A couple months ago, news sources reported that for the first time ever monthly sales figures for electronic books (or ebooks) had outpaced sales of hardbacks. Of course, most books are sold in paperback and sales of these continue to far surpass both ebooks and hardbacks. At least for the moment, but some say that ebooks beating hardbacks signals once and for all that the future of reading is ultimately digital. This reversal had been building for some time so it didn’t come as a surprise, but the significance of the change stimulated a lot of discussion among publishers and retailers, who for the most part had already been heatedly discussing this and related topics for quite some time.
This tipping-point shift in the media market caused much less excitement among those more intimately (and perhaps somewhat less fiscally) involved with the stuff being bought and sold. That is to say, readers and writers. Part of that lack of excitement stems from the fact we’ve been hearing about the death of the paperback for so long that we’ve become jaded to the idea and don’t really take it very seriously anymore, but part of the writerly and readerly disinterest in the changing media would seem to come from the underlying truth that we don’t really care that much about the mechanics of delivery. Writers gotta write. Readers gotta read. Whether that business happens via paper or an electronic screen is ultimately irrelevant.
Let’s think about this for a moment. For now, it would seem that most of us write electronically but still read physical books.
As a writer, although I was born in the dark ages before the advent of the personal computer, I’ve still done the majority of my writing on an electronic device of some sort or other for most of my life. At first, yes, it was weird getting used to the idea that my stories existed first as virtual files on the 40MB hard drive of my Macintosh rather than as sheets of paper stacking up next to my old Smith-Corona manual typewriter. But I got used to this fairly quickly. And I learned to appreciate – indeed, to rely upon – the absolute ease with which I could edit drafts in all sorts of large and small ways. Want to rewrite the opening paragraph without having to retype the whole story? Done. Want to change the name of a character everywhere it appears? Done. Want to share a draft of something with your writing group without having to go to a copy shop and pay for a dozen copies? Done and done. I know we take these things for granted these days, but I’m here to tell you, it wasn’t always so. And there were a lot of annoying missteps along the way. I’ve lost lots of my earlier stories because of abandoned technology. How could I ever find a machine capable of reading my old floppy discs? I can’t – those drafts are gone forever. Ironically, my stories from the Smith-Corona days are the ones I still have in a desk drawer. It’s the ones from the early days of word processing that are lost. Thing is, the conveniences are great, but they came at a price and we shouldn’t forget that. Going electronic puts us at the mercy of the medium and subject to the whims of the corporate giants selling us hardware and software. That said, most of the writer-editor interaction seems to take place electronically these days. Most publishers want things emailed to them as an attachment. It’s easier all the way around. And that means most writers compose on the computer rather than any other way – it saves time and headache. Ultimately, I don’t know hardly anybody who writes in longhand anymore.
By the same token, I still don’t know hardly anybody who does more than a very small amount of their reading on an e-reader. Personally, I don’t own one yet. In fact, four out of the five members of Portland Mayhem Company still read books made out of paper and ink. That’s not to say I won’t someday switch over to an e-reader, but I’m not there yet. And it’s not that I’m a luddite. Far from it, but I’ve shifted to a place where I don’t want to be an early adopter anymore. The growing pains along the way are too great. I can’t bear the thought of taking the plunge and expanding my personal library into the electronic realm only to have to re-purchase the same works four and five times over the next couple decades while the media continues to evolve. Seriously, I have music on my iPod now that I’ve purchased four times – first on vinyl, then on cassette tape, then on CD, and finally in a purely digital format. I’m not doing this with my books. Not until they solve some of the remaining issues with e-readers.
First off, I don’t want a device that limits me to buying all my books from a single source. So the Kindle is out. Amazon is fine for some things, like tracking down rare and out-of-print books, but I won’t buy newer titles from them because I prefer to support small, independent booksellers.
Secondly, I want a device that supports multiple reading formats and allows me to borrow books from public and academic libraries. I’d also like to be able to exchange books with friends.
Thirdly, I need to be able to mark up the books I’m reading, making marginal notes, underlining key passages, marking pages, and copying excerpts for quotation into word processing documents.
So, for me, the e-readers haven’t arrived yet. Old fashioned paper-and-ink books are still better and more convenient for the type of reading I do. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever change, it just means that I can’t make the transition until I’m completely satisfied I’ll gain more than I lose. Yes, I know some houses are shifting entirely to electronic publishing, but so far I haven’t run across any titles I need to read that I can’t still obtain in hard copy. We can talk again when that changes. For now I’m sticking with paper and ink.