Ebooks: Publishing Shoots Itself in the Foot

I get very tired of misleading headlines in the media, which continues to be biased against the conventional book. On the BBC website the other day there was an article entitled ‘Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012’. This was based on the statistic that the revenue of the paper book market had fallen by 4.6% across the past year, a loss of around £74 million in the UK.

However, a spokesman from the Bookseller declared that ‘In essence, people are buying more books but they are paying less for them’. This is because the ebook market rose about 5% to 13-14% of the market share (the article admits that ebook figures are hard to verify) and the fall in profits is the result of heavy discounting by publishers, with many books being sold at rock bottom prices.

I think this is what they call a ‘loss leader’, a way of enticing consumers into a new market in the hope they’ll become hooked. There are a couple of problems with this, however. The first is that the much lauded growth of ebooks is really not that impressive. When CDs were introduced in the mid-80s, they rocketed ahead of vinyl, with market share growing 20-30% or more each year. This is not surprising; the CD marked an evident improvement in the experience of listening to music: consumers enjoyed much better sound quality and durability with their new purchase. Ebooks don’t improve the book that’s being read, and at best they imitate the experience of ordinary reading. Then there are the surveys that indicate some reluctance by readers to switch formats. This blog seems to have access to good statistics and claims that last year nearly half the kindles given as gifts in the UK had still to be opened, a month after Christmas. And this year’s survey claims that a third of people given eReaders in the USA used them once before putting them aside. Ereaders are not the unqualified success publishers hoped they would be in converting non-readers into readers. As for increased durability, well, let’s not get into the problems of power failure, problems with amazon, issues of obsolescence and the interesting situation that will occur the next time a main publisher hits the wall. Owning an ebook is only loaning one while the company lasts.

However, between the huge discounts the publishers are offering and the tsunami of self-published works currently flooding the market, readers are having their perception of value altered. I heard publishers fretting about this at a literary festival event I attended: if a nicely produced book retails at around £10, it will be considered as a good gift. However, if customers begin to associate books with the price of a pound or 99p, this is far too cheap as a gift option. But of course canny consumers will become increasingly reluctant to pay more for their own reading needs. If there is a ready supply of books at this extremely low rate, who would pay more? Add to that the wealth of reading material available online for free, and suddenly books aren’t commercial products any more, they’re moving towards open source.

My feeling all along with ereaders is that they are a welcome addition to publishing as a multi-media industry. They are great for readers who do a lot of travelling – communting to work and so on. They can be very good for people with poor eyesight, as the font can be easily increased. My friend with MS loves hers, because she can put it down on a table, saving strain on her hands (although watching her try to use the teeny buttons below the screen can be painful). But this doesn’t account by any means for all the people who love reading. The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading. They are a great addition to the options we have for reading, but as a replacement for books, they are not entirely satisfactory. And their main effect so far has been in efficiently reducing the overall value of the book market.

To say this, though, is like an act of treason in the current climate. I think this is because there is a powerful fantasy at work in our culture that insists technology is a force for great good. What’s new must be better than what’s old. The end of the nineteenth century was supposed to have witnessed the collapse of the ‘grand narratives’, which is to say the stories surrounding religion and science that supposedly showed mankind headed towards a state of perfection, stories that explained life and gave us optimism for the future. At the end of the twentieth century, I think technology has given us a new boost in such fantastic endeavours, a sort of steampunk rewrite of the old grand narrative of science. Whether that’s true or not, the stories remain skewed towards the celebration of ereaders and the derision of paper. But right at the moment, publishers have paid huge amounts to create new departments to handle ebooks, they have put thousands of hours into creating digital archives and paid substantial legal fees to sort out nightmare problems of rights. And all this to provide consumers with nearly free books. Who says businesses aren’t charities?

Everyday Dramas

The bookshop was the scene of drama yesterday. I was making tea for the three of us on shift that morning and chatting to my manager in the back of the store, when she was called away to the front desk. This often happens, I thought nothing of it. But when I came into the store myself, carrying our tea, I saw that something unusual was up. My manager was in a huddle with a group of people, a couple of them rough-looking, another dispensing some sort of practised authority. The elderly lady who has been working for the bookshop for longer than anyone can recall and who seems to have her finger permanently on the pulse of community life in our little area was also there, looking anxious. Then, with one accord they disappeared out of the front door. I asked the other volunteer minding the till what had happened but she wasn’t sure; some sort of break-in, she thought. So we sat there, sipping and ringing up purchases and all the time waiting.

After a quarter of an hour or so, our manager returned. The Indian restaurant next door to us had been closed for renovations for the past couple of weeks, or so we thought. It seemed that a few days ago, it had been broken into and trashed, with a thoroughness and a rage that spoke of personal vendetta. The floorboards had been broken up, the toilets had been smashed, the lights ripped out. The place stank of sewage and was in complete disarray. What to do first? Our manager knew she had to contact the police, but also wanted to be assured the restaurant would be made safe and boarded up; would the police do that? Should she ring the council? She went off to make phone calls while a stream of concerned locals trooped through our door. The lady who runs the Salvation Army a few doors up the road appeared to see if she could help. Her job had necessarily put her in contact with the police, and she suggested the city’s environmental offer be alerted. Our manager reappeared: the police weren’t answering the phone, always reassuring in a crisis, no?

‘It was so horrible in there,’ our manager said. ‘You could feel the violence in the air, the anger and hatred. I kept expecting us to find something any moment.’

We knew she meant a body.

‘It has to be closed up properly,’ the Salvation Army lady insisted. ‘It’s an environmental hazard as it is.’

‘I know,’ replied our manager. ‘The place is full of wires hanging loose.’

‘So someone was hoping it would catch fire?’

I think it was only at that point that the other volunteer and I both realised the seriousness of the situation. If the place had been rigged to go up in flames, it was not good news for the large pile of kindling we represented, sitting right next door to it.

It turned out that the restaurant hadn’t been closed for renovation, but because of some sort of court case pending. Rumours began to fly around about the owner of the place, who was supposed to have issued death threats, and to have tried to run a man down in his car.  At this point, an Indian man, short, squat, powerfully built, charged into the store, a bunch of keys in his hand. ‘She’s in the back, is she?’ he asked, and without really waiting for a reply, headed off for the office where our manager sat. I hopped off my stool and ran after him; we were startled and the purposeful way he was walking was unsettling. But when he opened the door, our manager (still on the phone) waved and greeted him by name, and I thankfully peeled away. Quite what good I could possibly have been in a confrontation, I have no idea. When he walked past us again on his way out he smiled and thanked us cheerfully, completely transformed.

Eventually the police arrived; one little homely looking officer in a bulky vest strapped about with walkie-talkies. I revised my opinion of how well I could do in a confrontation after a brief comparison with him. He was not exactly helpful. Having ascertained that a crime had been committed, no one was allowed to enter the building until the police had conducted their research. Quite when that would happen, no one knew, and until then, the restaurant would continue stewing in its sewage and broken fittings and loose electric cables.


This was not the only plotline, as it were, unfolding in the bookshop that morning. While we waited to hear what had happened next door, an attractive young Frenchwoman turned up with leaflets for us all, informing us of the details of a funeral that would take place the following day. When she said the name of the woman it concerned, we made the connection to an article torn out of the local press that had been left on the counter. This woman had been primarily responsible for organising the Winter Fair that closes the road for one day in the run-up to Christmas. I’d been told about this, because I hadn’t witnessed it myself, and assured I was in for a treat. It’s a special occasion, when the traders set out stalls and the street performers come and entertain the crowds, one of those genuine moments of community in a part of town where ethnic minorities co-exist uneasily, where the students and the down-and-outs cause colourful trouble, and where many small businesses scrape a living in scruffy stores (you should see ours). For that one day, the road is transformed with decorations and festivities and goodwill.

To honour the woman who founded this, it had been decided that the hearse should be diverted to travel the length of the road, so that the traders and the residents nearby could come and pay tribute in the street as it passed. If customers weren’t talking about the break-in, they were talking about this, and doing so with tears in their eyes. How much it would mean to the family, to see the gratitude and respect their lost loved one had inspired, what a chance it would be for the people who knew her, even just a little bit, to pay their respects and to say goodbye.

It is strange for me, to find myself staking a tiny claim in this part of the town where life is lived with so much more naked emotion than the other places I have been. It is all on the surface here, love and hatred, violence and celebration. I felt there was a strange, natural balance at work, that nothing could prevent or diminish the horror of that vandalised restaurant, or the sadness of death, but that they cancelled each other out, or at least, they demonstrated once again that there is always more to any situation than one story. When we watched the riots across London on the late news last night, it felt horrible, but also so unreal after my experiences that day. This is the trouble with the media and the way we take in information; all we were shown was the hatred and the violence, without a glimpse of all that would be happening around it, all sorts of stories of love and sorrow and reparation and rescue that would forever be hidden. Nothing can justify those riots or make them any less appalling, but people are not just bad, communities are rich in every kind of human resource, we know how to work together and heal and mend. The bad stuff is so much easier to believe, but we do ourselves a disservice to focus on it exclusively, or to lose faith in the power of what’s good.

Being Honest

I wonder how many bloggers have written about real people in their lives and come to regret it? The business of speaking about the living is always fraught with difficulty. I was reading a brilliant essay from the collection, Truth in Non-Fiction, (editor: David Lazar) by Phyllis Rose, whose memoir, The Year of Reading Proust I had read a while back and enjoyed immensely. The essay, entitled ‘Whose Truth?’ described the difficulties Rose encountered when writing about the live and kicking. Before she ever began her memoir, Rose was haunted by the cautionary tale afforded by the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose account of her home town, Cross Creek, ended in six years of legal battles. Not wishing to offend any of the neighbours she had turned into characters, Kinnan Rawlings went round them all, reading out the requisite chapters. Only she omitted the postmistress, Zelma Cason, on the grounds that she was a more sophisticated person than most, and a good friend from whom she expected no trouble. However, Cason objected mightily to the four sentences that portrayed her, and sued, not for libel, but for invasion of privacy. The lengthy battle ruined the nerves of Kinnan Rawlings and her work, Phyllis Rose writes, was never the same again.

Nervous of such a fate befalling her, Rose consulted all the friends and relatives she had written about, offering to change her manuscript if necessary. ‘When you do this,’ Rose writes, ‘you quickly discover that people who have never read with any seriousness in their lives, when the subject is themselves, become as acute as a Yale English professor to the tones and subtexts of a sentence.’ Her sister hadn’t liked the portrayal of herself when their mother had needed to be rushed into hospital, thinking she looked helpless, her friend, despite being described as witty and smart and lovable, feared nevertheless that she appeared shallow and materialistic, and her brother-in-law, a monk on the other side of the world, was the most upset of all, unhappy that any details of his life should appear in the public domain. More and more people came forward demanding changes, although never for reasons that Rose could possibly have guessed. ‘Gradually it became clear to me that I was making trouble for almost everyone I included and some I didn’t. People do not like being forced to confront how they appear to others.’

Rose quotes Janet Malcolm, herself no stranger to the law courts over her biographies, who declared that there were no two ways around it: the memoirist is in some respects a thief. And what the writer steals of value, Rose suggests, is not another’s experience, or wisdom, or even their best lines, but the individual’s ‘opportunity for self-representation.’ In other words, we all like to construct our identities more than we realize, puffing them up with fantasies, adding pathos to them with acceptable fears, working hard to find the right props and costumes. The extent to which we have a cherished self-image is probably never revealed, unless something unexpected, like a writer presenting an external viewpoint, charges right through the sacred middle of it.

I was thinking about this notion of self-representation this week, first of all in a trivial matter, when Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir, The Widow’s Tale, was attacked by New York Times journalist, Janet Maslin, for having omitted mention of Oates’ second marriage, a scant year later. And then I was thinking of it during the revolution in Egypt. Both instances made me think that it is a fundamental human right to be able to say who we are and what has happened to us, without fear of unkind and limiting contradiction. And yet both made me think also of the way that stories straitjacket experience when they come with too much authority attached, making it neater, tidier, more coherent than reality is, and how necessary that reality should come along and mess things up, undermining out-of-date narratives, or pointing to the genuine paradox and confusion that constitutes so much of life.

We need stories to make sense of events and experiences, and most of all, to make sense of ourselves. But it isn’t always a good idea to let the story dominate – sometimes flexibility, disruption, a new angle, is a powerful and creative tool. Stories grow stale, self-definition is an ongoing process, and it’s more skillful to allow our own incoherence and eccentricity to surface sometimes, than to try and bury it under a fragile, glossy façade. Much that is precious is hidden for fear that it will not be seen properly and acknowledged, and will continue to be so if we attack one another for not being obedient to the dictates of society that force certain stories upon us. What will other people think? Is another way of saying, what story must I embody perfectly to be acceptable? It’s good to be messy and honest in our self-presentation, it’s much closer to authentic human experience than a tightly controlled surface. And if we can allow ourselves this, then we make room for alternative perspectives to be experienced as enlightening surprises, rather than horrid shocks.

On Chinese Mothers

Mister Litlove sent me a link to a hypnotically fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal that, the last time I looked at it, had garnered over 2,700 comments. It’s entitled ‘Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior’, a provocative little header there, and is written by a Chinese mother, unsurprisingly, explaining that the route to academic and musical success is unbending parental discipline. She describes how her daughters have never been allowed to get less than an A grade, have been forced to play the piano and the violin, and forbidden all tv, play dates, sleepovers, extra-curricular activities, etc, in the pursuit of excellence. The crux of her argument is that Western parents worry too much about their children’s self-esteem, which is a form of lack of confidence in them.

‘If a Chinese child gets a B—which would never happen—there would first be a screaming, hair-tearing explosion. The devastated Chinese mother would then get dozens, maybe hundreds of practice tests and work through them with her child for as long as it takes to get the grade up to an A. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the Chinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.’

The best lesson, the author writes, is the one that shows the child that it can succeed, despite initial failure or resistance. And since children are fundamentally lazy, they require a ranting mother at their side to impart the necessary motivation. She claims, and I’m sure quite rightly, that this is not a lack of love on the parent’s part, quite the opposite in fact, since the Chinese mother will put endless graft into the education of her children to ensure the right results. It’s just a different model of what good parental love looks like.

Now of course, this is interesting to me because it’s about education, as well as parenting. But on the parenting side of this issue, I want to suggest just one thing: children are very malleable, particularly when little, because they both love their parents excessively and require them absolutely for survival. Parents underestimate time and again how much power they wield over their children. And probably just as well they do, because if you thought too much about it, you might be crippled in action. But still, it’s perfectly possible for a parent to forge a child in the image required, particularly if you are not too choosy about your methods. However, the exercise of power reflects scarcely at all on its victims, but profoundly on those who use it, and only the very best rulers know how to avoid being corrupted by it.

But let’s look at the education side of this. There’s a basic question here that risks being overlooked: what do we put children in education for? When they emerge from the process, what is it most important for them to be able to do? In my perspective, education is about teaching children skills and discernment. They want to be capable of a whole range of abilities, and I don’t really mean calculation and literacy, I mean problem-solving, self-expression, critical thinking, and they need to know when and how best to use them. It’s not like the facts about geography or history that you learned at school are the things most useful to you in later life. No, it’s the ability to think and reason and evaluate that sticks with you, the ability to find things out, and work creatively and appropriately.

So here’s the first problem with the Chinese mother’s approach for me: it is too one note. It lacks discernment. It insists there is only one response to be taken towards non-mastery and that is to practice and practice and practice, until mastery is achieved. Now I agree that it is not the best idea never to force a child to keep going in the face of frustration, but at the same time, it’s no answer to never let them admit defeat, either. The skillful approach, it seems to me, is to help the child see when tenacity is worthwhile, and when honorable retreat is equally useful. This is a tricky thing to learn, and it might be best to wait until the child has enough emotional intelligence to really understand the nature of the conflict that is self vs. immovable object. You might, as an educator, recognize that sometimes this problem requires more resources than a ferocious mother – it might be better solved in group work, where children are very easily and happily motivated by the company and the engagement of their peers. It might be more vividly taught in an extra-curricular activity that the child is particularly passionate about, which can then be taken as a transferable skill into the realm of schoolwork.

I agree that motivation and determination have to be acquired, but I think that this doesn’t have to be through traumatic battles of wills with parents, that it might be less painfully acquired, more cannily acquired, in favourable circumstances. All the child really learns otherwise is that it has to perform or else, and that’s horribly restrictive. You want that child to come out of education with a whole range of behavioural strategies at its disposal, able to push ahead or to hold back as appropriate, able to compete when it’s valuable to do so, and husband energetic or intellectual resources when it isn’t. The key notion is what is appropriate, what is skillful – just teaching one response is ultimately very reductive.

The other problem with the Chinese mother’s approach is the question of whether excellence at set work is the only truly important achievement in a child’s school career. There’s a statistical problem with her never allowing her daughters to be anything less than first in their classes – what would she have done had she had twins? And let’s not even begin about the issue of socializing. But the point is that if education is to be of any value to its culture, then it has to find ways to encourage children to see themselves as valuable, worthwhile members of their community, able to contribute usefully to it in later life, because they have a very specific set of accomplishments and innate talents. There is no point in pointing all children towards the one goal and forcing them to compete for it – the world beyond school doesn’t work that way. Our cultures gain more from innovation and originality than they do from people able to produce white-collar professional work in a reliably accurate way. In fact, if we were perfectly honest, our lives would fall apart if it weren’t for the legions of overlooked and unsung employees cleaning houses and offices, looking after small children, keeping public areas safe and tidy, nursing in hospitals, driving lorries and stacking shelves in supermarkets. Any education that dares call itself decent ought to be able to instill pride in all its student for the things they CAN do, not shame about the things they can’t.

I have plenty of experience of the products of Chinese-style mothering, because often they turn up in my rooms at the university, stymied by higher education. One of my toughest cases was an Asian lad who arrived determined to be the best student the university had ever seen. His approach to this was to work 23 hours out of every day – perfectly in keeping with the dictates of this article. He was throwing himself at the problem of his work, over and over and over again, believing this would be the best way to solve it. Alas, whatever intellectual resilience this approach may foster, Chinese children are biologically the same as any other. He suffered from a massive physical breakdown and was forced to leave the university on grounds of ill health. Not that he wanted to go, or his parents wanted him to go. In fact when his mother appeared to pick him up, she flew at him in a violent rage. ‘There was nearly a punch-up,’ declared the Senior Tutor, in shocked tones. No, the college authorities made him go because he was physically and mentally incapable of working. And then there was another student I saw, who had lost all motivation for his studies almost from the moment that he had entered the country. His mother was safely on the other side of the world, and without her overbearing pressure, surrounded by students who often didn’t work when they didn’t feel like it, he found he just couldn’t force himself to knuckle under. Plus, he wasn’t at the top of his year group and a rapid assessment had assured him he probably never would be. There was suddenly nothing left for him to strive for.

So I don’t believe this article very much, not in the value of the principles it preaches, or the methods it embraces. What’s intriguing to me is the wealth of comments it has brought forth. It has evidently touched a raw nerve among the parenting community who read the Wall Street Journal. I didn’t read all 2,700 odd, but they polarized in much the way you might expect, some expressing extreme horror and disgust, others arguing that it’s about time we toughened up on our children and stopped producing namby-pamby surrender monkeys. There are probably all kinds of excellent comments I have missed. But it seems to me that the proper response to this article is to dismiss it as a piece of provocative fluff, attempting to cause a fuss in order to sell the book that this particular Chinese mother has apparently written. But if we can’t just laugh this off, then it suggests that we are becoming increasingly confused in the Western world as to what education really is for. And that the relentless insistence on examinations and grading is starting to erode our sense of what is valuable in schooling. Because one thing this article never mentions is that if we put such importance on our children passing their exams with top grades, we have to be really, really sure that those exams actually do represent the best education has to offer and I, for one, am not at all sure about that.