Are writers reading enough real books?

BOOK CELEBRATION Lifeline's annual Bookfest.
BOOK CELEBRATION Lifeline’s annual Bookfest.

A Writer singlehandedly tries to save print publishing.

A FORTNIGHT ago I went to the annual Bookfest, a week-long pre-loved book sale organised by a huge team of volunteers in aid of Lifeline, a charity providing 24-hour telephone counselling services.

Because I didn’t make it on day one, I assumed there would be nothing particularly good left.

But after barely minutes surrounded by acres of books, my fingers dancing with delight along their myriad spines, I had a handful of the treasures. Then an armful. Then a bagful. Luckily I had a time limit, and each one was only AU$2.50.

My decades-long search for an omnibus edition of Helene Hanff’s complete works ended that day. I picked up a copy of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and have since reread it, marvelling at how I now love that work, whereas 14 years ago it just annoyed me. I also found a copy of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, which I am currently reading, regaling my own years living and working in the weird and wonderful county of Suffolk.

What struck me, in the midst of the comforting smell of books, (and the realisation that I could have taken home the complete works of Kathy Lette ten times over, had I wanted) was that the days of such generous literary celebrations may be well and truly numbered.

Because I just can’t see a charity managing to on-sell pre-loved eBooks.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I have long been quietly angry at the way computer hardware companies have muscled their way into the already precarious book publishing industry.

Sure, it’s made self-publishing possible for millions, but what we stand to lose is far greater.

Think about it. Do we really want to see the day when our bookshelves are obsolete?

Literary agents and publishers are exhorting us to buy printed books, so much so that books have dramatically reduced in price (and quality); and bestsellers are still getting print-runs in addition to eBook releases, this year anyway.

In Australia, book prices went through the roof in 2001 with the introduction of the GST (Goods and Services Tax), although the cost soon crept up much higher than the government’s 10 per cent. The average new release has since set readers back AU$30-$40.

It wasn’t long before I simply couldn’t afford to buy new books, and so I would wait until they appeared in second-hand shops or garage sales. Yes, neither author nor publisher benefitted financially, but I figured all those inflated sales were lining their pockets, and if charities were also netting a few dollars from my purchases, we were all better off.

But in the last few years I have had to change my tune. I now buy new books sometimes, despite the risk that a lauded author will disappoint, because if I don’t I am part of the dire problems faced by the print publishing industry.

BRAVE NEW BOOK Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Stranger's Child'.
BRAVE NEW BOOK Alan Hollinghurst’s ‘The Stranger’s Child’.

I took a risk on Alan Hollinghurst with my new copy of The Stranger’s Child, and am very glad to have it gracing my shelves, preparing for another read one day soon. It was a calculated risk after I’d spent 50 cents on his masterpiece, The Line of Beauty, only 12 months after its Booker Prize win.

Would I have spent the AU$35 unless I’d been introduced to Hollinghurst’s literary genius so cheaply? Probably not.

But my investment also ensured I stuck with The Stranger’s Child, whereas a cheaper eBook might have seen me abandon it when I hit the first of its challenging sections, and just clicked-away …

I ask all writers to get back in touch with three-dimensional books. Let your second-hand favourites get under your skin and lead you to purchasing new books when you can. Keep them long enough to read them again. Loan them out to trustworthy fellow readers. Donate them to charity if you come across something that’s not for you. Treat them like the portable treasures they really are.

Sure, buy an eBook now and again, but think twice about making it your only form of reading … Lifeline is depending on you.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Are writers reading enough real books?”

  1. I don’t know, Michael, the last two works I read in bed were e-books on my laptop. The ease of sitting my computer on my chest and simply scrolling down with one finger was very soothing.

    It’s not that I want to see print books completely replaced, but I don’t see myself going out of my way to invest in them any time soon.

    1. Fair enough, but if we don’t buy ANY, eventually they won’t be printed anymore, and then those who feel soothed by print books will sooner or later miss out on the feeling you describe getting from eBooks. Also, I can read a printed book in a blackout, with a candle. What will you do when the more extreme weather they’re predicting results in more power cuts and therefore no more charge for your laptop?

  2. Another great advantage of the e-reader is for travellers. I am currently on way from London via Singapore to Australia with enough reading matter on my device to keep me happy for months. What we need is a way to recycle e-books – there is some kind of library lending on Kindle but I haven’t figured it out yet. All that said I can’t see print books becoming obsolete, not now and not ever. Changing times, and it’s up to us to make them work.

    1. Perhaps things will even themselves out when the corporations have made their money and moved on to gouge another industry? I can’t think of a genre or format in the Arts that has been totally superseded by something new … even Beta video is still around!

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