With a headline that asks "Who now will be the true guardians of literary merit" this bit on the Telegraph about the future of eBooks is the kind of bookservative nonsense that drives me to the blindest of angers.
It opens with a kind of dystopian future of people in 2020 - bookish types - trying to make reading work in an awkward universe of devices that are at about the same technology level as the ones available today. They are, of course, comically unsuited for the roles asked of them.
The universe envisioned by the article gets the situation exactly backwards. It's a world where consumers have been forced by publishers and Amazon (especially Amazon) into buying crap that is clearly inferior to the good old paperback (with some concession that eBooks are lighter). It's a change that's been driven by the gatekeepers, without the attendant improvements in tech or, you know, consumer demand.
Out here in the real world, publishers aren't driving the change, they are desperately trying to catch up. Devices are getting steadily better and we can all see where this is going, we just aren't entirely sure about where it's going or how healthy everyone will be on the other side. The adoption curve is tech-makers make better and better eReading devices and people start buying them in greater numbers and demanding that content be available for the device. Should the tech people fail to make good reading machines, they won't get bought and this whole crisis will pass away without any serious change.
But no one who is paying attention is banking on that happening.
The thing that makes me so angry about these kinds of screeds is that in setting up these strawmen problems with eReaders, the skeptics miss the actual problems and weaken the case against technofuturists. So when Hensher describes a child smashing the eReader's screen, the technofuturists get a free hit.
"Haven't you heard of OLPC?" they scoff, "Obviously any reader designed for children will be durable."
And that's that.
But it's not, really. There are a lot of really good questions being asked by Hensher in the article. Questions of ownership both on the creation and consumption side of things, questions about what forms will thrive in the new environment. Questions about how authors might get discovered and supported.
It is not difficult to imagine authors, in the future, being expected to emerge in this way, and publishers cherry-picking those who already have some history of success through self-sponsored e-publication.
In the future? It's happening right now.
This problem occurs repeatedly. Hensher tries to be even-handed but ends up undermining himself over and over again, falling back to the bookservative fear. He laments the end of knowing that you are nearly finishing a book (technofuturist: "Uh, dude, progress bars"). He refers to eEditions as "just flickering symbols on a screen" (technofuturist: "As opposed to just symbols on a page? And can someone get this guy a modern computer? Screen haven't flickered in years!").
The coming crisis of publishing is not that eReaders are worse than books, it's that in a lot of critical ways they are going to be better than books.