Friday, June 4, 2010

Ghostwriting No. 3: The End of the Book?!

While we're on the subject of Questions I Get Asked, I'd like to take this opportunity to reassure those who have expressed concern that electronic readers will put me out of business - and far worse, result in the extinction of the book as we know it. Folks, don't panic.

A number of other broadcasters in the blogosphere have noted, not without accuracy, that the rhetoric of this latest discussion of The End of the Book reminds them of another time when books were about to die a horrible, wasting death: at the dawn of Television. The parallels in events are not exact, but the rhetoric is. This new technology will cause people to lose interest and libraries will become a thing of the past! Soon children won't even know what a book looks like!

Well, as we learned from the non-death of the book after the birth of television, the introduction of a new technological medium will not, in itself, cause everyone to forsake the Book. Granted, this new gizmo actually claims to replace books - it actually has digital words on digital pages. The digital pages can be stored by the thousands in a convenient object that, in most cases, really does have a pleasantly readable screen, and the gizmos can communicate with the interwebs at high speeds for instant gratification purposes. Contained within these benefits, however, are the very factors that mean that the digital reader will not replace the book so much as provide a book service to a particular share of the market - one that I don't actually serve. And in fact, I would argue, the introduction of the gizmo will in the end save me both time and money while still letting readers read what they want when they want it. Which makes everyone happy.

What is the target market of the digital reader? People who want easily portable, quickly obtainable books to read. Not books to study, annotate, grace a personal collection, collect, or otherwise replace ownership of beloved books, just books to read. This means that the best possible use of the digital reader is to allow readers to obtain and peruse popular fiction and some nonfiction. Issues of price aside - digital books still cost two to eight times as much as paperbacks at The Haunted Bookshop - and issues of market limitations aside - not everything is available in digital format, and in fact some publishers are backpedaling due to pricing concerns - if a person wants to be able to download a bestseller and keep it on file, three things happen that make the digital book helpful to everyone involved.

The reader gets to read. The reader does not have to store all of his or her already-read books on limited shelf space at home. And I don't have to worry about stock levels of bestsellers. Seriously, one of my least favorite parts of this job is having to tell people that no, I can't pay them for their perfectly kept copy of [insert book club pick or NYT Bestseller List title here], because I have already got more perfectly kept copies than I anticipate needing in the next six months to two years. I do err on the side of having more copies when I can, but there's a limit to what I can store while still keeping my shelves as diverse as I do. If the reader got the eBook, it was right there, available when the reader wanted it, and there's no physical book that anyone has to reshelve.

So Book 2.0 actually helps all of us. The reader has the latest whichever, and less clutter around the house too. Meanwhile, I have the out-of-print ones in case the reader wants to go back to those. I get to specialize in the books I set out to have: the unusual, the beautiful, the ones people want to have and keep and treasure, the ones that make great gifts, the ones readers can't find elsewhere. Books for the personal library, the physical place where people go to be surrounded by the stories, theories, and facts that made a difference in their lives, where they can smell paper and cloth and leather and turn right to the best part out of simple familiarity with a particular copy. Books for friends, books with amazing bindings and old-fashioned woodcut illustrations, books in the margins of which you can write and not fear losing your notes, between the pages of which you can stick a syllabus or a birthday card.

Books that no company can revoke. While it may be a fluke in epublishing so far, it's true - when it turned out that a certain company didn't really own the rights to distribute digital copies of a book, that company, namely, deleted the book from every one of its digital readers, known as Kindles. Amazon gave all the former owners of the digital book refunds, but here's the thing: the book that got revoked was George Orwell's 1984. It makes you think. What if someone decided a legal case against a book or against a company's right to distribute the book and suddenly, the book became unavailable? What if someone involved in the case had an ulterior motive? Do you really want to spend $9.95 (or $14.95, or more) on something that might not be yours to keep anyway? Especially if you were taking notes in it for class?

And what if the battery runs out? I know there are lots of places and ways to charge things, but seriously, if you're taking your eReader camping and the battery dies on page 255 out of 258 in a really taut thriller, you'd be annoyed. Or what if the data got scrambled? Books aren't always printed perfectly - once in a while there's an offset page or a miscut signature or what have you - but they don't suddenly lose pages 122-197 when you're not looking, and they don't suddenly display text only in google-German, and you don't have to worry about upgrading them when a new technology comes out, either. Once you pay your $7 for a nice, large-format paperback at a used book store, it's yours. It doesn't change unless you change it. And it doesn't go out of date, like your LPs, Super-8's, cassettes, VHS, and apparently now DVD as well. Nobody can make you re-buy all your books, pay for upgrades or maintenance software, or for that matter, limit your book ownership to what is available in your eReader's format.

So no, I'm not worried.

Actually, if I had more time to read and a few hundred dollars to burn, I might get one of those gadgets myself (though not a Kindle, not after the 1984 fiasco and not after finding out that Kindle data files are incompatible with other eReaders and vice versa). It would be fun to be able to carry a minilibrary in .pdf format - anthologies of poetry and literature, a massive library of sacred works, and whichever mystery series I'm following in an object the size of a paperback, especially since I'm forever having to look up the precise words of a quote - and don't get me wrong, the find function is a beautiful thing. But I'm not about to burn my signed, first edition of Eugenides' Middlesex, my nearly bicentenary family Bible, my increasingly scribbled-in Tanakh, or the copy of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine that looks just like the one I first read, with the pretty cover art rather than the slightly dorky later version, and I don't think you would do comparable things to your collection either.

In fact, you might meet a book or two in e-space that you would like to have on your actual shelves, and I might happen to have an actual copy for you here. And maybe an older book by the same author, or an even older book on the same subject with unusual illustrations, or some books by authors you haven't read yet but that might be up your alley, since you liked this book or that one.

When you come right down to it, the digital book is great in a world of world-sized book clubs, like the NYT Book Review or the Harry Potter phenomenon or Oprah's reading list. It fills a need I've never been able to fill, a new need really, a new market sector even, the sector of 5 million copy first editions (or more!). It's also, for some uses, an improvement, and I'm all for improvements.

The needs I have filled, and that many, many other booksellers have filled before me despite dangerous things like television and the printing press and vulgate language books and literacy outside the aristocracy, are still the same: sometimes you want to hold the Book in your hand and know it's yours - and to know that the person from whom you got it took care of it, wants to know how you feel about it, wants to know what else you read, and is happy to share other books with you next time you're here.

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