Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Doomed, we're all doomed!

It's been a week for prognostications of doom about the future of publishing, with Ewan Morrison writing at inordinate length about how grim everything is in The Guardian, and Graham Swift maintaining the rise of digital books could even mean authors would stop writing (yeah, right). I wondered whether the invention of the printing press had met with similar reactions, and pootled round Google to find out.

I got a bit waylaid...

Apparently, the Black Death was the catalyst that speeded transition from hand-copied manuscripts on vellum to printed books on paper. Many monks closeted in crowded monasteries fell victim to the plague, leaving fewer scribes; the price of manuscripts, already hugely expensive, went up. A vastly reduced population became better-off as they inherited from those who had died. They bought new clothes the way you would, thus making lots of rags available for the production of paper; the cost of paper books went down.

Printers now decided what to print, rather than the Church. It made sense to print the books readers wanted. They realized that the real market was not for big heavy volumes of the Bible and religious tracts, but for smaller and cheaper books on a wide range of subjects. The Church was no longer in charge of the dissemination of knowledge, because it could no longer control what people read. It got rather cross about this, but there was nothing it could do to halt the rise of the new technology beyond issuing dire warnings to an unheeding public.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?


  1. Haha, that is truly awesome and VERY familiar.

  2. Aaron, congratulations on your self-publishing success - difficult to feel doomed when one's books are selling, I'm sure you'll agree :o)

  3. bubble bubble toil and trouble. this made me laugh.

  4. Could be something in it, but the Black Death was a century before the printing press, so something must have been at work in the interim!

  5. The very lively comments/debate under the guardian article is worth following! :-)

    It's great! Take care

  6. Robert, things moved more slowly in those pre-digital days. See for more information.

    Jennifer, I believe writers will get more for their toil and trouble from now on. As we should :o)

    Kitty, I must go and read those Guardian comments. I commented on the post yesterday.

  7. Yes, very familiar! It's funny how history has a habit of repeating itself, (hopefully not the plague bit though!)

  8. Who said "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated?"

    Because I'm thinking that VERY true about books.

    Also I think we are getting away from a mass-market society. The idea of craftsmanship has grown from something a few freaked out 'Artiste' people did, to something to look for.

    Quality food, quality goods, now quality story-telling - these are all things people look for, and are willing to pay for.

    And lets face it, there are a hell of a lot of good books that never would see the light of day without DIY publishing.

  9. Well said, Lexi.

  10. Amanda, I'm off to research the plague now (don't some American squirrels carry it?) London still has plenty of rats - probably more than in the Middle Ages. Fewer fleas, though; I think human fleas are quite rare these days.

    Ms Kitty, you're right, niche books have far more of a chance to find a readership than they did.

    Thanks, Prue :o)

  11. On the subject of 'Plague' - there is a strain on the west coast that is working it's way East through prairie dogs. (prairie dogs are a ground squirrel.)

  12. I imagine modern medicine can cope these days? Bad luck for the prairie dogs, though...


    The bubonic plague is still with us. The above link isn't the most authoritative, but is more entertaining than the medical sites.

    Last year I was toying with a medical thriller based on a virulent new bubonic plague strain, hence the research, but in the wake of the much-deserved success of Mark Edwards and Louise Voss with Catch Your Death our own project was indefinitely shelved.

    Just glad it was still only at the ideas stage. As a fellow indie male-female writing duo it would have been wholly inappropriate to continue after they topped the charts with CYD.

    Hundreds of years on, the bubonic plague claims its first novel victim. :-)

  14. I'm sure your book would have been quite different from Mark and Louise's. Of course, the publishing industry actually seeks out books similar to those that have sold well - hence, I suppose, all those terribly alike serial killer novels.

    I realized, towards the end of my year submitting Remix, that my only hope of selling it was if a rock star mystery by another author was published and did surprisingly well :o)

  15. Interesting stuff, Lexi. Have you seen what Jane Rogers wrote in The Guardian:
    It's great she's able to sell her writing in other markets but unless a small publisher took that risk on her book which enabled it to reach the Booker longlist, I doubt she'd still be praising publishers at all.


  16. K, I hadn't, and I've now left a comment on the article :o)

    It must be terribly frustrating for a published author to have a book rejected. Publishers lack courage, loyalty and a desire to publish the best writing these days. They were so much better fifty years ago.

  17. I hate to come in on the side of the doom-sayers, because I believe that the democratisation of publishing made possible by the digital revolution is an excellent thing. But there are causes for concern.

    Your analogy with the attitude of the Church to the advent of the printing press is instructive, but I think there's more to it than that.

    When the printing press arrived, there was plenty of room for more books, but that's not the case today: far too many books are being published already. My great fear is that in the free-for-all that publishing has become, digital piracy will soon consign us all to perdition.

    I'm not sorry to see the hit being taken by the big publishers, but I'm not confident that this will end well.

  18. You may be right, Iain, but don't forget the goodwill felt by a reader towards an author who has entertained her. A novel goes from one mind to another, quite an intimate experience. I wouldn't want to rip off my favourite authors, and if I find something to go on the select list of books I reread regularly, I'd buy the paper version.

    Also, people with Kindles report reading more than they did before. More good books available can only be a positive thing.