Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Updike, Sorrell, and change

Michael Cader, of Publishers Lunch, reports that a recording of John Updike's address to the assembled troops at Book Expo America has been posted by the BEA, so you can hear the great man's argument in full, should you wish.

As you might expect, given Michael Cader's previous comments about the BEA, he was not too impressed by Updike.

In my sadder and more cynical moments, [the speech] reminds me of the anachronistic bubble aspect of BEA, where lost causes can go to congratulate themselves and relive an idealized world of publishing that may never have existed....

Updike's concern and distaste in the speech isn't so much about technology, universal libraries, or even the potentially changing reading experience. It's about the changing economics of writing books....

Simply put, he doesn't want to let go of a world that has compensated him increasingly well for writing. What's grisly [to Updike] is the idea of the author 'as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book' and a world in which 'only the present, live person can make an impact and offer, as it were, value.'

Equally grisly [to Updike], though he's not honest enough to put it this way, is a wide-open electronic pipeline of often free written content that Updike must compete with, which this learned critic simplistically tars as 'egregiously unaccurate, unedited, unattributed,and juvenile.'

In other words, Updike doesn't like change, and he doesn't like competition, especially from those who give it away free (such as bloggers).

Cader reports that another commentator on the Updike speech (Sean Wilsey in Time) described Updike as 'a white-haired gentleman trying to halt something new because it runs against something established, urging the retrograde upon people who should know more than any others that retrogression is patently not in their interest.'

Well, we noted on 25 May that attendees at BEA divided mostly into three camps: those anxious for change, those who accept it, and those who resist. John Updike was among the resisters.

In reading all this, I was struck by the contrast between Updike's view, on the one hand, and the view of Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the WPP group, on the other. Sorrell founded WPP in 1986; since then, WPP has become one of the world's leading communications and advertising companies and is valued by the UK stockmarket at £7.5 billion. It is therefore reasonable to assume that, where advertising is concerned, Sorrell knows what he's talking about.

In the Times last Friday, Sorrell drew attention to certain parallels between the present concerns about all things digital and the advent of commercial television in the UK in 1955.

In 1955, advertising was almost entirely print-based, and there were many senior executives in the advertising agencies who had severe doubts about the viability of television advertising. For one thing, it was thought that the British public would never tolerate having their television programmes interrupted by adverts. And for another, these senior executives had no idea how to use film.

A similar situation arises, Sorrell argues, in newspapers and advertising agencies today. A new medium, with new technology, has made an appearance, in the shape of the internet. Senior executives, in established businesses, don't understand the technology; they are far from convinced that it can be made to generate a profit; and the internet (even today) still seems to be strange, expensive, and threatening.

What will happen next, Sorrell suggests, is similar to what happened in the late fifties. From the top, so to speak, the established companies will slowly, and reluctantly, get to grips with the new technology. And from the bottom, new companies will start up, run by bright, energetic young people with lots of technical know-how.

Gradually things will shake down until the new medium finds its place among the established media. In the process, some of new companies will fail, and some of the old companies will find themselves taken over by the bright young men.

Sorrell's comments are, I repeat, confined to advertising; but they seem to me to offer some obvious parallels in the world of publishing.

Meanwhile, in yesterday's New York Times, there was an article by Motoko Rich, entitled 'Digital Publishing is Scrambling the Industry's Rules'. (Link from booktrade.info.)

This is not, in my opinion, a very good article. For one thing the author seems to think that the standard royalty rate is 15% of the cover price of a book, and for another he rehashes a number of well known stories. But the article does contain a number of quotes which nicely illustrate the two attitudes which are commonly found in publishing today.

On the one hand we have the open dread and contempt for the new, as expressed by Updike and others. 'There's no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book -- the magic of the paper and thread and glue.' Not that you get much thread these days, but you see the point.

And then, by contrast, you have the wild enthusiasm for change. 'I think people who are sort of on the outside of the institutions and new voices entering will be a lot more excited about this technology. That's one of the effects that technology always has. It democratizes things and brings in new readers and authors.'

If you want a further dose of advocacy for the new, try today's Guardian (link from booktrade.info), where Jeff Jarvis seeks to put the book into perspective. Speaking mainly in terms of the non-fiction book, he argues that online, or at any rate digital, prose offers considerable advantages over the printed form.

Enough, for the moment, of what other people are thinking. What do I think about the glorious digital future that awaits us? For that you must wait until tomorrow. Contain yourselves.


SAND STORM said...

Lots of information to mull over (some I also linked to)until your post tommorrow.

skint writer said...

Echoing (plagiarising?) sand storm - nice round up and lots to mull over, until tomorrow . .

Rebecca Jane said...

Thanks for your post. I'm not part of any institution, but I listened to the podcast of Updike's BEA speech. I wrote a bit of a parody of it here: BEAt & Ballyhoo
Eager to read your post tomorrow!

Maxine said...

Never liked Updike's books!

ivan said...

All this criticism of America's greatest living novelist leaves me,uh, grumpy.

Sarah Hall said...

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