The Future of the Novel: A Reading

With the advent of the Kindle e-reader in 2007 came a paradigm shift in the consumption of literature unseen since the invention of the paperback novel. While the origin of this new technology is largely disputed, it is safe to say that Kindle launched its popularity and the term “e-reader” into the common vernacular. Largely coinciding with the collapse of major bookstore chains—most notably Borders and, in Australia, Angus & Robertson, in 2011—electronic novels provide for a cheap and far more readily available access to literature.

What we have seen lately is clearly a decline in the number of books people are buying and reading, a sentiment that was crystallized when Steve Jobs declared in 2008 that the e-reader would ultimately fail given that “the whole conception is flawed at the top” because “people don’t read anymore”.  Despite Wired stating that e-books remain only 25% of the book market and thus have yet to actually usurp the printed novel, the e-book nevertheless does open the door to unlimited possibilities in the future of the novel.

One cannot say whether e-readers will topple the printed novel or in turn whether tablets will usurp e-readers, the only certainty is that there is no going back now. As Jacob Weisberg wrote in Newsweek in 2009, the creator of the Kindle “has built a machine that marks a cultural revolution…Printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.”

With this numbers game in mind, one must consider how the future of the novel will be affected at its base, the publishing houses. The problem facing the major publishing houses is known as “disintermediation”, which is essentially the removal of the middleman from business interactions. The greatest example of a writer eschewing the assistance and direction of a publisher is Hugh Howey, author of WOOL. Howey initially published his sci-fi series independently through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing system, with the novel soon going viral among e-readers.

With WOOL soon climbing to the top of Amazon’s science fiction best-seller list, publishers soon sat up and took notice. However, Howey resisted several seven-figure offers for the rights to the book before settling with Simon & Schuster on a six-figure deal in which he would keep the e-book rights. It is easy to see the benefits that unknown writers who make a success out of self-publishing, like Howey, pose to publishing houses in removing the gambling element of publishing. As Laura Miller wrote in Salon, “Instead of investing their money in unknown authors, then collaborating to make their books better and find them an audience, publishers can swoop in and pluck the juiciest fruits at the moment of maximum ripeness.”

On the other end of the scale, publishers in fact face a significant fall out from established writers. Evan Hughes, largely in relation to Stephen King (who recently dipped into the realm of self-publishing releasing an essay through Amazon only), touched upon this notion of ‘disintermediation’ in Wired, “The real danger to publishers is that big-ticket authors, who relied on the old system to build their careers, will abandon them now that they have established an audience.”

In terms of the reader however, e-books obviously present a drastic change in the digestion of literature. There looms a swathe of readers who staunchly detest literature taking any sort of foray into the digital age. The most ardent of all these detractors is of course the notoriously outspoken author of The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen.

According to Franzen, “A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.” While he makes the case against the literature world’s embrace of technology as much as he makes himself and other e-reader detractors look like Luddites, he nevertheless champions a strong sentiment among readers that novels ought to stay as they are.

Rapper MF Doom’s lyrics in “Bookfiend” showcase the broadness of this instinctive distaste for e-books, “On the low key, Kindles is phony D/Tastes stale, see the world in shades of gray-scale/Right there in black and white, protected by chain-mail.” However Hughes also warns that e-books threaten the ability of readers to discover new writers, “Research has shown that readers don’t tend to use online bookstores to discover books; they use them to purchase titles they find out about elsewhere—frequently at physical stores.”

Though on a different note, the continued surety of the existence of e-books is yet to attain surety. The advent of a totally new form of technology opens the floodgates of imitations and developments, leaving the pioneers with little to no guarantees. The most recent example is the slew of mp3 players that populated the market throughout the late nineties, before Apple released its first-generation iPod in 2001 and subsequently dominated the field.

The key here is innovation and price—if Kindle cannot keep producing products which are cheaper and more useful than its rivals’, it will inevitably fall into the waste bin of technology. Jordan Selburn wrote in the IHS’ iSuppli that the “stunning rise and then blazing flameout of ebooks perfectly encapsulate what has become an axiomatic truth in the industry,” which is that “single-task devices like the e-book reader are being replaced without remorse in the lives of consumers by multifunction equivalents, in this case media tablets.”

In conclusion, given the lingering dominance of printed novels in the market and the personal attachment to physical copies many readers maintain, it appears that the doomsday for the printed novel may have been called slightly too early. However, while the direction the future of the novel remains completely unknown, it is clear that ultimately the e-book has irreparably changed the manner in which we consume literature.