world. It makes books easy and cheap to acquire, both print books shipped from a warehouse and e-books downloaded from a server. E-readers have also, in some ways, made the very act of reading easier. There is some evidence, for example, that people are more ready to read certain genres of book, generally genres such as fantasy and romance which have been marginalized in the past as “trashy”, if they can read them on an e-reader, where nobody can see the cover.
Of course, the data flow goes both ways. When you’re reading an e-book, that e-book may be reading you. Most new e-readers are capable of recording how fast you read, what passages you highlight or linger on, and what your taste in books is like. Publishers receiving that information can use it in aggregate to direct the kind of books they choose to publish; authors, if they are allowed to see it, can use it to direct the kind of books they write. Textbook publishers already use this information to dictate content; it won’t be long before a novel publisher tries to, if they haven’t already.
On the one hand, it’s a strike against original, innovative work. An author who has been dictated a framework must either work genius within it or fail. If the data is faulty and the framework is bad, they may fail anyway. On the other hand, all this data offers authors insight into what their readers want, and how best to communicate their ideas within a structure that makes their readers want to read them. There is some pretty strong kick against this among authors, but the final verdict on its usefulness hasn’t yet been made.
There is, as with any major cultural sea-change, a spectrum of use for these new tools in this new world. Perhaps books will fall by the wayside, becoming dusty museum pieces and craft hobbies as digital books take over. Perhaps those digital books will be regimented and restricted by analytic guidelines set with user data, devoid of originality.
But it is a mistake to believe that The Book is a monolith, and that authors and novels can all be swept up in one broad stroke. Even publishers, dominated by six large corporations which believe they set the standard for all, have a wide array of philosophies. Novelists, certainly, are highly diverse and individual, and our culture has both celebrated and condemned that individuality. The public, connective nature of the internet has already begun removing certain outdated gatekeepers that have kept marginalized voices from being heard.
So perhaps books will return to a time when they were visual as well as literary works of art. Perhaps literature will experience a resurgence in popularity when books become even more inexpensive to produce and easy to distribute.
In dozens of centuries of the written word, across cultures and eras, through revolutions in communication and dark ages, the ethos of the novelist seems likely to remain: independent, defiant, and original for some, others guided by the rule of culture, others still as formulaic as they’ve ever been.
This essay was written in response to a request from Flat Earth Theatre, currently in the final stages of production for What Once We Felt, a science-fiction exploration of the schisms in society and technology.