I've been reading a massive amount of blog posts and other material related to the recent BookExpo 2009 in New York; I followed the actual event via Publishers Weekly updates, because, frankly, it's the biggest book gathering in the U.S. and with all the rumbling going on around the future of publishing, I was very interested to hear what the industry thought and how they were preparing to deal with all the changes coming, one of which is the rise of the e-book. While I was reading, I came across this very interesting Q&A with author Sherman Alexie, who garnered some infamy for himself at BEA when he made a controversial remark about a woman he saw on a plane, reading from a Kindle.
Now, I have to admit, I am not an e-book reader. I've tried several times, even borrowing a Kindle from a friend; but I just don't like the sleek "feel" of the e-reader tool, nor am I enamoured of seeing a book on screen. It all feels . . . well, impersonal. I may be old-fashioned, though, like Alexie mentions in his post, I do love my computer, my iphone, my HD tv, etc. I also work on a computer all day and, as a writer, cannot imagine living without one. I've written manuscripts long-hand (yes, I'm old enough to recall a time when personal computers did not exist) so I know the drill. Your wrists ache and editing is a white-out nightmare. Computers are a writer's best friend. Unless the hard drive crashes and you forgot to back up. But I digress.
For me, a book is more than words; it's a sensory experience. I revel in all four senses whenever I read. The words are most important, yes, but the texture of the pages, the feel of the cover, the look and smell: each book has its own distinct personality, its allure, if you will. Short, tall, fat, slim, rough-cut pages, gullotine-cut, matte, varnished, embossed, smooth, new, used, collector edition, mass market, trade, hard cover -- I'm in love with the book itself and whenever I walk into a bookstore, I still get that giddy rush I've had for as long as I can remember. It's like seeing a beloved; I just can't wait to touch.
To me, books on an e-reader look all the same. Like droids. This isn't meant as a criticism or lament; honestly, I'm all for books selling in whatever formats most benefit readers - the operative word here being 'selling.' There is a comment below the Alexie Q&A that froze my blood: "In the future, no one will be able to make a living writing novels." This gave me serious pause. Of all the arguments in favor of the rapid digitalization of books, this isn't one I'd ever thought to hear, nor did I ever think to hear it declared with quite such glee. First of all, it's not as if most writers make much of a living writing novels to start with. For every James Patterson and Danielle Steel, they are thousands who sacrifice a lot to write, because they must. Most book advances are not yacht-worthy, trust me, and they're doled out in installments, so most writers never "cash in". It can take years to write a book and years to build a career, if you're lucky. And with publishing suffering the massive effects of this recession, shrinking marketing dollars means more and more of us realize we must save a portion of our advance, often up to 20%, for our own marketing, if we ever want to sell enough copies to get the next book deal.
I'm ashamed to admit, because I'm not an e-book reader I've also paid little attention to the pricing issues and formatting related to e-books. As far as formats go, it's all very complicated, and so I've just thought to avoid it by continuing to buy physical books. Pricing, however, does apparently affect me, and so I did some research, only to discover, to my surprise, that many e-books cost around $9.95! I guess the poster on the Alexie Q&A was right: at that rate, if the book does go 100% "e", none of us will be able to make a living, except the e-book publisher, that is. And when I start exploring all the pesky copyright issues coming up, I start to feel as if I need a cocktail.
Nevertheless, I'm going to pay a lot more attention from now on. As an author, it's vital to me that all writers receive decent compensation for their work and are protected as much as possible from the horrifying piracy issues that nearly gutted the music industry. I also think writers should have a say in how their work is digitalized. There's no question that the e-book is here to stay and there are as passionate defenders of it as there are opponents. I'm still muddling my way through the various arguments, because frankly I don't see why we shouldn't all be on the same page, no pun intended: we should be championing reading and joining forces to keep our book industry alive. There has to be a place for everything: I want physical book and e-books, online and physical bookstores, and all types of publishers to thrive, because I believe there is an audience for all of it, providing we, as a society and as a species, keep reading.
What do you think?