The Book Is Dying: Part ∞

Paul Constant, books editor of the Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, recently printed a searing column best summed up by the one-word subject line in the email which circ-ed around our publicity department: Ouch.

The column, ostensibly a report from the frontlines of a “funereal” Book Expo America, makes several cutting points about the decline of our industry, ending with the dismal declaration:

The only way that 2009 will be considered a good year for the publishing industry is in comparison with the unprecedented disaster of 2008. People will tsk-tsk at the numbers and write endless, boring blog posts about it, which won’t be read by anyone except other people writing endless, boring blog posts about it.

Constant eventually finds some light at the end of his tunnel in—wait for it—the relatively booming success e-books have had over the last two years.

To continue:

Last year’s e-book sales increased by 68 percent over the year before, and 2009’s first-quarter e-book sales increased over 100 percent from 2008’s first-quarter e-book sales. Naturally, everybody was talking about them, and this was the first year that older booksellers and librarians weren’t loudly complaining about how they couldn’t roll e-books up and put them in their back pocket or read them in the bath or whatever absurd arguments they have been trotting out at BEAs past.

The knee-jerk reaction of readers, writers and publishers alike against e-books, Kindles and other e-readers was voiced through author Sherman Alexie’s disgust for the “elitist” (among other things) form, but Constant offers some hope that I think bears repeating:

The reason nobody is genuinely excited about e-books is nobody is thinking of revolutionizing e-books. . . Can’t we make e-books and e-readers a unique experience? . . . [And] can’t we somehow make the e-book experience a beautiful one? In an e-mail, Alexie lamented to me the potential loss of one of the great pleasures of book culture: “Have you ever fallen in love with somebody, a stranger, just because of the book they happened to be reading? And what about the recent awe of walking onto an airplane and seeing that forty or fifty people are reading the same Harry Potter novel? How many times have you talked to a stranger just because they happened to be reading a great book, an eccentric book, a book that you arrogantly thought that only you and the author and his or her mother had ever read?. . . And then again, I wonder this: Do you think the e-book makers will ever design a machine that has a screen on the back that displays the digitized cover art of the book that is being read? Will that make me happy? Don’t know.” But it sure would be something, wouldn’t it?

Despite the rest of the article, I found this positively uplifting.  E-books represent a tremendous opportunity, not a threat.  This is an exciting time to be in publishing, not a depressing one.  Things are happening right now that could change our experience as readers, but if we play it right, it could be a change for the better.  No one remembers the first portable MP3 player (it was the Rio, if you’re wondering—they sold very well in 1998); the iPod didn’t arrive on the scene for another three years.  The Kindle may not be the perfect medium for e-books, but that’s okay.  We still have time.  If e-books are in fact the way of the future—and it’s looking more and more that way—I’ll look forward to the innovations yet to come, and do my best to embrace them.

Sarah Cantor

Sarah Cantor is a publicity assistant at Vintage and Anchor Books. A huge music fan and originally from Seattle, Sarah misses liner notes and cover art but has learned to love her ipod, and is looking forward to seeing what the future has in store for books.


3 thoughts on “The Book Is Dying: Part ∞

  1. Great article – I agree that digital publishing will become a large part of the market due to customer demand. Indeed ebook sales have risen whereas hard copy have fallen. I also look forward to the technology becoming more effective and in colour! However, paper books must also continue. This is about choice not an either/or question but ‘and’.

    • Hi Jeanette,

      I agree that finding a balance of physical/digital books will be essential. Seems like the experience of reading an e-book and a physical book are so different that even someone with an e-reader may occasionally prefer a non-e-book.

      Thanks for your comment! —Sarah

  2. I talk to just as many people who embrace the Kindle as who would never use it. I’m not sure we can compare books to music. For music listeners it has always been a choice of convenience and portability (Hi-Fi Stereo, portable record players, tape players, Walkman, portable digital players) over sound quality. That’s not true with books; they have been portable, especially since the invention of the paperback. But I don’t think I know the answer either because there’s no getting around that ebooks have their good side (lots of books in a small space is the best one I can think of). They aren’t going away and we and especially booksellers have to figure out a way that they can be a product that they can get behind and sell.

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