The most fetching book I’ve come across for ages wasn’t in a traditional bookshop at all but on a recent visit to the South London Gallery in Peckham. It was Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but not the Penguin Popular Classic – this one was pale pink and as big as a box. It was also newly typeset, accompanied by thirty gorgeous illustrations and available at the very reasonable hardback price of £16.99.
Even as the big beasts of publishing struggle and their traditional retailers lurch from crisis to crisis, there are good reasons to be hopeful. Some publishers are doing well by producing objects beautiful enough to be collectible. That Vanity Fair I saw is the latest from Four Corners Books, a tiny East London publisher with only two employees; as well as new books, Four Corners knocks out ‘familiars’ by inviting contemporary artists to produce fresh editions of classic novels and short stories. In the last few years, too, independent music stores like Rough Trade East in London and Truck in Oxford have begun to reverse the tide of closures in the sector. From an historic low of 269 in 2009, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association, the number of independents grew to 281 last year, the first tentative signs of any rise for years. Shops like this sell themselves on the expertise of their staff and live events, but much of the trade these do is in vinyl – music as beautifully produced artwork rather than invisible download. For some years now sales of old-fashioned vinyl albums have been growing steadily on both sides of Atlantic, while CD sales fall through the floor.
Take a closer look and this new publishing eco-system is brimming with exotic minutiae, and in the most unusual places. Even when publishers are working online, they’re learning to produce things in different shapes and sizes. As music gets produced for storage on digital gadgets, songs are expanding beyond their traditional 3-minute limit. And as the e-book makes inroads into traditional publishing, the definition of a book is becoming more fluid. Take Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” outlet, set up to showcase non-fiction between ten thousand and thirty thousands words which is capable of being read in a few sittings. Publishing like this might eventually put paid to the era in which ideas of all kinds were forced to pad themselves out, or squeeze themselves into, the traditional seventy thousand words required for a traditional book. It can certainly be quicker and more responsive than traditional book publishing. Only two days after the story broke of Greg Mortenson’s alleged embellishment of his memoir Three Cups of Tea, a tiny online publishing company called Byliner published a short e-book by an investigative journalist presenting the case against Mortensen. Three Cups of Deceit was downloaded fifty thousand times in its first three days. Byliner pays advances, and lies somewhere between book publishing and traditional journalism. Just as Rolling Stone inspired a new kind of narrative non-fiction in the 1960’s and 1970’s, this kind of publishing might be the catalyst for new kinds of writing and new literary forms, all carefully edited and as lovingly worked on as the traditional book.
As new stuff grows around us in different shapes and sizes, it’s likely that the prices that we’ll have to pay for it will vary to match the meal: Kindle Singles sell for just a few dollars, a fraction of the cost of a full-length book. But it isn’t only the book which is changing its form. Many of us, it turns out, don’t want to spend all our time consuming random gobbets of electronic information. We’re hungry for longer things we can get our teeth into – as new things sprout up in different shapes and sizes, our diet is simply growing more diverse. The same people who snack on bite-sized nuggets of online video at work might revel in a long HBO serial like The Wire an episode at a time in the evening, a richer and more satisfying story than anything they’re likely to encounter on mainstream television. Just as novels evolved in the 19th Century to cope with the demands of newspaper serialisation, television is liberating itself from the stale old formats and stretching out into sprawling, more intricate kinds of story.
Amazon calls its Kindle Singles programme “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.” It sounds like a throwback to an earlier era, when a book’s descriptive title could be as long as a whole chapter. With all this space to play with, in fact, these long-playing singles more closely resemble that creature of the 1970’s, the concept album. Long-winded and colourfully oblique titles, eccentric shapes and sizes – thrown into vast expanses online all this helps publishers make their stuff stand out. As the CD album is disembowelled by digitisation it’s hardly a coincidence that the concept album, that creature of the 1970’s, is making something of a comeback. When everything is granulated into digital bits, some bands have discovered, lavish and involved storytelling becomes even more important as a way of holding everything together. The future may belong to grand operatic conceits and epic, gravity-defying feats of storytelling which defy traditional categorisation. Rather than being written out of history, books and music may only be getting brand new containers, and some beautiful new wrapping.
James Harkin is Director of Flockwatching and the author of Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream. This appears as a comment piece in The Guardian, Wed 27 April.