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Messing about with books & the curse of the digital age

BooksPHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - One of the greatest pleasures available to humankind is spending a lazy afternoon browsing in bookshops. It is a pastime at least on a par with messing about in boats.

Unfortunately, it’s a pleasure eschewed by modern, electronically tuned generations and, most tragically, something that has never really been available to Papua New Guineans.

Like many other simple pleasures of life, it now looks like going the way of the dinosaur.

A couple of years ago a frustrated Scottish second hand bookseller, Shaun Bythell, took a Kindle e-reader outside and blasted it with a shotgun.

He then mounted the shattered remains on a trophy board in his shop.

It was a symbolic gesture. In recent times bricks and mortar bookshops have been closing all over the world.

The main culprit is the manufacturer of that e-book, the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut Amazon.

What started out as a great idea has somehow morphed into a ruthless, profit driven enterprise that is slowly and surely destroying many of the age-old delights surrounding books.

The joys of browsing in a local bookshop is now a thing of the past almost everywhere, thanks to Amazon.

Nowadays people are more likely to go into a bookshop to look at a book before they order it online for half the price.

People like Shaun Bythell have been forced to commission Amazon and its subsidiaries, Abe Books and The Book Depository, to sell their books online at rock bottom prices to survive.

But it’s not just Amazon that creates problems for booksellers and book lovers. Google and Project Gutenberg are busily creating digital copies of everything they can lay their hands on that is out of copyright.

Instead of paying people like Shaun, a seller of second hand books, a good price for an old book, you can now get it for nothing as a free download or as a print-on-demand hardcopy for a couple of kina.

This relentless pressure to make books cheaper may sound good but think of the publishers and booksellers it is putting out of business.

And if that doesn’t impress you, think of the writers – already poor - whose output has diminished in value to the point where some of them think the effort is not worth it. So why write at all?

I was a great fan of Amazon’s CreateSpace printing and distribution network when it began but now I’m starting to think its main driving force is not literature but profit.

So where does that leave Papua New Guinea?

Well, strangely enough, Papua New Guinea is one of the few places where Amazon has done a lot more good than bad.

Amazon won’t make Papua New Guinean writers rich but in a country with few bookshops and even fewer publishers, not to mention a truly apathetic government, Amazon is really the only game in town.

For Jeff Bezos, the multi-billionaire owner of Amazon, Papua New Guinea probably represents, in theory at least, the ideal marketing environment.

There are no competing publishers and no bricks and mortar bookshops to force out of business.

And that is the scenario that he now seems hell bent on forcing on the rest of the world.

Thank heavens for diehards like Shaun Bythell. Keep shootin’ up those  Kindles, Shaun.

Comments

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Jordan Dean

Ebooks are convenient, cheap and easy on the eyes, but I still love the physical books.

When you have read a physical book, you can lend it to a friend, give it to your local library or place it on the book cabinet in the living room to give your house a sophisticated look. With an ebook, there is no such possibility.

If you plan on writing your memoir so your grandchildren can read it, it's better to publish it in paperback and stash twenty copies in a safe place because your ebook version might well be long gone before you are.

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