Sat, Aug 24, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Imagining the future of literature

What will literature be like 30 years from now? Writer Ewan Morrison looks into his crystal ball and finds it is bad news for ebooks, the West — and anyone who cares about verifiable history

By Ewan Morrison  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

When China became the world’s leading economy in 2024, the West was forced to admit it was now the frontrunner in debt accumulation and little else. The yuan became the global reserve currency in 2032, leaving the West with no say in determining the form of the planet’s economy, the Internet, publishing and fiction. The world of 2043 is a place of state-enforced paywalls and firewalls, state censorship and surveillance through the net — the reverse of the carefree life we knew in 2013, when we all threw away our rights to privacy in the name of “sharing.”

People are now wary of all social media, fearing they are largely tools for surveillance, propaganda and behavioral manipulation. In this, the “useful idiots” in the US played no small part, by legitimizing snooping through the activities of US National Security Agency, Facebook and so on.

In 2043, the Internet is no liberator sweeping away authoritarian regimes. Rather, it offers “bread and circuses” to the masses, distracting them from the time-consuming task of political organization with pirated movies, free porn and LOLcats.

CHINESE TAKEOVER

China entered the digital revolution late and, as a result, had a chance to learn from the mistakes of the West. It witnessed the demise of the bookshop, the shrinking of publishing houses to three vast monopolies, and the freefall of ebook prices. It saw how zombie mashups had cannibalized the Western canon and realized that Marx was right: Capitalism, left to its own devices, would devour itself.

While the West frittered and Twittered its time away, China became the only hope for the survival of literature, with its state-enforced literacy programs, its veneration of high literature and lifelong learning, its vast guaranteed audience, its government-funded five-year cultural development plans, its 500 state-owned publishing houses and bookshops, and its writers’ unions. Writers, musicians and film makers scrambled to “break into the Chinese market” as they once strove to “make it in the US.”

There was once a utopian Internet belief that thousands of fledgling writers would be able to forge a brave new future in digital publishing, shaking the foundations of the old elitist media corporations. However, warning bells first sounded in 2012, when it emerged that half of self-e-published authors earned less than £300 (US$470) per imprint per year. Devastating confirmation came in 2013, when it was revealed that J.K. Rowling had written a book under the name Robert Galbraith. Rejected by many mainstream publishers, this book lurked unseen among the hundreds of thousands of books by unknowns on the Internet. As soon as it was revealed that Rowling was the real author, it became a global bestseller.

The message was clear: If you do not have a name already, you will not get seen, let alone read.

At the turn of the millennium, 80 percent of a publisher’s profits would come from 20 percent of its authors, encouraging imprints to invest across a spread of writers.

By 2013, the ratio had shifted, according to Jonny Geller, joint head of UK literary and talent agency Curtis Brown: “Now it’s more like 96 to four,” he said.

This meant that reinvestment in authors also shrank proportionally.

While the Internet was good at selling discounted culture, cheap goods and used furniture, it could not create and monetize new culture.

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