Cheap books and free online content

A great deal is being said these days about the future of books.

So far, I have largely resisted the temptation of setting out any particular argument or definitive viewpoint on this blog. The Last Bookshop film is itself, I suppose, my response to the current mood; the grim predictions; the undeniable reality of shop closures.

Some might say there is an irony in the fact that we have chosen to champion the bookshop through the medium of film. But perhaps the greater irony is the fact that we are encouraging people to keep paying for physical books, through the medium of (what will ultimately be) a free-to-view online film.

It is a striking illustration of the division between old forms of media and new. In the old days, artists, booksellers and media corporations alike used to earn money by identifying their hard work and endevaour with physical trinkets (CDs, DVDs and indeed books). It was never simply the plastic and the paper you were paying for (although sometimes people seem to think it was); it was the wages of the editors, the writers, the actors, without whom the work could not exist.

In the Internet age the emphasis is away from buying physical trinkets. Yes, you can use Amazon to buy a heap of pristine books for a price that suggests you’re just paying for a cheap bundle of paper (you are not; you are buying the hard work of those who created the books). But I’m really talking about the transformation of books (and albums, TV programmes etc.) into strings of downloadable data.

Free internet content is of course a familiar concept to all of us. Nobody pays to watch videos on YouTube. This very blog is part of the modern media movement of user-generated free content for worldwide access. The Internet has flourished on this idea that web content (whether that is films, or journalism, or peoples whole lives on Facebook) is free to enjoy. More often than not, it is the associated advertising (adverts on YouTube, banners in your inbox) that does the paying. But how can the hard work involved in the creative processes ever be balanced out by such an approach?

It is difficult to say how things will move on from here. People are right when they say that artists keep creating things whether or not they can make money from it. In some ways that’s the definition of an artist.

When we (The Bakery) decided to make The Last Bookshop film, we knew we weren’t going to be raking it in from the project. We saw the situation bookshops are in, and we reacted in earnest by using our creative energies (and personal funds) to support the plight of the bookshop. I love independent bookshops. I want them to exist for as long as possible. So if our film prompts a few people to remember their local bookshop, and maybe pop their head round the door next time they pass, then that can only be a good thing.

On this wider issue of free online content and old trinket-based media, The Guardian newspaper recently printed a thought-provoking piece entitled ‘Are books dead, and can authors survive?’  in which author Ewan Morrison outlined his argument from the recent Edinburgh international book festival. As an overview of how the fate of books is bound up in this wider issue of free media, it gives a comprehensive account, and is worth a read.

Of course, in the old days you had to pop into a newsagent and exchange coins in order to read the Guardian; nowadays you click on the website and read its contents all for free…

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