“What really worries me, most of all, is, it’s not writers, it’s readers, because this whole crap about ‘It’s Gutenberg.’ You know, the thing is, that Gutenberg put books on the shelves, the digital revolution is gonna take books off the shelves. So how’re you gonna find them, if you don’t know what you’re looking for?” —Jeanette Winterson on The Review Show at the Edinburgh Festival: Part 2 broadcast on BBC2 20/08/2010
This comment on The Review Show really annoyed me. It has annoyed me so much that I knew I had to blog about it. I don’t know what Winterson is trying to say about readers. If she is trying to allude to the fact that they are feeble, lazy, or are easily swayed by fads then I am afraid she has largely missed the downfall of all humanity. She has walked through the twentieth century blinkered. We have always been easily led, coaxed into things and have always had a desire for things that we do not have. Food. Shelter. Sex. We want them but there is food and there is food, there is shelter and there is shelter and there is sex and then there is sex.
The idea that libraries or bookshops provide guidance for readers is largely a misrepresentation and is a narrow view of the whole industry. Bookshops sell, they seek to make profits. Libraries do so much more, and the Kindle, e-books, the digital world will be part of their remit. It may in the long run for them cut storage costs and allow them to be a universal houses of learning with readers from across the world.
Libraries will become the home of virtual books (it’s already happened, Jstor etc). Libraries themselves may become virtual but there will always be a librarian. There will always be someone there to guide you. If not, word of mouth, will always be more of a powerful tool than any hype.
Personally, I don’t think libraries will vanish, they have always been more than just books, they have been community hubs, places of learning, places to share ideas and listening to writers, readers, groups and individuals.
Whilst humanity seeks to connect with others, for food, for shelter, for sex, libraries will continue. We all want to talk, we all want to share our passion and reading is a passion. Kindle is one part of the future, the digital landscape is wider than Winterson can even imagine and even this revolution will be firmly rooted in the physical world.
Stop the scaremongering, embrace all aspects of publishing and reading.
I’d like to hear your views on this as I know it has brought many people off the fence as it was such a throwaway, ill conceived comment.
12 Comments Add yours
There will still be catalogues, digital or otherwise. So what’s the issue?
There will still be word of mouth – by far the most effective marketing tool. So what’s the issue?
There will be more shelves, not less. Digital and otherwise. So what’s the issue?
The issue seems to be her idiosyncratic use of grammar….is that first sentence a sentence? Or is it missing a word?
Totally agree. How blinkered is Jeanette? I saw this on TV as well. It really angered me. I have a Kindle, I love it, but I haven’t stopped reading physical publications. I doubt I ever will but really some books you cannot get anymore other than in electronic format. If I want to purchase a physical copy of an out of print book I may be spending over £30 for one copy that the same seller will eventually buy back from me for a third of the original price. Thanks to Kindle I have read more obscure and independent novelists and poets then I have ever read at the hands of Waterstones, Amazon and my local library combined. I don’t need to be guided, one book leads to another, one writer to another. Doesn’t Kindle create an opportunity for readers that has never been seen? I agree with Vanessa’s comments, how strange that such an award winning writer can’t even string a sentence together.
I think this debate needs to happen now! Thanks for the comments.
I generally agree with the above and I am no luddite. One advantage of Kindle et al is that the author will still get royalties from the back catalogue, which will therefore never go out of print. Although, as a reader, I love second-hand books, they do nothing to improve the meagre income of most authors. But the drawback of digital publishing is piracy and it’s already out there. That is what scares the likes of Jeanette, even if she patronises the reader to avoid owning that concern. I’ve just come back from a writing course with the Scottish novelist and poet Kevin MacNeil, who told how his brother managed to to access a pirated edition, online, of his recent book, which is available on Kindle but had clearly been copied. He’s lucky that he has Penguin behind him, with the clout to get this taken down, but how much capacity has the publishing industry got to endlessly chase the pirates? On another note, I sat down to read Ulysses on my iphone on the long journey back from Inverness to find that Mr Jobs had wiped my Stanza app because I’d synch-ed to the wrong computer. Thank God for WHSmith at Edinburgh Waverley where I was able to buy a low carbon, no electricity needed, everlasting book.
The way this Government is going there won’t be any libraries, virtual or otherwise – and I speak as a librarian.
Spending has been slashed, in my home city there has been no investigation into going down any of the ‘virtual’ book use.
Jeanette does seem to credit readers with little or no intelligence. A reader will always find one book leads them to another. Of course there will always be the readers who only read their ‘favourite authors’ (I spend a lot of time trying to explain why the library customer has read all the Catherine Cookson or Agatha Christie; some people seem to think we’re magicians who have the power to conjour new books from dead authors out of thin air)
I think Helen has hit on the head, is Jeanette more scared about losing money rather than technology?
I’ve just published an article which covers some of these issues on The Hyperliterature Exchange, under the title “It’s literature, Jim… but not as we know it: Publishing and the Digital Revolution” – http://hyperex.co.uk/reviewdigitalpublishing.php .
Thanks for this Edward. It is a great article.
Hmm. I kind of understand what Jeanette was trying to say, though. I don’t think she intended to insult readers, but I can see that’s how it’s come across.
Libraries at the moment only count the number of books checked out. They don’t count the number of appointments, events, people coming to use the PCs, etc. That means even busy libraries can seem empty by Government standards, even if they’re not.
We’re already seeing budgets slashed and libraries closing, so Jeanette kind of does have a point. There’s a real threat that if ebooks overtake print books, then libraries will be virtual instead. That takes away important meeting places for communities and the opportunity to find education and literature.
The other problem with ebooks is you can’t buy one as a gift for someone else (you can only buy them a voucher to buy an ebook). You can’t share ebooks the same way you can share print books. That’s a problem right there. Of course, there will be ways libraries will get round this, but does limit the access people have to books.
Another problem is that of how kids will learn to read. Can you imagine nurseries and primary schools teaching kids with e-readers? How expensive would that be, factoring in the cost of the units and the cost of breakages? I also don’t see kids engaging with ebooks the same way they would with a nice, pretty-looking, well illustrated children’s book. Ebooks are, quite frankly, ugly.
However, I honestly don’t think ebooks will outnumber print books. At least, not for a very long time. E-readers just don’t have the functionality they’d need to replace a nice paperback or hardback.
So while I agree with the sentiment that we need to protect libraries, I think Jeanette is fighting the wrong battle.
I didn’t see the original TV interview (I don’t have a telly), so may have lost the context of the quote – but the interpretation I have is that Jeanette is simply talking about the loss of the “browsing experience”.
This is something I’ve been concerned about for a long time – and it is a slightly separate issue to that of ebooks. Anyone who has grown up browsing in libraries and bookshops (both new and second hand) will know that the “discoveries” vastly outnumber the books that come to your attention through word of mouth. These discoveries come from the time spent picking books off shelves and looking at them.
Compare that to buying a (physical) book online. Online purchases are fine if you already know the book you want. And if the book is out of print, then online services will even allow you to locate second hand copies (I’ve actually bought quite a number second hand books from the USA and Canada via abebooks.com )
Similarly, with libraries – you need to have a wide range of books on the shelves in order to “browse & discover”. Unfortunately, library book purchasing has plummeted in recent years, and a lot of the shelving has been replaced by suites of PCs. I now find I rarely borrow books through browsing in public libraries, as the choice can be so paltry. Instead, most of my contact with public libraries consists of obtaining books from hidden (& dwindling) stacks, or requesting inter-library loans – both of which, of course, have the same problem as online purchasing (you actually have to know what you want before you can order it).
The question is – will the rise of ebooks improve, or worsen, this situation? And in what way?
I just wanted to pick up on Andrew’s comment saying that it is a ‘misrepresentation’ that bookshops guide readers. I have had various recent situations where customers have needed very specific help in choosing books. I have had a couple of people wanting to buy something to read to a dying parent; I very often get parents needing help to choose books for children. And let’s not forget that not all customers are looking for a novel to read. They may be looking for a suitable book on health issues, puberty, mending a roof, a poem to read at a funeral, a road map or a guide to writing a cv. (That and directions to the nearest post office, bank, bus stop etc, etc.)Not all customers need help I admit, but if they do, we’re willing and able…
Hi Chris, I should have expanded on the concept of ‘misrepresentation’. I used to work in Waterstones and there was a misconception that all we did all day was recommend and read, as we all know there is more to the job than that.