At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Future of Books...Either-Or or Both-And?

I recall attending a teacher in-service event a few years back, one of those shindigs that attracted faculty from independent schools across the greater St. Louis area. Normally, I tend to think I'm an above-average listener, but on this day I was grabbing snippets here and there from our plenary speaker. Maybe it was the discomfort of the hard chairs. Who knows. Lots was getting put out there, but that day I was a bear of very little attention span. Until the speaker said something that cut through my fog.

She declared, in so many words, "I really think eventually books as we know them will become obsolete."

My mental response? To quote Family Guy's Stewie Griffin: "What the deuce?"

At that point, it seemed a little radical. Then again, it was before I had begun writing in earnest and didn't have a broader sense of the picture. The landscape has radically shifted.

The curmudgeonly "Sage of Baltimore", H.L. Mencken once said, "Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you'll hit a fundamentalist just about anywhere in America." Nowadays, one could say, "Throw a dart aimlessly in (just about any city) and chances are you'll skewer someone holding a Nook, Kindle, or iPad."

Are e-readers and e-books here to stay? Are traditional bound books on the way out? Is the digital age the better option?

Oh for heaven's sake. It depends on the data you're combing, but personally I think that the either-or option is premature.

First of all, one could question if traditional books are on the down-grade. Barnes and Noble is admitting their strategic plan may have overplayed its hand. Banking on a glut of e-reader and digital book sales, B&N has been surprised that "physical book sales will have a longer life expectancy than previously anticipated" and this is upsetting the apple cart, since their business models were initially shaped on not selling printed books. Amazon is finding similar trends, even though they believed--like that plenary speaker years ago--the printed book's ship had sailed past the horizon.

Two thoughts from yours truly:
1- Well, duh! The history of printed reading material can arguably run back to the clay tablets of Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C. And people think that after over 5000 years of traditional reading (tablets, scrolls, codex, manuscripts, bound volumes), that printed books will just die out and go quietly into the night? Please!
2- Taking any business model at face value from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or any communications giant is a little presumptuous, to be honest. The jury could be out on the relative strength of traditionally bound books vis a vis digital reading. Companies (especially American companies) tend to focus so much on the bottom line of the previous and next quarter that they ignore larger trends. We may need to see how this all plays out. However, as mentioned before, it's unlikely technology will automatically overturn the apple cart of evolution of human reading praxis. We'll always have among us those who like to physically fill their built-in bookshelves, whether because they like traditional books or to show off their ego.

On the digital side, I do agree there is little slowing it down. Some despair of this, but from a writer's point of view, the digital option gives more latitude to writers than in years past, as Andy Straka wisely ascertains. Straka is the author of the Frank Pavlicek private investigator series, as well as a couple of suspense thrillers on the side. And the occasional literary setting in Charlottesville, Virginia, is particularly heartwarming, if you ask me! Anyhow, in a letter written to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, Straka points out that the digital market speeds up the process to publication, putting more good writers into print rather than allowing them to die on the vine trying to get in with the largest traditional publishers who will place restrictive terms on them. Royalties are generally higher if going digital, writers have more control over their rights. Plus, connecting more directly with their readers, authors can market themselves more effectively. This is forcing the publishing market to change things around and offer possibilities to new and independent writers, opening doors that were not there before.

All this is on top of the good the digital market has already wrought. I know for a fact that since we bought our Kindle Fire, I've read more books and read them at a faster rate than before.

So in the end, it's pretty clear the future of books will not be an either-or scenario in which the ascendancy of the digital wipes printed copies off the face of the earth. We are living in a both-and world. And that's good news for all sides of the equation, both as readers and writers.

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