As a bookseller- first with my brick and mortar store, then as an independent online seller- I’ve found that you must constantly be on the lookout for the next new thing coming around the bend. Of course that need applies to most things- especially in the world of retail. The devil in that reasoning is the impulse to react too quickly, or worse to over-react.
Books have a permanence that most objects in the retail market don’t have. The best books transcend time, resonating with the consumer decades (sometimes centuries) after their release. Authors are beloved and revered long after their life is over, sometimes reaching a legendary status they never actually achieved in life. Long before the word “classic” was applied to cars, it was used to categorize literature.
There was a time when books were not as dependent on marketing strategies as they are now. Authors like J.D Salinger, Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor could live and work in relative obscurity. They didn’t go on talk shows, do book tours and engage in social networking. They didn’t self promote. They wrote and submitted their work to their publisher, then went back to their lives, secure in the fact that agents and publicists and marketing departments would handle the public side of things. That is no longer the case. Today, the author who is not actively involved in the promotion of their work is in danger of being lost and forgotten. In some ways this new culture of author accessibility is great. From the readers point of view it gives them the feeling they are a part of their favorite writers world- an enhanced experience in the magic that author creates. Of course, it goes without saying that it also creates an added burden to th author who is working to create in a world with an ever increasing appetite for the next new thing.
Speaking of the “next new thing” – I’ll bring up the world of technology and how it has intersected with the book world of late. Up until the last decade or so, books in their traditional physical format have remained pretty much the same for centuries. The trimmings have varied, but essentially a book was, for all practical purposes, a book. A few years back that started to change. It started, not surprisingly with the global community of the internet. Authors and publishers offered online excerpts of upcoming novels, then there were those who published solely online ( these began with unknown authors trying to break into a competitive publishing world) then e-books by more established authors. Finally the publishing world at large embraced the customer fascination with immediate gratification by offering e-books in conjunction with (or sometimes in advance of) new releases by their best-selling authors. In combination with this, technology offered a more portable solution to those embracing the e-read market. No longer was the reader tied to their desktop or even laptop. Now they had Kindle, Sony Reader and the newest and possibly the most user-friendly, the iPad. There are e-reader apps for your iPhone and iPod. In short, you can carry your book collection on virtually any piece of technology you own. Great technological advance? Sure. Convienent? Absolutely! But… as with all things, there is an accompanying downside to go along with all those perks. Especially when the reaction to the possible initial effect is over-stated.
Books are, in their most basic form, a commodity. They are physical things, bought and sold, their value dependant on the whims and wants of a consumer-driven economy. Many things can determine the fluctuating value of such a commodity; the economy, a passing fad, a political shift, a technological or topical event… Due to the various types of books, some will do better at one time or another than another. This is expected and has been the case since the world of publishing was young. That each new release is vying for the attention of a vast readership is natural. The current shift is quite different. This shift addresses the nature of the commodity. The nature of books as a physical thing that can be held and treasured and passed on. The seeming shift from the physical to the virtual.
Since the intersection of books and technology began, there have been those who suggested that at some point the book in its traditional, physical form would become an arcane relic of times past- akin to chiseling on stone tablets. I find fault with this supposed eventuality for several reasons.
- E-books are most efficiently read on e-readers like those I mentioned above. As with the nature of all technology, there is a constant need to upgrade, revise and improve and a greater need to protect. New file formats may not be as adaptable to older devices, conversions may cause problems within existing files or may simply be lost due to user or device error or damage. ( Example: You leave your kindle outside with your library of perhaps 20 e-books on it. You didn’t intend to leave it out. It was an oversight or an accident. A sudden thunderstorm soaks your kindle, damaging it beyond repair. While you may be able to replace the kindle with little or no cost via warranty insurance, your book collection is lost. That’s quite an investment down the drain. On the other hand – leave a book out in the rain, and it may get a little warped and need to be dried out, but it’s still readable. I must add, in the interest of fairness, that some e-book sellers offer virtual ‘clouds” for their customers to store/backup e-book purchases so those purchases would not be lost. However, not all offer this service and the loss/replacement cost of the device still applies.
- Book lovers,by nature, love to share books with others. Show me a well-worn paper-back that has obviously passed through many hands, and I will show you a future classic.. or at the very least a well-loved book cherished by many- and isn’t that the beginning of a classic? With very few exceptions, this is not possible with e-books. Due to copyright issues, E-books cannot be re-sold or shared- legally, that is. Record companies have been dealing with piracy issues for years, trying to restrict file sharing services like Limewire and others. This will soon become the headache of the publishing world, if it hasn’t already. While the publishing world may bemoan the fact that each reader doesn’t always buy his or her own individual copy of a book, they are not really losing anything in their per unit investment. This will not exactly be the case when that idea is transferred so completely into the virtual world of file sharing. Also, this does not even take into account the donation aspect. Book lovers make a habit of passing on their collections to libraries and other charitable organizations. How on earth does one contribute an e-book?
- There are those of us who, for whatever reason, will always resist a total conversion and dependence on technology. I’m not referring to a technology fearing Luddite, but those of us who work with it on a day-to-day basis and feel the need to simply “un-plug’ and take sanctuary in the simple and uncomplicated at times. There is a undenible comfort in pulling a well-loved volume from your shelf and taking sanctuary within its pages. Yes, perhaps the words of an e-book are the same- but the experience is not. Whether you are inhibited or distracted by the nature of the device you are reading on, it can not be the same all-absorbing feel that can be found as you hold the book in your hands, turning page after page, until you reach the end- that sigh of completion as you close the cover, savoring the author’s final words.
In conclusion, I don’t dislike the advent of e-books. On the contrary, I think it gives authors- both new and established- a wonderful way to expose readers to their work. There are new readers, younger audiences that may very well lean more heavily toward e-books and if it encourages them to read when they would otherwise shun away from it, then I believe that is a fine thing. Technology is a fine thing …when it works well. That is not always the case, and we need to remember that there is a reason why we have had books in print for centuries. There is a reason why we revere fine, old volumes for their artistry and quality. They are not relics, but touchstones of our past, present and yes, future. We need to remember that tradition and quality should not become the victims of progress and advancement. Both reach their best potential when working in concert with one another.