E-readers: musings on publishing and the word (part 3 of 3)

Let’s add a comment from a writer, notably William Gibson in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) prior to the launch of his latest book, Zero History.

William Gibson in a Sept.6, 2010 interview with Steven Kurutz for the WSJ blog, Speakeasy,

Will you mourn the loss of the physical book if eBooks become the dominant format?

It doesn’t fill me with quite the degree of horror and sorrow that it seems to fill many of my friends. For one thing, I don’t think that physical books will cease to be produced. But the ecological impact of book manufacture and traditional book marketing –- I think that should really be considered. We have this industry in which we cut down trees to make the paper that we then use enormous amounts of electricity to turn into books that weigh a great deal and are then shipped enormous distances to point-of-sale retail. Often times they are remained or returned, using double the carbon footprint. And more electricity is used to pulp them and turn them into more books. If you look at it from a purely ecological point of view, it’s crazy.

Gibson goes on to suggest that the perfect scenario would feature bookstores displaying one copy of each book being offered for sale. Prospective readers would be able to view the book and purchase their own copy through a print-on-demand system. He does not speculate about any possible role for e-books.

For a contrasting approach from writers, let’s take Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear and other members of the Mongoliad novel/project which is being written/conducted online.  I’m inferring from the publicity and written material on the Mongoliad website that these writers, artists, and others are experimenting with new business and storytelling models in the face of a rapidly changing publishing and reading environment. I’ve posted about Mongoliad here (Sept.7,2010) and here (May 31,2010).

Edward Picot at The Hyperliterature Exchange has written a substantive essay, It’s Literature Jim… but not as we know i: Publishing and the Digital Revolution, which explores this topic from the perspective of someone who’s been heavily involved in the debate for many years. From the Picot essay,

It seems we may finally be reaching the point where ebooks are going to pose a genuine challenge to print-and-paper. Amazon have just announced that Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has become the first ebook to sell more than a million copies; and also that they are now selling more copies of ebooks than books in hardcover. [emphasis mine]

As for more proof as to how much things are changing, the folks who produce the Oxford English Dictionary (the 20 volume version) have announced that the 1989 edition may have been the last print edition. From Dan Nosowitz’s article on the Fast Company website,

The Oxford English Dictionary, currently a 20 volume, 750-pound monstrosity, has been the authoritative word on the words of the English language for 126 years. The OED3, the first new edition since 1989, may also be the first to forgo print entirely, reports the AP.

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of the Oxford University Press (isn’t that the perfect name for him?), says online revenue has been so high that it is highly unlikely that the third edition of the OED will be physically printed. The full 20-volume set costs $995 at Amazon, and of course it requires supplementals regularly to account for valuable words like “bootylicious.”

Meanwhile the Shifted Librarian weighs in by comparing her Kindle experience with a print book in a September 7, 2010 posting,

I knew my desire to share con­tent was the prime dri­ver of the for­mat I was choos­ing, but I didn’t real­ize how quickly it was shift­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. I now want to share one-to-many, not one-to-one, and I just don’t have the time or resources to tran­scribe every­thing I want to share. It makes me sad to look at that long list of print books I’ve read over the past year that I likely won’t share here because I can’t copy and paste.

Jenny (The Shifted Librarian) ends her essay with this,

Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think I’ve finally crossed over to the ebook side. I’ll have to go to book­stores and the library just to touch new books for old time’s sake. Only time will tell if there’s a “fea­ture” of print books that can draw me back. My rea­sons for con­vert­ing are def­i­nitely an edge case, and I haven’t been a heavy user of print resources in libraries in quite some time, but I can’t help but won­der how this type of shift will affect libraries. I see more and more eread­ers on my com­mute every day.

I was on the bus today and was struck by how many people were reading books and newspapers but I’m not drawing any serious conclusions from my informal survey. I think the lack of e-books, tablets and their ilk may be a consequence of the Canadian market where we tend to get digital devices after they’ve been on the US market for a while and when we get them, we pay more.

Despite all the discussion about e-books and tablets, I think what it comes down to is whether or not people are going to continue reading and, if we do , whether we”ll be reading the same way. Personally, I think there’ll be less reading. After all, literacy isn’t a given and with more and more icons (e.g., signage in airports, pedestrian walk signals, your software programmes, etc.) taking the place that once was occupied by written words then, why would we need to learn to read? In the last year, I’ve seen science journal abstracts (which used to be text only) that are graphical, i.e.,  text illustrated with images.  Plus there’s been a resurgence of radio online and other audio products (rap, spoken word poets, podcasts, etc.) which hints at a greater investment in oral culture in the future.

These occurrences and others suggest to me that a massive change is underway. If you need any more proof, there’s Arthur Sulzburger Jr.’s admission at the recent International Newsroom Summit held in London England (from the Sept.8, 2010 article by Steve Huff in the New York Observer Daily Transom),

During a talk at the International Newsroom Summit held in London, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. admitted that “we will stop printing the New York Times sometime in the future,” but, said Sulzberger, that date is “TBD.”

In the foreseeable future, we might need to read (although we may find ourselves moving to a more orally-based culture) but not as extensively as before. We won’t spend quite as much time learning to read and will better use the training time to learn about such topics as physics or coding computers or something. Knowledge, scientific and otherwise, is going to be transmitted and received via many channels and I don’t believe that the written word will be as privileged as it is today.

In the meantime, there are any number of avenues for writers and readers to pursue. One that I find personally fascinating is the subculture of literary tattoos (from The Word Made Flesh [Thanks to @ruthseeley for tweeting about the website.]),

It says “It rained for four years, eleven months and two days.” in portuguese. The illustration and phrase are from “100 years of solitude” by G.G. Márquez. That book means a lot to me. This picture was takes the same day i got the tattoo, so it’s a little bloody. It was very cold that day.

Given that I live in an area known for its rainy weather, this particular tattoo was a no-brainer choice.

7 thoughts on “E-readers: musings on publishing and the word (part 3 of 3)

  1. Ruth Seeley

    NOW you see why I value Gibson more as an ideas person than as a writer – what he said about the future of bookstores was the first thing that’s made sense to me in many many years. I believe he’s wrong to some extent re the eco-footprint of pBooks vs eBooks – many publishers print exclusively on recycled paper and paper is one of the few recycled items for which there actually IS a market.

    However – the practice of stripping books and returning covers only – the returns policies booksellers have strong-armed publishers into accepting – those should have been stopped years ago. I’d like to take the ‘imagine the bookstore of the future’ scenario a little further (because basically what Gibson is describing is a commercial library). Will they be meeting places for those who love learning/reading – meeting places in which folks aren’t shushed as they are in libraries? I certainly hope so.

  2. Ruth Seeley

    Oh – and I meant to say that I was absolutely thrilled to see that the Wall Street Journal has recently announced it’s adding a book review section (http://ow.ly/2DwQF). I don’t even care if it’s part of an assault on the NY Times – it’s a GOOD thing, as Martha would say.

  3. admin

    Hi Ruth! Glad to see you here. I love walking into bookstores and seeing the books (more than one copy of each) and I will mourn their passing as I suspect that Gibson has nailed a very possible future. Your comment about the ‘commercial library’ leads me to this, what if libraries developed print-on-demand books as revenue source for themselves and challenging commercial bookstores?As for libraries shushing people, some of the news I see about libraries suggests that model is being challenged elsewhere (although I don’t see that happening in Vancouver yet). Here’s a tidbit an academic library in the Boston (MA) area: “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ said James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing and chief promoter of the bookless campus. “This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology.’’

    Instead of a library, the academy is spending nearly $500,000 to create a “learning center,’’ though that is only one of the names in contention for the new space. In place of the stacks, they are spending $42,000 on three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet and $20,000 on special laptop-friendly study carrels. Where the reference desk was, they are building a $50,000 coffee shop that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine.”
    The rest of the article is here: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/09/04/a_library_without_the_books/
    Cheers, Maryse

  4. Pingback: The WSJ, William Gibson, and book vending machines – E-books are harder to burn.

  5. BaxDoc

    hi Frogheart – the Boston library is in my opinion wrong to consider books an ‘outdated technology’. I have found some of my best sources/references when searching for a particular book on a subject (and finding it wanting) simply looking at its ‘neighbour’ books on a similar topic. Being able to check table of contents, index, the book itself gives one a much better sense of content than clicking on it on line (subject to the speed of the wifi one is using). A great deal of knowledge will be lost, which is a pity. As Jane Jacobs said, knowledge and expertise, painstakingly built up over generations, can be lost in the blink of an eye.

  6. admin

    Hi BaxDoc! I have a strong preference for print books too but I think that the people who are predicting a direct transfer of the types of information and entertainment that we derive from books (as we know them) to e-books are on the wrong track. This is an interim measure. I think we’re in the process of a switch to another paradigm (to use a trite phrase), one where reading and writing as we know them won’t have the same dominance. People will receive and transmit knowledge/information in ways that are as easily imagined by you and I as a paperback novel could be imagined by a medieval serf. As for losing information, I quite heartily concur. It’s an issue that is all too often ignored. Cheers, FH.

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