Books Are Dead. Long Live Books.

I received a big, fat check (read just enough to go crazy at Starbucks) from Amazon today for electronic essays I’d written when my book was published, now available in e-book format. There is much hand-wringing and chest-thumping, mostly by Chicken Little pundits, about the book being dead. Not since Guttenburg has there been such a shift in the publishing industry, they claim. What will we all do? 

There are plenty of things I love about books. There’s nothing like browsing through quirky, independent bookstores, chatting up the owners about good reads, finding something unexpected. Whenever I travel somewhere, if I have a few spare moments, you’ll find me in a local bookstore. I think it’s the best way to learn what that part of the world values. (In Iceland, for example, lots and lots of classics. In Italy – surprise! – lots of romance novels.) I love the weight of a book in my hand, checking out the cover and judging the contents by it. When I’m reading, I might put a sticky note to mark a great passage or check to see how much farther I have to go. 

There will be a time in the not-too-distant future when books will go the way of the 8-track, horse and buggy and Rush Limbaugh. And it will be a bummer because with each jettison of the simple, we lose a little more freedom in ways that we can’t anticipate and don’t expect. We all have examples of technology that was supposed to make our lives Better! Easier! Convenient! but in the end complicated it more. 

But I’m not a Luddite. I mean, Mark Twain loved the joy of reading by the warm glow of candlelight, but I’m not going there. Ebooks may very well be the beginning of the end of paper books, but they may also be the beginning of something else. Maybe ebooks will give the independent bookstores a way to compete. Maybe they will allow smaller publishers a chance to grow instead of being bought out by conglomerates. Maybe they will give new authors, who were otherwise shut out of the publishing game because hardcover sales didn’t “earn out,” a chance to come into their own. (Ahem)

It’s a mistake to think that publishers are trying to stop the dawn of the ebook. That’s what people who are trying to drum up stories want you to believe. The big publishers are standing in the way! That’s why you can’t get your ebook for free! That’s why this title isn’t available on ebooks! Horse hockey. Ebooks are another avenue for the house to make money. (And may eventually be the avenue.) And guess what? Publishing is, first and foremost, a business – a profit making venture. What is standing in the way? Logistics. Man power. The big publishing houses are like aircraft carriers. It takes time to change course. In many cases contracts have to be renegotiated to include e-rights (sometimes with long-dead authors’ estates). Renegotiated by people who are already swamped with their regular work. Older titles that are out of print or in old formats have to be scanned and created in PDF documents to be compatible with a variety of ereaders. This is a big cost up front for the house. But it’s being done. I know because I’m one of the people working in that trench.

All of the hullabaloo surrounding Wylie’s recent proliferation of ebooks for their top authors is one such example. Wylie is a speedboat. Wylie set up its own publishing arm with its own imprint (Odyssey Editions), negotiated e-rights with Amazon, and put the publishing world on notice. (Amazon has claimed that their ebook offerings have outsold hardcovers in the past three months.) It’s a shift in the way of thinking – we’re no longer selling a tangible product. We’re selling a service or an experience. So the big houses have to figure out a way to rebrand themselves. It doesn’t mean the houses are against ebooks. It means that while the aircraft carrier is taking time to right itself, the smaller, more nimble speedboat can get right in there and take a piece of the pie.

And if I may get on my soapbox for another moment…you should not get your ebook for free, or even nearly free. Even though there is no paper, ink or cover, there are still expenses associated with ebooks. The book still has to be edited. The author still expects a royalty. (Those nutty authors!) Someone is working behind the scenes to publicize and market the title. So if you want your ebook to be free, might I suggest you go to your local library. Thank you.

One interesting point, from a writer’s perspective, is if new media will change the way authors write. I’m not talking about emoticons (:P ) and other e-shorthand (LOL!). It’s no secret that readers’ attention-span has dwindled to a microsecond. Where’s the link? Where’s the map? Where’s the animation? And as the next generation rises up, for the kids who have never had a watch with hands or seen a film camera, printed words on a page will be about as dead as Latin. If the internet is making us read in a disjointed and distracted way, doesn’t that put pressure on writers to change the way they capture the attention of an audience?  Will there be another layer of interface between the author and reader? One discussion that always looms large in MFA programs is control of interpretation. Meaning, now that you are reading these words, my intention and your perception may be two different things. That’s the reason all of the Ph.D.s can go round and round about what Fitzgerald meant by the billboard for the eye doctor in Gatsby. (Was it the eyes of God watching them?) When finally asked Fitzgerald said that the billboard was just a billboard – nothing more and nothing less. The point being that if some editor wants to put a link in here so you can find the best red velvet cake in Brooklyn, surely this leaves me, the author, with even less control to whisk you off into the world I’ve created in my story.

I say all of this with the knowlege that should paper books go away, my job will also. But things will morph and new jobs will be created. Grand proclamations by so-called experts fill me with distaste. (Remember when Blockbuster was going to kill the movie theater?) Publishing houses and bookstores will survive, especially those that can embrace change, although they may look different than they do today.


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