I have good news for authors suffering through the decline of the publishing industry: I have discovered a new revenue stream. Authors can, increasingly, make a tidy living by giving our opinion on the decline of the publishing industry. Now that we have e-books, a discussion about the impact of e-books is about the only thing authors are asked to talk about, which is not a bad thing, as we weren't asked to talk about much before this.
I'm not complaining. It's a very pleasant occupation. My most recent panel on the future of the book, for example, was at a conference of private-school English teachers. It was in the country, at a private school that is very, very, very rich and has a great many books in a beautiful and sprawling library with a fireplace to read beside. Our discussion was held in a school theatre that would be the envy of many small towns. The pupils who guided us to our places had been hand-drawn by nostalgic fantasists, in their Edwardian uniforms and pink cheeks and, I swear, English-y accents.
On my panel were a bunch of successful authors who are, frankly, completely unaffected by the question of digitization. After all, it has no bearing at all on how we write or what we write about. We have never had to worry about the mechanics of typesetting or of bookselling, whether in print or in bits, and despite everything you read about authors becoming entrepreneurs, those with even a Canadian-sized modicum of success will never have to. Publishers are not about to disappear, nor are merchants. The writer's creativity is basically aimless and fundamentally useless: It is only well-served when directed into the imagining of murders in the garden and kissing under the stairs and the funny way the light hits the wallpaper.
It's true, however, that even though commerce is the very last thing novelists are qualified to talk about, the very first thing they always talk about whenever they are put together is money. And we on our panel very quickly devolved into this: how much you can sell an e-book for, how much a writer would get for it, how much for future rights, what percentage goes to whom ... I am afraid we are at our most boring when we are on about this stuff. And we're not even experts on it. We are experts on how a certain bean stew used to smell in grandmother's kitchen.
And it was difficult to worry about the loss of the past in a place where students wear uniforms. Far away, in the fluorescent-lit world of apps and dynamic-brand-driven-scalable-solutions, people are chattering about whether we will all have to write novels in 140-character bursts. But inside, in our classroom sessions, we looked out on the rugby fields and compared notes on punctuation and palimpsests.
In other words, worrying about the future of the book is a fantastic excuse to spend more time in bookish environments with an undwindling stream of people who love books. If the terrifying digital future demands more of this from us, well, I'm more than willing to strap on my lead boots and my anti-UV goggles and stride bravely into it. There was nice wine afterwards, too.
It did occur to me for a moment to feel sorry for the beautiful pupils who, surrounded by this respect for writers and words, may find themselves shocked on finally leaving the grounds: They will eventually have to leave the world of art and enter the world of "content," as we have all had to do at least for short periods. ("Content" is an impoverished and nasty district patrolled by gangs of publicists.) But then I realized that they too will be able to make a living talking forever about their own decline: that as the anguish over reading increases, there will be ever more earnest defence and cultivation of it. It's not really in the past at all; it never went anywhere.
Don't spread this around, though: I am happy to speak on the urgent topic of decline wherever there is nice wine and piles of books.