A very depressing article in the UK Guardian sees out the old year – depressing because it suggests that many intelligent and cultured journalists and pundits have still not got their heads around what ebooks are about and are swallowing the dumb headlines that serve Big Media. Recounting “A heart-warming twist in the tale of the books industry,” Peter Preston declares that: “The most fascinating and, in many ways, cheering story of 2014 is almost wholly counterintuitive: the survival of the printed book. Turning pages back from digital grave shock! Legacy longform wins fight for life!”

I’m sorry, but who here was ever proclaiming, let alone celebrating, the death of print? I don’t think that Hugh Howey, David Gaughran, and all of the other advocates for ebooks and digital publishing were ever arguing that printed books were destined for extinction. However, headlines on the Death of Print provided great rallying cries for Big Media, its allied vested interests, and unwitting apologists – like Preston – in instances like the Authors United crusade against Amazon’s trade terms (which suddenly had the brakes slammed on when Hachette decided it no longer served its commercial interests).

It’s an easy, lazy equation to draw. Amazon is out to destroy the printed book. Amazon is bad. Forgetting for a moment that Amazon built its dominance via printed book distribution, before ebooks and the Kindle really came on the scene, traditional publishing had a huge legacy of loyalty and natural affection, as well as plain conservatism and Luddism, to enlist on its behalf. However, has that legacy been engaged in a battle of the books to promote reading standards and to drive readers to enrich their inner lives through reading? And to foster a love of books? No, by and large it’s been used by the Big Five to try to get the pricing structure they want and to continue to gouge authors and bombard readers with dumbed-down drivel.

What got me up on the soabox, alongside Howey, Gaughran, et. al., was the opportunity to break some of the shackles that traditional publishing had put on book production and distribution, and allow independent authors to reach their audiences through alternative channels. And the opportunity to put the world’s great literature in everybody’s hands, on demand, anywhere, any time, for free or for an easily affordable fee. That goes along with pressure on copyright law, public domain limits, licensing, pricing, authors’ rights and royalties, etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with any demise of printed paper. If every indie bookstore in the world could have a print-on-demand printer to run off bound copies of the latest self-published bestseller to order, I’d be perfectly happy.

IMHO, traditional publishers and Big Media are still the ones doing far more harm to the world of books, culture, and intellectual life than Amazon ever did. I’ve filled Teleread with example after example this year, and I don’t need to add to them now. But just to let The Guardian unwittingly make my case for me, what image do they choose to illustrate this mess? A picture of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and his book You Are Here, to illustrate the fact that “handsome, glossy and sumptuously illustrated books are surviving in triumph.” For which, read, Big Publishing is still massacring trees to produce celebrity-driven trash. Yay print. Way to go.


  1. Sun rises in east…. journalists don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re virtually equivalent statements.

    Perhaps the best analogy between print and digital are the differences between vehicles. Which is better, a subcompact or pickup?

    Well it depends on what you need to do. If you want to just go from Point A to Point B, that subcompact will do so using less gas than an aging V8 Ford F-150 pickup. But if you need to move a lot of stuff, that pickup can’t be beat. It can carry stuff that’d be impossible to transport with a subcompact.

    That’s why I knew beyond all doubt in 2009 that this country was now being run by incompetents. It came with the “Cash for Clunkers’ program, with the professed intent of getting big gas guzzlers off the road. That Ford F-150 truck I mentioned, was, in fact, the most frequently crushed of all vehicles. I told friends that that, in itself, was grounds to impeach Obama. It was a bit like torturing small furry creatures.

    Even more important, it showed that the Obama administration was filled wall-to-wall with people of limited competence. Faced with big and heavy stuff to move, they could only call other and more burly men. Owning an old pickup to use once or twice a month for that purpose was beyond their comprehension. All their little minds to wrap around was gas mileage. And transferred onto the global stage these same people who don’t understand the value of pickup trucks are also people who don’t know the value of military force. They fret and dither, talking about red lines and doing nothing. They chatter about “world opinion”—the ultimate oxymoron—while the world’s nasties run amuck.

    Journalists are like that. Their lives are built around pushing words. A 20-year-old guy, muscular and weighing almost 300 pounds, who attacks a middle-aged, almost-forty police officer who doesn’t look like he weighs more that 150 pounds is described as “unarmed,” as if it wasn’t frightfully easy for him to take away that gun and shoot the cop dead. Do you really expect people that dim to grasp the distinctions between print and digital books?

    No, it’s that same inability to connect words with realities that makes it difficult for reporters to understand the real dynamics of book publishing or almost any other topic. Their minds simply can’t grasp the usefulness of a print book just like the Obama administration can’t grasp the value of owning an old pickup.

    When I was studying engineering, some students would say, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” It implied that some of our professors couldn’t manage life in the real world, say building a bridge.

    In much the same way, those who can’t even teach a topic, often go into journalism or politics. Their;s is a world of words detached from all reality. I actual remember in the 1980s hearing a Congressman claim that OSHA (occupational safety) laws had been passed so no one would get hurt on the job.

    “What an idiot,” I thought. For a time I worked logging and at a sawmill. There’s an irreducible risk to that sort of work that no amount of regulation can alter. There is simply no perfectly safe way to cut down a 120-foot Douglas fir. That pitiful politician had not grasp of that. For him, words were the only reality.

    All that to say that it’s pointless to worry and fret that journalist don’t get stories right. Apart from the easy stuff like sports scores and warehouse fires, getting stories wrong is what they do. That’s nothing new. Long, long ago Mark Twain wrote a short story on just that theme.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.