How Will We Read in the Future?

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John Makinson
John Makinson, Publisher Photo: Ishan Tankha

The book, since Gutenberg built his press in 1450, has remained essentially unchanged. But might technology render books obsolete? There has been plenty of speculation, plenty of hand-wringing. Ewan Morrison, writing in The Guardian two years ago, argued that “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books.” It sounds dramatic, apocalyptic — books are dead, wiped out. And what of publishers? Penguin and Random House merged in July, to form a buffer against the blustery, squally winds of the changing market for books.

John Makinson has the unenviable task of guiding the world’s largest publishing house through a time when traditional, mainstream publishing is moribund. Not that Makinson, casual in a pink shirt and khaki trousers, looks like he’s walking the plank. Instead, at THiNK, Makinson made a robust case for the health of publishing. After his session, parked on a sofa in a quiet alcove, he accepts that “the definition of the book itself is up for grabs”, but that the “move from the printed page to the screen is not a particularly significant thing”. In fact, for all the talk of technology eliminating the need for the book, most e-readers are faithful facsimiles of the reading experience.

Most e-books don’t even take advantage of all the possibilities of technology. Richard House’s The Kills, which made it onto this year’s Booker longlist, came in a separate e-book edition enhanced by embedded video, animation and other multimedia content. It appears the only way to do something new with the form of novels, to take advantage of the linking possibilities of the Internet, to have interactive footnotes, or to create an accompanying text to the main text of the novel. In Makinson’s experience, though, readers aren’t ready to make that leap. “To be honest, that sort of thing hasn’t really worked so far,” he says. “Take 20th century history, for example. It’s very easy to get footage to include and embed in an e-book. We published, a couple of years ago, a very good book called Berlin 1961. We had some marvellous footage of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table, and the Berlin Wall going up. We offered it for sale at two dollars more than the standard e-book and it didn’t really catch.”

By “redefining” the book, Makinson is not talking about bells and whistles. It’s about the business model, about access, about monetising a variety of formats. He talks about ‘singles’, long magazine articles, or essays, or a short story, packaged and sold for less than a novel. The online customer, Makinson says, “is price-sensitive”. It is the battle over price with Amazon that keeps traditional publishers up at night. Apple lost an anti-trust suit in the United States for conspiring with five publishers, including Penguin, to inflate e-book prices above those charged by Amazon. Penguin agreed to settle, paying $75 million in damages to consumers.

Still, the $9.99 figure that Amazon wants to make the standard for all e-books sticks in Makinson’s craw. “It’s the uniformity of that price. We are publishing big books and small books and kids’ books and the idea that they’re all $9.99 doesn’t make sense to us. One of the ways in which we differentiate content is through price.” Still, Amazon’s willingness to sell books cheaply is, Makinson admits, good for the customer. But do authors get a raw deal?

It has never been easier to self-publish. Penguin has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in acquiring Author Solutions. In India, the self-publishing arm is called Partridge. It’s a way, Makinson tells me, of widening the net, so that discoveries can be moved from Partridge to Penguin, while the latter can move its slush pile towards its self-publishing arm. It sounds like a win-win, but you wonder what it does to author advances and to royalties. And, do editors get to champion a talented writer even if the book doesn’t sell?

Makinson believes publishers are still finding writers, that there isn’t too much emphasis on commercial titles, “as if it’s a bad thing that publishers produce books that sell.” The evidence, even in the brave new world of electronic publishing, is that people still hunger for stories.

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