“Non-fiction? Who needs it?”

29 05 2008

Hubber Peter Macinnis has kindly allowed us to repost:

“Another damned, thick, square, book . . . always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?” Tradition has it that the Duke of Gloucester or some other minor 18th century Royal showed his insight into the writing process with those words. His Grace had no need of, or want for, such books. Anybody who has read a book feels qualified to express opinions about books.


Sadly, some of those people want to do away with books. The latest fad is replacing all the non-fiction books in a library with computers loaded to the gills with Internet access. “Books are old-fashioned. School libraries don’t need non-fiction books,” they bleat. They are wrong.


School libraries will continue to need non-fiction books for some time to come, and when they don’t need non-fiction books, they will need works in some other format that are produced with the same care and commitment that books receive today. You cannot replace a resource with a nothing, and a palimpsest is no substitute for a considered and crafted work.


I write non-fiction, so perhaps I might be accused of bias, but I also understand the publishing industry. According to a recent count by the Educational Lending Rights folk, 14,000 books that I wrote or part-wrote were to be found in Australian school libraries at the end of the last financial year. That involves 18 titles and five publishers — but I also own a web page that pulls half a million visits a year, I spent six years writing for an online encyclopaedia, and I contribute to Wikipedia.


So I am no Luddite when I say that we need non-fiction books, but I understand what is involved in developing both the new and the old media. The whiz-kids who want to bustle in and do an “out with the old, in with the new” job simply do not have those insights. To all intents and purposes, they are functionally illiterate in precisely those areas where they wish to set the agenda, where they wish to be hailed as world leaders of shining excellence.


I also understand the education industry, from the classroom perspective, as a coordinator and as a bureaucrat. Along the way, I noticed how people on the make like to destroy, in the hope of getting the credit for the imposing pile of pieces that is left over. I have seen empire-builders and back-stabbers, and observed them at close range, but always just outside of stab-range. I distrust all grand plans that begin with the demolition of something that works.


Sensible folk can see good things coming with the web and new media, but the more subtle among us wish to see an orderly progression, so that if wondrous new media emerge, they can sit alongside the old media, and replace them gradually. It is too soon to march in and throw out.


It is clear that the simpletons who think “the Web” will replace books have simply no idea of what is involved, from research, to drafting, to writing, to revising, to editing, to designing, to marketing.  It all takes time, careful planning and money. If people think a web page knocked up in five minutes can compete, it may be wise of them to think again.


Those who would jettison all non-fiction books have committed the same error as those who, having taught somebody to drive, think they know all about teaching. Or those, who having written an account of a basketball match for the local paper feel that they are journalists. They aren’t.


It’s like saying “I cured a cold with lemon-juice and rum last week — this medicine stuff is a doddle. Nurse! Send in my next brain surgery patient!” Who among us would fall for that? Our reaction and disdain should be the same when people suggest that web pages created by amateurs can replace print pages which have come from seasoned professionals.


Writing a book is not the same as writing a shopping list, and web pages are far closer to the shopping list end of the writer’s continuum. There are ideas and concepts that cannot be usefully expressed as bullet points, but only those who have tried can know this within them.


Making a book, a detailed package of information, is mostly about money. When I wrote a history of rockets in 2002, I needed to get to the Smithsonian Aerospace museum and the Library of Congress in Washington DC, to Baltimore to see Fort McHenry, which was attacked with rockets in 1814, to Worcester Massachusetts to read pioneer rocket scientist Robert Goddard’s personal papers, to a rocket plant in California to see where they fill solid boosters and chat to rocket scientists, then to Woomera, for the launching of the University of Queensland’s Hyshot, the world’s first scramjet.


I funded most of the travel out of my advance from the publisher, though a contract from the ABC for a report (on their web site!) funded the Woomera trip. Web page writers of the future probably won’t be able to draw on funds like that, because there is no viable funding model, no plan for the writers to be rewarded. Keep in mind that the greatest attraction of “the Web” to the new visionaries is that it is seen to be free.


The high cost of textbooks is cited by many of these self-anointed experts, who seem to think the cost is all in the paper. Having negotiated improved paper on a past project, I have an insider’s insight into the realities, and paper is not a big cost: getting stuff to put on paper is what costs.


The big-ticket items are in the production. A good author can expect around 50 cents a word for researched, polished, finished product if they are paid a fee for writing something. Then there is editing, proofing, illustrating, typesetting, design, advertising, publicity and sales.


We hear that information wants to be free. Oddly enough, we don’t hear that beer wants to be free, or even that petrol wants to be lower-priced, we only hear that information wants to be free. There is just one snag: information providers want to be paid.


Any competent writer producing an electronic form of a textbook is entitled to expect similar payment levels for a similar effort, and the same support effort will be needed to get the “book” ready to be released. Result: the good stuff will never be free.


Funding issues will ensure that sustained narratives and detailed sequences of instruction will still go into books, or not be written at all. Make no mistake: there is an art, a science and a craft involved, and the makers of the book need to pour all three into every book, one way or another. One or two of those dashed-off web pages may pass muster, but the vast majority will be no more than amateur drivel.


Some of the remainder will be professional drivel, and in the end, only a few of the pages and web sites will be effective replacements for what can now been found in books. Most of these are not available, and we face many years of the plaintive chorus “Are they there, yet?”.


Web sites generally fail to deliver a sustained narrative or a sequence of instruction, but that does not mean the web and new digital media have no role. I fully expect that in the future, the web and new digital media will allow publication of the previously unpublishable. I also anticipate that a work may be released simultaneously in more than one medium, or sequentially in several media.


Reference material on, say, “Goldfish of the Gobi Desert” will be available as PDFs for either print-on-demand, or to be read on some clever interface, but the histories-of-things that I write, known in the trade as narrative non-fiction, do not fit there. They are not created as reference works.


There is a place and a need for digital materials, indeed, two of my published books are now available in digital versions, which serves to satisfy a small but steady demand from specialists and enthusiasts who do, indeed, use them mainly as references. One of them, and a more recent work as well, have been turned into “talking books”. Yet the digital and audio versions would not be saleable if they had not been through a complex process of editing and production.


Libraries need room NOW for digital storage, and the need will grow, but for the time being, they would be most unwise to dispense with their bookshelves, or their books.


Now I’m off to find a web page on DIY surgery so I can lop off my legs. I mean, I’ve trimmed my toenails before, so I know where to start, and scaling-up can’t be hard. In this modern age of the motor car, legless people need less storage space, and I can drive to where I want to be. Let’s get with the future!


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Peter Macinnis is the author of the digital work “Self-decapitation For Fun and Profit: Better ways to Avoid the Poll Tax”, available from all good snake-oil retailers.



  _–|    Peter Macinnis       petermacinnis@ozemail.com.au

 /       Principal, Seurat School of Train Spotting,

 .–._*   Formation Karaoke Diving Costumes for hire.

      v    http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/index.htm