The Sunday Salon: The Book Will Never Die

So, last week, a new report about publishing statistics came out, stating that thirty percent of net profits for publishers were from digital books in 2011—a seventeen percent increase from 2010, which seems sure to increase this year, based on this data. This hasn’t set off any new waves of “print is dead!”, but, combined with a frustrating conversation with my father on the Fourth of July, I’ve been rolling my eyes and digging my nails into my legs whenever someone laments the future of publishing and imagines a book-free world, to avoid saying anything impolite. (Or start breathing fire. Between this and “genre fiction”, it’s bound to happen eventually.) Let me put it bluntly, my friends: even in the digital revolution, the book will never die.

The digital revolution has been affecting different entertainment industries slowly. The music industry first and foremost, but that’s wound down since the days of Napster and Kazaa, resulting in a world where it looks like major music labels might not even print CDs. (Immediately after I discover classic rock. C’est l’histoire de ma vie, man!) The film industry has started to move onto solutions, as filmmakers, including my beloved Peter Jackson, try and make the filmgoing experience unique from watching it at home on your computer to get you off your butt and into the theater. (This is, I suspect, one reason studios have been so gung-ho about midnight premieres in recent years.) And now it’s the publishing industry’s turn, and, given that the precedents are the music and film industry, it is tempting to imagine that printed books might go the way of CDs.

Oh snap!

Except there’s one huge difference: a book is a book is a book.

What I mean by this is that in order to listen to music or watch a film, at home or in the theater, you require an intermediary device—not only your vinyl, your Betamax, your cassette, your VHS tape, your CD, or your DVD, but the record player, your VCR, your Walkman, or your DVD player. In stark contrast, a printed book is both content and delivery system; in fact, the technical term for said delivery system is the codex (as opposed to a scroll), and we’ve had it for, oh, eighteen centuries with little variation. If I snap a DVD in half, I don’t damage the DVD player. If I brutally maim a book, I’ve also damaged the codex. A movie on the shelf cannot play itself, but a book is what is at any moment, without any need for any other device. There’s a reason it’s survived relatively unchanged throughout the years.

Very old book  from 1752 (17)

This, of course, isn’t to say that digital publishing isn’t important. But I feel that the larger conversation about digital publishing, that one that so often panics and decries the death of the print book, forgets the simple fact that a print book is incredibly more accessible (in terms of technology used to read it, not price, although the used book market and libraries pick that slack up quite nicely) and efficient than a digital one It’s also hugely problematic in terms of access to information, which is one of my personal hot-button social justice issues. I quote Seanan McGuire, who articulates it much better than I can:

It is sometimes difficult for me to truly articulate my reaction to people saying that print is dead. I don’t want to be labeled a luddite, or anti-ebook; I love my computer, I love my smartphone, and I love the fact that I have the internet in my pocket. The existence of ebooks means that people who can’t store physical books can have more to read. It means that hard-to-find and out of print material is becoming accessible again. I means that people who have arthritis, or weak wrists, or other physical disabilities that make reading physical books difficult, can read again, without worrying about physical pain. I love that ebooks exist.

This doesn’t change the part where, every time a discussion of ebooks turns, seemingly inevitably, to “Print is dead, traditional publishing is dead, all smart authors should be bailing to the brave new electronic frontier,” what I hear, however unintentionally, is “Poor people don’t deserve to read.”

(Printed) word.

(Also, there was a format war between Betamax and VHS in the late seventies and early eighties. The more you know.)

It’s actually been a pretty poor reading week for me; I finished up The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, which was an undertaking, and I haven’t had a chance to squeeze in any more of Under Heaven. And my Jane Eyre books are getting worse. Yikes.

The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What’s your take on the future of the printed word?

10 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Book Will Never Die

  1. Your point about the intermediary device is a really good one–and it’s one I hadn’t heard before. It makes me think of all the VHS tapes I ended up getting rid of after my last VCR dies and I realized that new VCRs had gotten so hard to find and expensive that buying another one seemed pointless. I still have two tape players for my old music cassettes, but I hardly ever use them. And the handful of vinyl albums that I still own all live at my parents because I have no way to play them. It’s sad.

    Yet when it comes to books, I still have paperbacks from 20+ years ago–many of them older than those now useless VHS tapes and nearly useless audio cassettes.

    • Exactly. While the publishing industry is facing technological advances, it’s not on the same level as, say, home entertainment, because there’s no other way to watch a movie than to fetch yourself whatever new device we’re using to watch them. Publishing has a baseline.

  2. Someone will always want a print book.

    Also, the most successful books always have a print version, so it can get into more outlets that typically don’t carry a lot of books (Like Wal-Mart). E-readers simply make books easier to access, they don’t change how we read, especially with sales on all book formats on the rise.

  3. Thanks for linking to the McGuire piece. Her experience mirrors my own; I used an old typewriter to do up school reports and didn’t get access to an internet connection until I was 17. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get an e-reader back then; but libraries and old, dog-eared books were well within reach.

    • And the same holds true for a lot of people today. I return to that McGuire piece a lot, especially when I encounter people so gungho about digital publishing they forget that’s not the most accessible medium.

  4. I never understand why people act like it’s either print books or e-books and it has to be one or the other. I got an e-reader recently, but I still read my print books. I cherish them, I’d never want to lose them. You can have both!

  5. *stares at screen in horror* They’re abandoning CD’s? What will my boyfriend do with his collection? Does this mean more vinyl in our very small apartment? Excuse me while I go hide this news from him as long as possible..

    As for books, I love your remark on books not needing a secondary device to get to the content. Very smart. And I agree with Jenny, I never understand the horror some people express at ebooks as “the end of books” or how some would want to throw away books because they got an ereader (I shrink back seeing my cousins’ facebook updates about this form of “cleaning up the house”).

    I have to admit that for both music and books, I’d like something physical to hold in my hand if I’m going to pay a good amount of money for it. Digital just doesn’t feel the same. But perhaps I am old fashioned.

    • Well, they’ll still work, and the used market will continue better than cassettes, as most players will still read and accept them. Also, cars. 😉

      Your cousins sound… uh… interesting.

      Digital both feels like I haven’t paid for it (although I certainly have!) and like it’s ephemeral. I do like physical objects, especially CDs; I still feel guilty for buying the Rock of Ages soundtrack on iTunes, mostly because my local CD shop caught me (I tweeted about how I didn’t want to let them know I had such atrocious taste in music) and told me that they will order anything regardless of taste.

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