What Is Going to Happen to Books?

La scorsa settimana, in occasione della XIV Settimana della lingua italiana nel mondo, ho girato un po’ per il nord Europa per parlare di Books in Italy e di nuove frontiere dell’editoria. Sono stato ospite, prima, dell’Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Stoccolma e, poi, dell’Ambasciata Italiana in Finlandia e dell’Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Helsinki – città dove l’Italia era ospite d’onore alla Fiera del libro. Questo è quello che ho detto.
Ringrazio Raffaello Palumbo Mosca che ha rivisto la prima versione del testo.

My speech will be divided in two parts: in the first one, I will try to reflect upon the so-called digital era and the possibile perspectives for publishers, authors and readers. I’m not a publisher, but I’m a writer and a reader and, above all, I live in the world of books. In the second part of the speech, I will show you the project of the website we launched in Italy to promote our literature abroad.
But, firstly, I’d like to tell you a story.

Everybody speaks about books end, but what really moves me are incipits. The incipit means everything: I spend about one-third of the time I attend to a book thinking about the beginning. In an interview Jonathan Franzen released after publishing Freedom, he said he had worked on the novel for nine years, and that it took eight years to write the first page. It could sound like a joke, but I believe him: a good incipit is the launcing ramp for a good book. I probably love incipits beacuse of my father: when I was a child, he told me that in his youth he had read a book, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, whose incipit let him breathless: «The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him». This is actually the second phrase of the book, but it doesn’t matter: what really matters is that I had definitively understood that, if the beginning is powerful, the reader is yours.
So I started jotting down all the beautiful incipits I ran into: I wanted to understand how the others – the greatest writers of the past – entered their own stories. There’s Dostoevskij who, at the very beginning of his Notes from Underground, writes something like «I am sick, full of hatred, I have probably a liver disease»; there’s probably the most famous incipit of worldwide literature – that of Anna Karenina: «All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way». There’s the “angelic” incipit of Moby Dick: «Call me Ishmael» (Not “My name is”, but “Call me”). There’s the surprising beginning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and the fatal one of Camus’ The Stranger. In Italy, there’s Paolo Volponi, who begins his Pianeta irritabile with the wonderful «It’s been pouring down since forever, without a break or a slackening», and there’s Antonio Moresco’s Gli esordi, that says: «I, instead, felt comfortable in that silence». Instead what? Instead everything: instead something that happened before and that we’ll never know but that, maybe, will be revealed by the world created by this book. Because in the end, this is literature: someone who begins telling a story that is different from everything we’ve heard before. Something that exists instead.
I wrote this story one year ago on my blog, and so I probably do not have the copyright of it – but that’s not important now. What matters is that, after reading about me, my father and the love I have for incipits, someone came to me and said: «You’ve written a sort of manifesto for digital writers».
«What have I done?» I asked.
«The perfect digital book» they answered, «must have a stunning beginning – just like Heller’s. Just think about what is happening on the web now: millions of people are surfing on some retailer looking for a book to buy. They see adds, suggestions by other customers, books of the month and so on. How can they orientate themselves and decide what to buy? Please mind that surfing a website is no way like going to a bookstore: you meet no bookseller, you can’t be seduced by a beautiful cover and, above all, you unlikely bump into something you haven’t looked for. There’s no fortuity in purchasing on the web. So, how can a book nestle a reader and draw his or her attention? It must have a fulminating beginning. It must make the reader fall immediately in love. The samples of the novel on the web must be stirring, powerful. Also consider that some researches proved that the act of reading on an ereader is quite different from reading on paper: I don’t refer to those tablets that allow you, in the meantime you read an ebook, to receive an email, or check your Facebook page, or take a look at a newspaper – I refer to devices such as Amazon Kindle or Kobo: on your Kindle, you simply read less than on paper and, above all, you read more distractedly. It seems that digital readers are less conscious and interested in the plot: they love simple plots stuffed with information and details. This is what Maria Konnilkova recently wrote on the New Yorker analyzing an American research on digital readers’ habits. Consequently, your book must be really thrilling, and simple, in order not to be abandoned or even not purchased».

The book of the future, the hypertext
I got a 10-months son. He’s growing in the so-called digital era: he probably will go to school with an iPad and won’t study on books as I did and still do. With a click he’ll be able to enter digital libraries conserving millions of digital books: all of human knowledge will be at his own disposal. He won’t carve out his results in study, because he will never be obliged to a daily grind in order to recover information. This is both good and bad news. It’s good because the idea of having at your disposal in your tablet all the human knowledge is simply fantastic: it’s the very dream of every writer and scholar. But it’s also bad, because one of the biggest pleasures in studying and writing lies in the search of sources: there’s a story in every book and there’s a story in every action we make to find it.
Anyhow, I have a notion, when I talk about the digital revolution, that this is not the point – this is not the main question of our time.
Italian Publishers Association has just released its annual report on the state of Italian publishing and book trade. The report begins saying that the book market has not been simply downsizing, but transforming. The 12% of sellings is online, but the ebooks trade only covers the 3%, with a turnover of only 40 millions euros. But this is not the worst news. In 2013, in Italy, the number of readers has fallen off of 6,1%; Italian market lost 4,7%. For the first time the number of publications has decreased (it’s 64,000 titles, -4,1%, against +43% for digital books), and so did the number of copies sold (-2,3%). Fiction lost 5,4%, while non-fiction lost 4,2%. 17,9% of books published are translated from foreign languages: of course, over 60% of these books comes from the US and UK market. But the very depressive news is that Italy lost in one year about 1,6 million readers.
So, we are probably focusing on the wrong question: I am persuaded we shouldn’t care so much about digital revolutions, while we should worry about the fact that reading is no more the centre of collective consciousness. In many schools and universities there are courses on storytelling: literary fiction is no more the only thing to talk about. The narrative mechanisms belong, of course, to comics, movies, tv series, videogames and so on: they have never been an exclusive competence of literature, but nowadays it seems that a course, in order to be competitive and appealing, must refer to all the forms of expression that are not literature. Narrative still stands at the centre of collective consciousness, but the forms through which it talks to us have little to do with books: this is the reason why we use to talk of storytelling instead of literary fiction.
Some say the book of the future will solve the struggle among the narrative forms thanks to the creation of a sort on infinite hypertext. Ebooks will simply become a new form of entertainment and information organized in layers and interactive modules: we will be allowed to surf a book like we surf the web; books are going to be multimedial and inter-disciplinary patterns, linked – thanks for example to the trackback technology – to all other similar books, to reviews and to readers’ notes, but, also, to other forms of expressions related to the particular topic of a page (videos, photos, websites and so on). Gino Roncaglia, an Italian scholar, wrote, in his book La quarta rivoluzione (The Fourth Revolution), that this kind of book would be perfect for non-fiction: he prefigures a future in which, while reading a book, we will be automatically connected to every essay of the world dealing with the same topic. That wuold be a great breakthrough and a progress for science. But some publishers tried, in the past years, to apply this model to fiction: instead of describing a room, for example, some books provide a video in which readers can see it directly; instead of mentioning a song, these books provide a soundtrack. I think this is the best way through which lousy writers can support themselves and create an atmosphere they’re unable to convey with words. At the same time, this is the best way through which authors and publishers can kill the power of imagination – which is one of the fundamental characteristics of the act of reading.
Francesco Cataluccio, another Italian scholar and an appreciated writer, in a book called Che fine faranno i libri? (What Is Going to Happen to Books?), wrote that ebooks will change the theoretical foundations of texts and authors, and that what Roland Barthes hoped for will one day come true: the return of text as the emblem of non-power. Writers will be no more the guardians of all virtues, and literature will finally be deconsecrated. This is probably true. Social networks aimed at readers somewhat do the same thing: I got my own books on my Anobii shelf, and I can see what readers think of my work; I can discuss with them about the qualities and the flaws of my novels and I can listen to their suggestions or complaints. I’m not on a pedestal: I’m simply someone who writes books and shares them with other people. Cataluccio suggests that the social interchange between authors and readers, and between readers, should be monitored by publishers. He says publishers should take part in the debates: nowadays, a commucation between publishers and readers makes no sense; the future is in the communication between publishers and readers debating among themselves. This is probably the reason why Mondadori, one year ago, purchased Anobii.

Break. On my relationship with Kindle
I’ve possessed my Kindle for a couple of years. Last week, after about one year in which I’ve never turned it on, I charged it and downloaded a couple of books I needed to prepare this speech. Then I went to a bookstore, because I wanted to buy Alessandro Manzoni’s Storia della colonna infame. I discovered it is no more on the market, so I came back home, went to Amazon and tried to purchase it in ebook. An advice soon appeared on my Kindle screen: «Dear Andrea, you already own this book». So I entered my Kindle library and found it: I had purchased Storia della colonna infame on my birthday in 2012 – the same day my parents presented the Kindle to me.
So, in my Kindle, among a lot of non-fiction books I use for work and among some remainders I occasionally purchase, there’s a book I’m interested in – a book I’d like to read on paper. This is the question. Many of the ebooks I have are works I’d never buy in a bookshop. I got some interesting novels and essays, of course, but I simply forget I possess them. There was a time I used my Kindle to make some experiments: I purchased books I didn’t know very well – books that arose my curiosity but that I wouldn’t have bought in a bookshop. So, my digital library is full of books I’m not really interested in – it’s far and away less interesting, less beautiful than my home library. It definitively doesn’t mirror me, it does not represents my personality. The relationship between a home library and its owner is one of the crucial identity questions: for example, there’s a sector in my library where I stock those books I don’t care about, the failed presents, the books press offices send me. It’s the sector my son can frequent, throwing books on the ground: I never take a look at it, because it’s something like someone else’s library. Home is where you stock the books you love. If I buy a wonderful book, I can even reorganize an entire sector of my library to find it a place as an identity book revealing his owner’s personality. When I walk in in my library, I read myself. This is impossibile to do, for me, with a Kindle – even if I’m a little grateful to who invented it, because of some books out of the market I could purchase.

Authorship, authority and publishers
In the well-documented Come finisce il libro (What books will become), Alessandro Gazoia tells the story of Alessandro Venturini who, after some negative reports by traditional publishers, self-published on Amazon his very first novel, Amabilmente condannato a moglie (Lovely condemned to marry). After the publication of the first edition of the book, Venturini himself wrote on a thread on Amazon’s website a report on his own experience. He said that soon his book started to be downloaded by many people who made some reviews in which suggested the author do some changes in the plot, refine some characters and scenes in order to improve the novel. Venturini hailed the readers’ opinions and reworked on the novel following the best suggestions he received. The second edition was donated to those who fostered a better book. In a word: his novel was copy edited by readers and, above all, it was corrected and improved after the publication. Venturini, of course, feels proud of what happened: readers became fond of his work and collaborated to make it better. He wrote, we can say, the first Italian social novel, a work that’s an outcome of a deep synergy between author and readers. But what kind of book is the second version of Venturini’s? It’s a book that aims to gratify those who showed interest in it. A book that cuts out all the editorial mediation replacing it with an amateur and fancyful one. No editorial filter was applied to his work. The second edition of Amabilmente condannato a moglie will be probably appreciated by a larger number of readers, but I wonder: is really this kind of appreciation authors need? Will the author of the future be someone who discuss with readers and make himself available to change his book in order to make them happier? What is going to happen to the concept of work of art? Great Italian novelist Michele Mari is clear about that: literature is something that must disturb readers, not play up to them.
At the same time, it seems that self-published books must follow some rules. If I surf on Italian and international websites allowing people to publish their own works without editorial filter, I see that most of the books belong to genre fiction: crime, fantasy, horror, detective stories, romance, science fiction, erotic romance and so on. Just think about the unexpected success of Fifty Shades of Grey: the trilogy was born as a spin-off, or even a fan fiction of the Twilight saga. Readers passed the word of a book reusing Stephenie Meyer’s characters and settings and the general consent on her spin-off gave a boost to E.L. James to change the names of her heroes and develop the non-derivative aspects of her novel. Alberto Forni, who wrote a handbook on Tutto quello che devi sapere per pubblicare (e vendere) il tuo ebook (Everything you must know to publish (and sell) your ebook), asserts that fiction genre is «the only successful fiction in the realm of self-publishing». Why? That’s probably because the social interchange between authors and readers is simplyfied by those narrative forms that follow precise rules. If we consider Venturini’s case, we see that the copyediting made by readers was assisted by the fact that the novel is a simple, trite love story written in a non-literary language. The book is presented as a “comic opera”, full of irony and levity: in a word, it is a well codified product with a codified structure everyone can have a say on. This allows self-published authors to meet a big audience and even to enlarge it. In 2012 Vintage Books noticed the growing interest on E.L. James’ work and purchased it: the publisher didn’t need to discover her – she was already well-known by the readers. British literary agent Tom Williams says this is a new-born attitude by publishers: «It’s a way of outsourcing discoverability that is becoming increasingly common. Rather than nurturing an author, publishers want authors who already have an identifiable audience in place».
Weblogs, social networks and self-publishing have been changing the panorama of publishing itself, insomuch as someone ratified the end of the equivalence published=has overcomed the publisher’s judgement, i.e. the editorial filter. By now, someone can at one time publish his own book and sell it and legitimate himself as an authorized author. The rethorical trickery has changed: it’s no more «A big publisher believes in me, so please read my book», but «Many customers on the web praised my novel – so it’s worth reading». In addition, some self-published authors say: «I published without an editorial mediation, but thanks to readers I succeeded. Moreover, readers copyedited me: so mine is the real people’s book, I’m far from the obscure, unclear corporative mindset of publishing houses. I’m free and I made it just counting on my talent».
It’s not only the authors and publishers’ role to be in question, but also the reviewers’: they count less and less. Readers’ opinion is the core of this way of thinking of books.

But does it work? Has everything changed?
I don’t think so, because – and E.L. James is an example –self-published authors keep on running for social and cultural acceptance by all kinds of readers and authorized personnel. Of course, good sellings and good readers’ reviews can help them, but the question of legitimacy is still crucial. The real consecration is the publication on paper: in some way, the traditional form of publication still sets forth the passage from an amateur state to a professional one. If your book enters a bookstore you suddenly become an “authorized author” tout court. This is one of the fundamental topics of my speech: the question of authorship and authority.
Publishers are the real warrantors of authorship. This will probably become the future core business of publishing houses: editorial mediation will check the forcefullness of self-published books and will provide licences to write and be published. The publisher’s brand on the cover will be assertive. It will mean: «Hey, the book you’re about to purchase is written by an authorized author. This is a real book, that passed through a professional and editorial filter and was approved. You can trust it».
I don’t know what lies ahead for writers and publishers. I can only try and imagine it, but for the time being everything seems too blurry and chaotic. In Italy some say we are going to win the battle if we fight with the only weapon we have: literature – but it feels like a rethorical response.
So, with Fondazione Mondadori and many institutional partners, we are trying to tidy it up: we launched a website, called BooksinItaly.it, that aims at restoring authorship and becoming a sort of handbook for those – such as foreign publishers, translators, scholars, scouts and literary agents – who are or could be somehow interested or intrigued by what goes on in Italian literary world.

Books in Italy
is the first website for the promotion worldwide of Italian publishing, language and culture. The website, available in both Italian and English, is intended for Italian and foreign publishers, literary agents, translators, Italianists, Italian Cultural Insitutes and Italians abroad. In order to promote Italian publications and make translating both new and classics books easier, the site offers reliable book reports accompanied by translated samples. It will also include analysis, interviews and news of the latest releases and the main protagonists of the Italian publishing industry, as well as accurate information on grants and translation prizes.
To make the most of professional networks, the website will connect the different participants in the publishing process (publishing houses, literary agents and translators) from Italy and beyond, employing Italian Cultural Institutes as outposts for the promotion of Italian culture.
There are three main sections to surf: Reading reports, Focuses and Interviews.
The Reading Reports section presents recently published or forthcoming books (novels, short stories, essays, poetry collections), as well as 20th century classics, recommended by BooksinItaly. We select them because we like them, and because we think that they may also be interesting for non-Italian readers. We are not suggesting books that are simply exportable, but books that in our view really deserve to be well-known. Independence of judgment is another basic condition. These books are brought to our attention by different types of readers (critics, scholars, experts), examined and discussed, then passed on to those who write the presentations. There is only one restriction: our favourable view, and a varying but constant intensity we all encountered during our reading experience.
For each book we offer a profile and a translated sample. The profiles are little challenges because, within space limits, they go beyond the book description (the story, the characters, or the thesis and arguments, the language, the style), saying how much we like the work and why.
The Focuses and Publishing Stories section highlights themes, currents, characters and fortunes of Italian books, especially abroad. They reflect the fortunes and misfortunes of texts that have managed to force their way into other cultures, and explain why they succeeded and why, maybe, they can become useful tools for the future.
The Interviews with Publishing Professionals section deals with translators, editors, publishing experts, literary agents, other publishing professionals, teachers of Italian language and literature in Italy and elsewhere – i.e. all the professions that have a connection with the world of books. Their contribution is often silent, hidden away, yet we cannot do without it. This is why, in the Interviews section, we have decided to give them a voice, since we are convinced that hearing the words of those who “make” books is the only way to truly understand publishing and make its diverse aspects better known.
That’s all. I’m really grateful to you for your patience and for listening to me. I want to thank the director of Italian Cultural Intitute and the staff for inviting and hosting me.

Thank you.


One thought on “What Is Going to Happen to Books?

  1. I like your point about the magic of the first great sentences. Quite often great books begin with great sentences, like (to add one more to the ones you have mentioned): “A screaming comes across the sky” in “Gravity’s Rainbow”. Not the noun “scream”, not the gerund “screaming”, but the verbal noun – “a screaming”. I have recently discovered Antonio Moresco, and indeed, when I read the opening sentence of “Gli esordi” I immediately felt that this book was going to be special. Needless to say, it proved to be so!


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