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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Future of Publishing (or Why I Hate eBooks)

Ecclesiastes 3:1 "There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under heaven."

(Photo courtesy of's homepage)

Today I had a rousing intellectual discussion about the future of the publishing industry in light of ebooks, author self-promotion, and other technology-fueled changes in the world of words. I came away feeling...
  • depressed, mostly because I am an old-school purist who thinks technology should be considered guilty until proven innocent, and that ebooks are one of the least appealing inventions of all time (just based on my personal hatred for anything that threatens the printed book)
  • excited, because it's fun to discuss the future, even if it's full of "I don't know"s and "what if"s and other scary questions
  • privileged, because how many people get to dialogue with other people about something they really care about, something they are passionately invested in, both as a career and as a lifelong obsession?
Other interesting parts of the (lengthy but awesome) conversation included:

Borders' bankruptcy - In case you haven't heard, Borders filed today for chapter 11. Soon this once-mammoth corporation will close one-third of its physical bookstores and close up shop indefinitely in order to "restructure" its way back to (hopefully) bare survival in a savage jungle of an industry. It's sad, because 1) I always liked Borders better than Barnes & Noble, 2) Amazon will probably put them both out of business in 15-20 years anyway, and 3) I love books and hate to see any book-based business fail... even if they shot themselves in the foot by not keeping up with the latest trends.

Author self-promotion - Authors are now expected not only to write, but to market themselves and their products, to be endlessly, tirelessly "loud and proud" about their work. It might go without saying (but I'll say it anyway because, well, I'm good at stating the obvious) that this dichotomy rubs most authors the wrong way. Most (not all, but most) writers are not energized by interacting with people but by extended periods of solitude, time to think and sort out their ideas and let the creative juices flow uninterrupted. Do you know how much energy it must take to blog (tell me about it) and tweet and e-blast and book-sign your way to financial success as a writer? Not being a published author, I couldn't answer that, but I'm sure it takes an awful lot of energy... valuable, precious energy that would have gone toward actual writing but instead will be redirected toward telling the world how great you and your writing is (and why everybody and their dog should own a hardcover copy of your latest book—preorder on Amazon now!).

Am I the only one who sees the fundamental problem with this newfangled insistence of publishers that their authors also serve as their own marketers? Frankly, it's insane. Creative types, if you want to call them that, are usually really good at being creative because they tap into something other people don't... because instead of watching TV or going to basketball games or wasting time on Facebook, they sit in a quiet room all alone and organize and compose and ponder and write out all the thoughts and stories strewn about their brains like starry dots in a constellation. How can you expect someone to do all that and then also self-promote the heck out of their authorial "brand"?

Well, it's obvious where I stand on this issue, so we'll leave it at that.

As for the whole Borders fiasco and the future of the publishing/book retail industry as a whole, whatever happens I just hope we don't lose sight of where we have come from, that we continue to read (whether on a screen or in a dusty, dog-earred paperback) the classics... which are classics for a good reason.

To close, a short poem (with apologies to Dr. Seuss):

I do not like these new ebooks
I do not like Kindles or Nooks
I do not like to read on screen
I do not like that glossy sheen
Digital books I will not read
Pulp and ink are all I need


  1. My parents and I were just talking about the future of publishing in relation to the popularity of e-books. I, like you, prefer to hold an actual book made of paper in my hands. And the smell of plastic is nothing compared to the smell of paper when picking up a new book.

    The bankruptcy of Borders was not a surprise, but I'm still saddened by the announcement. I'm kind of motivated to start going there at least to read magazines while sipping coffee. Otherwise, I'm too cheap to actually buy books from them. :-p

    You bring up a very good point about authors' promoting their books. It's one thing to greet your many readers at a book signing; can you imagine how traumatic it is to appear on a national TV show for one who's used to sitting in a room all by himself or herself? Yikes! I wonder if it's more difficult for fiction authors than nonfiction authors. It seems like a lot of nonfiction is written by someone who has a public-speaking platform. Now that I think about it, it's usually nonfiction authors you see on national TV. Hmmm...

  2. Excellent poem!

    And if my tweet about that ebook new download smell provoked this post, infinite apologies.

  3. I love books, but I also love e-books. In fact, I'm to the point now where I almost prefer e-books if I have the option (and don't have to pay--that's key). I like being able to change the font size of e-books. I like that, on my Nook, The Little Prince and Bleak House have the same heft. I like that I can still use the library, that I have an all-access pass to the public domain, and that I have most of the works of G.K. Chesterton as well as most of the great works of the last few centuries at my fingertips.

    I thought I would miss the smell of actual pages, and I do sometimes, but there are so many benefits to reading on an electronic device. And, depending on the device, it really is almost like reading print on a page (i.e., no eye strain). If you get a dedicated reader (Nook, Kobo, Kindle), the experience is much the same. Nook Color and iPad would be terrible for extended reading, and that's why you won't find me with one. But I heartily recommend Nook especially (since it's more open and can check out library books).

  4. @Erin—Yeah, I'm also too cheap to buy many books from Borders. Half Price Books is my go-to place for that. And you're right about the nonfiction authors always being the ones on TV! Very perceptive. I never thought about it, but when was the last time you saw a novelist on Oprah?

    @David—Glad you liked the poem. And just so we're clear, ebooks are not evil, per se. They just don't appeal to me (self-professed technophobe, er, with a blog).

    @Jonathan—Fair enough. It does make sense to have a reader if you'll be traveling (and can't take the collected works of Chesterton in your carry-on) or otherwise prefer to use it as an archive of sorts. (I use my iPod in much the same way, though I still prefer buying CDs to digital files on iTunes.) I suppose I also love books' visual, tactile appeal and just can't bring myself to sacrifice the tangible experience for the convenience. But to each his own. I'm actually really glad there are book people like you reading ebooks. It gives me hope that literacy and technology can coexist peacefully.