On Literature

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Literary Medium Is Changing
    Why I’m For the E-Book and Not Against Amazon in Principle

    The German publishing industry is considered to be one of the best in the world. However, bookshops and publishers alike are feeling threatened: both by the technological developments that have brought us the e-book, and by the aggressive business policies of the online retailer Amazon. But is this development also a threat for authors? No – it’s an opportunity.

    The music and photographic industries have already negotiated the technological development that has now stricken publishing. Let’s briefly remind ourselves what happened. A Leica, for example, was once considered the perfect 35mm camera. Photographic history was made with it. Other than being very expensive, there was no downside to a Leica: it was perfect. Then along came digital photography. For years, any digital photo was just a bad joke compared with a picture taken on a Leica. The company continued to focus on analogue. Then, about ten years ago, the moment came when professionals also began to be convinced by the advantages of digital photography. Nowadays, good digital cameras are better than the best analogue ones. Leica narrowly escaped bankruptcy, and now also produces digital cameras; but in the meantime almost all the professional photographers have switched to Japanese equipment.

    Is the German publishing industry a Leica?

    From this we learn that perfection can lead to arrogance and presumption. At the same time, the Leica story is a sad one, and it would be just as sad if it were to repeat itself in the shape of our publishing industry. All the signs are pointing in this direction: perfection on the one hand, presumption on the other, underestimation of the new technology, the conservative perception of one’s (ageing) clientele; and finally, the arrogance that says: A good photographer will only want to work with a Leica. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson. And today: A good author will only want to publish a proper book. Like Thomas Mann.

    If the protest movement against Amazon in Germany, France, the United States, were only concerned with denouncing unfair business practices or the distortion of competition, I would join in unconditionally. However, even before Amazon the big bookshop chains often dictated discounts to the publishers, positioned some books well (usually bestsellers of inferior quality) and others badly or not at all; and very few people protested against these business practices, which were also unfair.

    The reason so many more publishers and authors are protesting against Amazon bears the name ‘e-book’. If the bookshop giants exploit their monopoly, publishing houses may earn less but the publishing system remains intact. If Amazon imposes its own pricing, it’s possible that the publishing industry will collapse.

    How Amazon is undermining the book trade

    Amazon wants e-books to be much cheaper than the printed versions. At the moment they’re just a little bit cheaper – so little that it’s not really worth forgoing the printed copy. Better to pay a couple of euros more and actually have something to show for it, say most readers. Consequently, the market for electronic books remains small. However, if, as Amazon would like, I only have to pay ten euros (or even less) for the e-book, instead of twenty (on average) for the printed version, or sixteen for the e-book today, it’s highly likely I will switch to the e-book – even if up till now I wasn’t keen on this form of reading.

    If people buy more and more e-books instead of printed ones, the normal book trade will shrink faster and faster. Bookshops will earn less and less, and will gradually disappear (as is already happening, albeit very slowly). As a result, publishers will lose their most important distribution network and will increasingly have to rely on online platforms like Amazon. The e-book will no longer be regarded merely as a special field for digital natives, one that can be neglected with impunity; rather, people will see its advantages, and the printed book will become the exception, something for aficionados and special occasions. Analogue photography.

    At this point, if not before, it will also become an attractive option for Amazon to focus primarily on e-books. If you publish something straight to e-book, you do away with several links in the exploitation chain that currently also make money from the intellectual authorship. Where a book author earns 10% of the shop price, as an e-book author you can reckon on getting 30%, 50% – or even, at present, 70%, if you publish exclusively with Amazon.

    This really is a nightmare scenario for the conventional book trade, and probably for the publishers. But for readers and authors, too? If it were, there would be no danger: no one would enter into it. But in fact it isn’t a nightmare scenario – no worse, at least, than any kind of structural change.

    Prejudices against electronic reading

    In order to demonstrate this, it is necessary to clear up a few prejudices that are currently still associated with electronic reading. For example, many people don’t even know that they already possess an e-book reading device: a tablet or smartphone, which thanks to free apps (the Kindle app from Amazon, for example) are at least as good, if not better, than the expensive e-book readers with their black-and-white screens that try to imitate paper. As there are apps for all the popular e-book formats, it’s not an issue whether I buy a book from Amazon, from the iBook store, or from a retailer’s online bookshop.

    But do we really want to read books on our phones? Those who say no should bear in mind that in fact we regularly read on our phones these days: e-mails, texts, news, all kinds of information. And it works pretty well. Take the iPhone screen, for example, which is one of the smaller ones. I’ve read dozens of books on it – at home, too, with the printed version sitting on the shelf. There are many reasons for doing this. The Kindle Reader, for example, has a stunning dictionary feature. Never have I read foreign-language books more easily or with greater pleasure. I can access the best Arabic dictionary, the ‘Hans Wehr’, on my phone via a simple PDF document, which a resourceful programmer has set up to do almost instantaneous word searches in either Arabic or Roman script. How light my suitcase is these days!

    And finally: the whole of world literature, inasmuch as the authors have been dead for more than seventy years, is available to me, in dozens of e-book formats, for free. All of which leads to the conclusion that from the reader’s point of view there are no compelling objections to the e-book. It is the better technology, and it will prevail, just as digital music and photography have prevailed – without wholly supplanting the older technology.

    If publishers and bookshops want to prevent Amazon and a couple of other American distribution platforms like Google and Apple having a monopoly on the e-book world of the future, they must do no less than position themselves at the forefront of this development. It’s not enough to offer e-books ‘as well’ and perhaps even ‘a little’ cheaper. It’s not enough to publish e-book series ‘as well’, like Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag with the ‘edition suhrkamp digital’ or Hanser Verlag with its ‘Hanser Box’. It’s not enough tentatively to set up your own website and e-book platforms if all that’s on there are the same e-books at the same prices as on Amazon, which has a much bigger customer base. At some point Leica too began to make digital cameras for amateur photographers. I had one once. Very expensive, a really good camera in many ways, but I could have got a professional one for the money. I eventually gave it away.

    An unsentimental approach

    To conquer an emerging market and survive a structural change as fundamental as digitalisation, one needs to be aggressive, forward-looking and unsentimental. Amazon is, the traditional book trade is not, and this is expressed in the helpless protests against Amazon. I understand the reasons for the protest, and the fear authors, publishers and bookshops have of this structural change, but this makes no difference to the fact that the publishing industry is ossifying and unwilling to reform.

    Strangely, this is also true of many authors. There are still (in Europe and the US, anyway; we’re not talking here about the Arab world…) enough of them who benefit from the system, despite their low share of the sales profits. Often they do so by getting agents to circumvent or undermine the system (thereby helping to weaken it) by negotiating large, non-repayable advances. However, authors who do not currently profit from the system, or only very little, can at least hope that one of these days they might reap some benefits after all. Even those who really aren’t in it for profit because they have another career – professors, experts in a particular field, journalists like myself – benefit from the prestige a book brings, not to mention all that goes with it: prizes, grants, readings, professorships, every kind of renown. There are too many players in the existing, capitalist publishing industry in Europe and the US who – for good and honourable personal reasons – are not interested in change. However, they should not then blame change if it is not interested in them.

    The publishing industry as we know it will be greatly mourned, and this is absolutely justified. It would seem to me absurd, though, to wallow in grief. It may sound sacrilegious, but there are also reasons to welcome the change. These are the technological advantages of the e-book, on the one hand, such as the dictionary feature, the search function, easy transportability, swift accessibility, and connection to the Internet. On the other hand you have the great advantage that many e-books are either free (in the case of all books or translations whose authors have been dead for more than seventy years) or very inexpensive, so that it is now also possible for people with very little money to access literature any time they like. And finally, the development of the e-book also has advantages for authors.

    Producing a book is no longer a pleasure

    Even without the e-book and Amazon, the book trade system, perfect though it was in Europe and the United States, has been past its prime for some time now. Instead of reinforcing, accelerating, encouraging creative energies as it did in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies (in the golden age of publishing houses like Suhrkamp in Germany or Les Éditions de Minuit in France), it checks them, curtails them, confines them. For many authors nowadays, producing a book within this system is no longer a pleasure. Publishers all too often have objections; there are ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’; the publishers can’t decide, or decide far too quickly. Idiosyncratic texts are tinkered with by nervous editors until they sound just like any other text; authors who sell fewer than five thousand copies are weeded out by the big publishers and have to go with smaller ones, where they sell even less; and very few authors can truly live from writing, even in wealthy central Europe.

    The relationship between author, reader and publisher is in need of a new dynamic, a new delight in creativity, a new departure and a new approach, with new ideas and new technologies. But this new approach won’t come from the old publishing system as we know it, even though this is what everyone is longing for. Instead, Amazon continues to do business. And the old publishing industry does, too, in its way. They’re locked in battle with one another. Readers and authors would be well advised not to get involved in this battle, but to preserve their curiosity and their delight in texts, and to look forward to the new developments. I admit I’m glad to be living in an age of changing media.
    Stefan Weidner is the editor-in-chief of Art & Thought / Fikrun wa Fann. His most recent work, Anti-Pegida – published by Amazon, and available in both printed and e-book format –, is a polemic against the anti-Islamic Pegida movement in Germany.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015

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