Do writers need paper?

As the sales of e-books finally start to soar, what effect will this digital revolution have on publishers, readers and writers? Will the novel as we know it survive? This essay on the future of writing first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Prospect.

The author Lionel Shriver is someone, she tells me, who enjoys “a conventional authorial life: I get advances sufficient to support me financially; I release my books through traditional publishing houses and write for established newspapers and magazines.” But Shriver, who won the 2005 Orange prize for her eighth novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, is also keeping an increasingly uneasy eye on the situation of 21st-century authors. For a start, there’s the worry that if “electronic publishing takes off in a destructive manner… the kind of fruitful professional life I lead could be consigned to the past.” Then there’s her own reading life, an essential part of the creative process, to consider: “I am personally dependent on the old-fashioned, hierarchical vetting of newspapers and book publishers to locate reading material that’s worth my time. I don’t want to wade through a sea of undifferentiated voices to find articles whose facts are accurate and novels that are carefully crafted and have something to say.”

The tyranny of choice is a near-universal digital lament. But for literary authors, at least, what comes with the territory is an especially barbed species of uncertainty. Take the award-winning novelist and poet Blake Morrison, perhaps best-known for his memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father? “I try to be positive about new technology,” he told me, “but I worry about what’s going to happen to poetry books and literary novels once e-readers have taken over from print. Will they survive the digital revolution? Or will the craving for interactivity drive them to extinction? I’ve not written anything for a year, and part of the reason may be a loss of confidence about the future of literary culture as I’ve known it.”

I’ve spent the last few months talking to authors, publishers and agents about the future, and it’s clear that Morrison’s feelings are far from unusual. After a number of false dawns, books are, finally, starting to go digital. In July, Amazon US reported that its e-book sales overtook sales of hardbacks on its website for the first time. E-books now account for at least 6 per cent of the total American market, a number that’s sure to rise steeply thanks to the huge success of both dedicated e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and multipurpose hardware like Apple’s iPad, which is currently selling a million units a month. What this means for publishers, readers and writers is the transformation not only of the context within which books exist, but also of what books can and cannot say—and who will read them.

Above all, the translation of books into digital formats means the destruction of boundaries. Bound, printed texts are discrete objects: immutable, individual, lendable, cut off from the world. Once the words of a book appear onscreen, they are no longer simply themselves; they have become a part of something else. They now occupy the same space not only as every other digital text, but as every other medium too. Music, film, newspapers, blogs, videogames—it’s the nature of a digital society that all these come at us in parallel, through the same channels, consumed simultaneously or in seamless sequence.

There are new possibilities in this, many of them marvellous. As the internet has amply illustrated, words shorn of physical restrictions can instantly travel the world and be searched, shared, adapted and updated at will. Yet when it comes to words that aim to convey more than information and opinions, and to books in particular, a paradoxical process of constriction is also taking place. For alongside what Morrison calls “the craving for interactivity,” a new economic and cultural structure is arriving that has the power to dismantle many of those roles great written works have long played: as critiques, inspirations, consciences, entertainments, educations, acts of witness and awakening, and much more.

The digitisation of the reading experience itself is the least radical aspect of this process. Although a minority of titles offer sounds and images, most e-books ape their paper counterparts. Even on an advanced device like the iPad, the best reading applications emphasise clarity and clutter-free text. What’s truly new is the shift in power that the emerging order represents.

The arguments being made for the indispensability of the traditional publishing model centre on two factors: advances and expertise. The established publishing system of paying advances against royalties enables writers, it’s said, to take the time to write and research works of proper depth and quality. The expertise gathered within established publishing companies, meanwhile, is an invaluable resource both for sifting through slush piles and for improving everything from a book’s structure and style to its grammar, presentation and accuracy—and subsequently its packaging, marketing and distribution.

Leaving aside the likelihood that this expertise will simply migrate to new media companies, this account neglects digital culture’s single most transforming force: data. Buy an electronic book and the exact details of that purchase are instantly known: exactly how much was paid, and when, and how, and in combination with which other products. What are the trends, the sudden sparks of interest, the opportunities? Which chapter held people’s attention for longest; at what point did most readers give up? Answering exactly these kinds of questions lies at the heart of the businesses that players like Amazon, Google and Apple have built over the last decade. And these three companies already overwhelmingly dominate the world’s digital publishing transactions.

It has long been a truth of publishing that—much as in movies—a small number of hits generate the bulk of revenues, allowing producers to take a punt on future productions. What, though, if there were no longer any need to gamble on success? Book publishing is based on the principle that publishers control access to a scarce, precious resource—print. But digital media models, where the costs of publication and reproduction are almost nothing, tend to function the other way around: material is first published, then the selection process begins among readers themselves.

For all the weight attached to traditional models of discernment, it’s hard not to see a logic that’s already well-established in other fields gaining ground: put as much material as you can in front of an audience, and let them do the selecting for you. Then—when your best hope of a hit appears—maximise it relentlessly.

After all, digital culture is one vast forum for debate, selection, promotion and distribution. As Angus Donald—whose writing career began in 2009 with the publication of Outlaw, the first in a series of novels about Robin Hood (the second, Holy Warrior, appeared this July)—described the experience of becoming a writer to me: “I find myself as a sort of president of a club of like-minded individuals. I’m matey, elder-brotherly and in regular contact with anyone who wants to communicate with me. I write a blog on a weekly basis, I have two Facebook pages for my books and I go to pretty much any events that invite me… ”

Donald has embraced technology, but there are plenty of authors who take a dimmer view. “When it comes to the world of the internet and blogging and Facebooking and what have you, I’m profoundly sceptical,” Philip Pullman, author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy, told me. “I daresay it manages to connect with a large number of people, but I strongly resent the time it takes up. In the little time that I have ‘spare,’ I don’t want to sit tapping at a keyboard and staring at a screen, I want to read and think.”

Whether authors participate or not, however, the terms on which books are bought and read are transforming. Despite his scepticism, Pullman has birthed a fantasy world that now spans a Hollywood movie, a radio adaptation, a play, a video game, and an online fan community of many hundreds of thousands. His work has a reach that stretches far beyond his own words on a page—and that can only be understood in terms of the newly dynamic interplay between modern media.

This interplay is highly significant within a book market that—even leaving aside the torrent of self-publishing that digital technology permits—has become increasingly crowded and top-heavy. In 2009, more books were published in Britain than in any previous year in history: over 133,000. And yet just 500 authors, less than half of 1 per cent, were responsible for a third of all sales. The situation is an order of magnitude more extreme than that of 30 years ago, when fewer than 50,000 books appeared. In America, one out of every 17 hardback novels bought since 2006 has been written by the crime novelist James Patterson.

This simultaneous increase in the diversity of titles and the concentration of profits among a small number of “super authors” is of a piece with cultural trends elsewhere. And Patterson’s success—in 2009 he netted a reported $70m (£44m) from writing—is both an emblem of how the book trade has changed during several decades of corporate consolidation, and of how it is likely to continue evolving.

Patterson, a former advertising creative director, has achieved a highly-evolved pitch of efficiency as an author. He assembles detailed plot and character outlines, then hands these over to one of his stable of regular co-authors, who complete the writing process under his scrutiny. Last year, nine new titles appeared under his name, and he’s bluntly unsentimental about the writing process. “I’m less interested in sentences now,” he explained to the New York Times in a 2010 interview, “and more interested in stories.”

The most successful new novelist of the last five years is in a rather different position. For a start, he’s dead. He died before he was even a published novelist. Yet neither this nor the fact that he wrote in Swedish has stopped the three novels of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy selling almost 30m copies since 2005. Sales apart, what do Larsson and Patterson have in common?

First, there’s the binding stuff of the thriller genre: bloody mysteries played out in stylised detail; a filmic emphasis on events, intrigue and broad character traits; twisting, satisfyingly resolved narratives. Equally significant, though, is what they lack—a single, defining authorial presence. Larsson is dead. Patterson is as much a brand as an author. Neither has a high public profile, nor a distinctive “voice.” And yet they sell and sell.

It has ever been thus with genre literature. What’s new, however, is the universality with which its axioms—know your audience, give them what they want—are beginning to be applied. In an increasingly unfettered digital environment, there is something paradoxically conservative about the processes dominating ideas of authorship. The business of maximising a publication’s impact is now a battle fought across all media, by all and any means possible. And the most crucial factor in all of this is not the willingness of an author to go on the road and woo readers—potent though this can be—but the suitability of a book for mass discussion and consumption.

The best-selling British author Lee Child—whose thrillers featuring Jack Reacher have sold over 20m copies—made a similar point with some glee in a 2007 interview with The Telegraph: “The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. The world was perilous and full of misery, so they wanted the vicarious experience of surviving danger. It’s the only real genre and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles.” The barnacles are now dropping off at an accelerating rate. Special literary pleading, it seems, lies at an increasing distance from the cultural mainstream. Narrative is king.

The narrowing effect of technology on language itself is something I discussed with the novelist Joseph O’Connor, best known for the success of his 2003 novel Star of the Sea. “A friend recently showed me a really beautiful downloadable edition of Alice In Wonderland, full of gorgeously ticking clocks and a dormouse whose snores were audible, and it was amazingly impressive,” he explained. “And yet. Joyce filled his books with music by learning to use words. The same with Proust or Márquez or Toni Morrison. I think if the author is doing a good job, you should be hearing the dormouse snore already. Too many novels are film scripts waiting to happen.”

The novel as film script is about as far as it is possible to get from many of the ideas at the root of the literary canon. An author, etymologically, is a person who originates something—an idea that’s implicit in the word “novel” itself. Yet the notion of authors as world-makers as well as story-tellers is increasingly under threat. As the comic novelist Julian Gough told me: “One of the jobs novels used to do was to create a universe for characters, one that felt believable and complicated. But the complexity of life at the moment is such that no writer is able to keep up. The novel once had a dream of itself as this universal art form that could describe to the world to everybody in a way that everybody could understand, and that no longer rings true.”

From this perspective, genre survives—and thrives—because its point of departure is not an attempt to conjure a reflection of the world so much as an attempt to tell a story within shared conventions. But other modes are at the mercy of what Gough calls “a crisis in the individual.” The internet and new media, he argues, “make it explicit that we’re a tiny part of a huge pattern. You can now see how your thoughts are not entirely your own, but part of a flow back and forth of thoughts moulding each other and fighting for survival—which is very destabilising. There has been a loss of confidence among a huge number of people.” This includes Gough himself, who has recently, he confesses, “re-categorised myself—even though I love the novel—as a storyteller.”

As Child recognised, storytelling is among the most ancient of arts. It is also a communal experience. Today, in an age of collaborative media, most of our grandest, most popular narratives are the products of team efforts: from sprawling television dramas like The Sopranos to the latest Hollywood movies or hit videogames. Authors, too, are beginning to construct stories along these lines. The American science fiction maestros Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson recently launched an online narrative world called the Mongoliad which readers pay a subscription to access. It’s something that, Bear told me, “puts the reader directly in touch with the creators, on a continuing basis… plus giving readers unprecedented access to our day-by-day process of researching, rehearsing and writing.” In whole fields of discourse, from politics to academia, the very notion of a book—a static, authored, discrete hunk of prose—is starting to seem quaint.

Of course, for those who simply wish to write, the digital arena offers unprecedented empowerment. As the cult science fiction and fantasy novelist Neil Gaiman told me, today is “an amazing time to be a young author… if I were starting out right now, writing short stories or whatever, I would build my little off-the-peg website, no need for a publisher at that stage, maybe never.” Yet, he conceded, online authorship is also a difficult game to come into cold for those who have hopes of doing more than seeing their words appear on a screen. “People come to me and they ask, how do I get 1.5m people reading my blog? And it’s like, you need to start it in 2001 and try not to miss a day for the first eight years.” In print, you’re struggling to be heard above 132,999 other voices. Online, the figure is a thousand times greater.

Alongside this crowding comes one of the most central features of digital culture’s suffusion: time pressure. The length and the quality of time it takes to consume, let alone create, a book is considerable. The competition between media for attention has never been more intense—and, outside the elemental appeal of stories, many books are ill-equipped to fight their corners. More words than ever are being read and written; the tools for searching and managing information have never been more advanced. There has never been a better time to cultivate a special community of interest. Yet the number of significant roles played by books—and the scale of the roles that authors themselves can play—are declining. As Per Wästberg, president of the Nobel committee for literature, acknowledged to me earlier this year: “There will always be people for whom literature is a necessary bread, the lifeblood of intellect and emotion. But I think it will shrink.”

This September, the American author Don DeLillo was asked, upon receiving the PEN/Saul Bellow award, how technology is changing fiction. “Novels will become user-generated,” he speculated. “An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customised, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write and read.”

The “shrinking context” DeLillo describes is the paradoxical offspring of an arena in which all media float free and fight for attention, where anything goes, and yet where it’s only an ever-more-dominant few that are able to spin their stories across media and into the popular consciousness. “Here’s a stray question,” DeLillo continued. “Will language have the same depth and richness in electronic form that it can reach on the printed page? Does the beauty and variability of our language depend to an important degree on the medium that carries the words? Does poetry need paper?” He left it unanswered. But we shall find out soon enough.