I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The book lives on

When I finally bought an iPad, I was looking forward to reading a lot of books that were no longer in print.  I warmed at the idea that one day I could take with me all the books I had ever read.

But then I discovered that the iPad was too heavy for comfort when reading in bed, where I do a non-negligible part of my reading.  And holding it by the edge meant that sometimes I would unintentionally flip a page.  Furthermore, sometimes I wanted to reflect on what I had just read or re-read a paragraph, and that resulted in a dimming of the display.  As Captain Picard said in the Star Trek episode Yesterday's Enterprise (one of my favourite), Not good enough, dammit, not good enough!

And yet, as Sherman Young convincingly affirms in his book The book is dead, the only way for the book to survive is if book lovers embrace eBooks.

Young's book was published in 2007, three years before the iPad became available (2010-04-03 in the USA).  Therefore, Young's vision of a heavenly library was still an act of faith. He wrote (p 151/152, his Italics):

We can imagine the heavenly library as the world's collection of books available in an instant. It will be searchable, downloadable, readable with recommendations and suggestions from other readers, authors and critics; and a place to contribute to discussions about the book in question. Imagine that it will allow access to titles that might not be feasible in print (one in which all the Vogel [my linking] shortlisters are published, not just the winner); where the new Patrick Whites get to hang out their talent for as many books as is required to find their voice. Imagine a catalogue of niches, made possible and searchable via electronic delivery; enabling a different set of publishing economics and priorities.

Does it sound familiar?  We are definitely getting there.  No more trees felled; no more money spent on printing books and shipping them around the world; no more books out of print; no more well-written books full of ideas that remain unpublished because they are systematically rejected.

Sherman points out that the term book has come to identify both a physical object consisting of bound printed pages and its conceptual content of information and ideas.  In his opinion, and I agree with him, we should distinguish between the two meanings.

There are many objects like telephone books, dictionaries, cookbooks, travel books, puzzle books, etc. that, although they consist of bounded printed pages, do not communicate any ideas, do not make the readers reflect on what they are reading, and do not contribute to a book culture that involves exchanging opinions and experiences with others.  Such objects effectively are non-books.

Other borderline non-books are most of those written by celebrities, regardless of whether they are performers (actors, sportspeople, politicians, etc.) or individuals who gained fame or notoriety by executing some news-making acts, like circumnavigating the world solo or killing somebody.

From a practical point of view, what the non-books have in common is that they are designed to make quick money for the publishers.  Publishers used to invest in promising authors and then nurture them to success, but today's big publishers (and most of the small publishers as well) are an industry like any other.  It doesn't make any difference to them that they are selling books instead of vacuum cleaners.  What counts is that they can show good quarterly figures.  In a sense, we cannot even blame them, because the whole society is fixed on making a quick buck.

Fortunately, the Internet and electronic publishing give us a new way of sustaining a book culture (and culture in general).  Those with ideas can express them and communicate them to like-minded people living anywhere in the world.

According to Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, p 127), "the future of business is selling less of more".  What he means in practical terms is that businesses can make more money by selling few instances of many items than by selling lots of instances of few items.  In his book, published in 2006, Anderson concentrated on the music industry, but what he wrote applies to eBooks as well.

To understand how this works, consider this: if 10 titles sell in one year 1,000,000 copies, they result in the sale of 10 million books; if, at the same time, 1,000,000 titles sell 50 copies each, they result in the sale of five time as many books as the blockbusters (these figures, which I have adapted from those reported by Anderson, are not far from the real figures for 2004).  According to the Wikipedia page on the long tail, "a large proportion of Amazon.com's book sales come from obscure books that [are] not available from brick-and-mortar stores".

What this means is that your ideas can reach their audience.  Social media and web sites like goodreads.com make possible a digital version of the book culture that used to revolve around printed books.

I just have to get used to reading eBooks.  Perhaps the mini-iPad or the iPad-air will be good enough.  For now, I have a paper-white Kindle and will try to get along with it!


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