Imagine if the very first time you had s-x, after too many Passion Pops at the end-of-term fancy dress party, your partner was wearing a strap-on unicorn horn on their forehead. Psychology is such that for the rest of your life, just seeing a pretend unicorn horn would get you aroused. But a pantomime unicorn costume is not sex.

It’s the same with books.

Until recently, whenever we enjoyed the emotional thrills at the climax of a gripping novel, or the Eureka-moment of comprehending an elegant new political or scientific theory, that moment of joy was accompanied by the earthy scents of paper and ink, the sensual caress of the cover on fingertips. All those sensations too became linked psychologically.

And yet the book is not the novel, nor the theory.

In all of the discussion about the Productivity Commission and the price of books, one key point has been missed: the container (“book”) is not the content (“novel”).

I’ll stick with novels, because it seems the novelists are the most up-in-arms about this supposed threat to their livelihood because the PC wants to rearrange some details of their relationship with publishers and retailers. Diddums.

Novelists are in the business of storytelling. All that stuff about characters and narrative. But as the relevant Wikipedia entry reminds us, the novel as a literary form mostly came about because Mr Gutenberg invented a handy device for mass-producing books. Indeed, the word length of the typical novel is largely dictated by the needs of the book trade — that is, the container-sellers — not necessarily by the needs of the story.

Before printed novels, storytellers literally had to sing for their supper – or at least speak their story. Repeatedly. Mass-printed novels suddenly allowed them to tell a long, rambling story once, then sit back and collect royalties without another single creative thought ever.

The first copyright act, passed in 1709, really kicked things off. According to “It freed author and publisher from printers’ monopolies and gave them the right to negotiate for royalties and other terms … During the 18th cent … religious, philosophical, and topographical works were published in large numbers, though eventually overtaken in popularity by the novel.”

It’s a pretty good gig.

It’s so good, in fact, that novelists get just 10% of the cover price of those book-containers and can still make a living. If they’re any good.

That’s all changed.

In the digital 21st century, storytellers’ stories can now be distributed without those physical containers. As other kinds of storytellers have already discovered — those who craft their stories as music, movies or newspapers — competition is now wide open for other forms of distribution with much lower overheads.

Apple’s iTunes music store, for instance, whatever faults some may point out, can still profitably distribute a musician’s creations for 30% commission compared with the traditional music trade’s 90%.

The lower cost of entry means potentially more healthy competition from new storytellers, instead of the same tired old voices, Mr Carey. It’s also opened up the scope for new forms of storytelling too, but that’s another … story.

Yet novelists can’t see beyond some Stockholm Syndrome-like attachment to their old-fashioned container-distribution mechanisms. Isn’t this an inappropriate psychological attachment?

The Productivity Commission shouldn’t be looking at how we can tweak the details of the clunky 500-year-old book industry. It ought to be looking at how we can get rid of it entirely, and replace it with a storytelling-distribution industry that doesn’t soak up 90% of the price.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey