June 20th 2011
The Book is Dead, Long Live the Book!
I have a confession to make. I’m not proud of it, but here it is: I don’t buy books anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I love books. I love the feel and smell of the paper. I love the pretty pictures on the covers. I love the sight of all my books lining the walls of my house, reminding me of great worlds, great characters, great stories. But … these days I just don’t buy that many of them.
I still buy words, of course. But I buy them on my cell phone. And “real” books — the kind they chop down trees and roll printing presses to make — have become my word delivery vehicle of last resort.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. Or, actually, I am sure. I feel … conflicted.
On the one hand, the convenience of e-books is awe-inspiring. I can fit hundreds of books onto my phone, which now also contains my calendar, internet, fax, and pretty much everything else I need to make a living writing fiction (short of full-featured word processing and an ergonomic keyboard, which I’m sure are coming soon). As a writer of research-driven science fiction and historical fantasy, I also love the convenience of having all my notes and highlights instantly available in searchable form. No need to sift through index cards so I can track down citations for the copy editor. It’s all right there in my computer: notes, quotes, page numbers, everything.
The convenience factor has even changed my relation to my once-beloved paper books. The other day I was ransacking my shelves for a book when I felt a surge of new and unfamiliar annoyance. Why was this book hiding from me in such a childish manner? Why couldn’t it just tell my cell phone where it was and end the pain for everyone? In short … why wasn’t it acting more like the real books that were already on my phone?
That was a very strange moment, and I still don’t quite know what to make of it.
I’m not sure anyone else out there knows what to make of it either. Here are two major players in the e-book revolution — each taking opposite positions about the change from paper books to e-books. On one end of the spectrum, Joe Konrath waxes poetic about the e-book as multi-media platform and social network. At the other end, Cory Doctorow argues that people still buy his books on paper even though he gives the e-files away for free because reading the old-fashioned way remains a precious refuge from the constant stimulus and interruption of life in the wired age.
And the thing is … they’re both right.
On the one hand, e-books offer both stupendous convenience and miraculous new creative possibilities. Not least, they free writers of the tyranny of printing, binding and distribution costs. They replace the tyranny of paper with the tyranny of time: a publishing paradigm in which delivering words is so cheap that the true “cost” of a book will be measured not in dollars but in attention spans.
On the other hand, as Cory points out, reading a good book on paper is richer, deeper, more visceral than reading it on a screen. And if I had to pick one word to describe what sets paper books apart, it would be — once again — time.
Time flows fast and shallow when you’re on-line. There’s the constant pull to check the email, check the news, make sure you’re not missing the latest frog-on-monkey video. Sometimes I watch myself pinging back and forth between research, email, news, and writing … and I can’t help thinking of the line in The Grapes of Wrath about how a man’s life moves in starts and jerks but a woman’s life flows deep and steady like a river. I don’t know if that’s true of men and women (and I doubt Steinbeck did either). But I do think it captures something essential about the emotional and intellectual commitment we make when we shut the computer, step out of the everyday world, and give ourselves up completely to a book.
When you read on-line it’s easy to get stuck halfway between the book world and the real world. But when you settle in with a paper book, your inner time flows as slow and deep as the story needs it to flow. A great story is its own universe, full of pleasures and insights that only reveal themselves when you let the book set the pace. Some of those rewards are sturdy enough to survive the constant interruptions of reading on-line. But others are more fragile. And that facet of the reading experience — that timeless feeling of being submerged in a dream that unfolds at its own rhythm — is what pulls me back time and again to my favorite paper books.
But on the third hand … here’s an article by Adam Penenberg about the future of reading in the digital age. As he points out, the first cars were called “horseless carriages” — and that’s pretty much what they looked like too. So the books of the future may look as different from today’s e-books as a Maserati is from a Model T. Hypertext and book-based social networks are just the beginning of an evolution that we can’t predict any more than Johannes Gutenberg could have predicted us. In fact, I’ve been talking recently to a high tech startup that’s already developing new interactive e-book features much like the ones Penenberg describes. Their work is intriguing. To me, it’s more than intriguing. It’s downright inspiring. And here’s why….
- Imagine reading a science fiction novel where made-up science terms are hyperlinked to a database that explains how the writer invented them and points you to the underlying research from which the invention was extrapolated.
- Imagine reading a book whose full annotated text is live on Goodreads so you can share your reading experience with others in a permanent moveable feast of an online reading group.
- Imagine reading the “Director’s Cut” of your favorite book: a version that includes all the earlier drafts so you can follow the editing process from first draft to publication; a version that includes extra scenes or chapters that the editor and writer both liked but that were cut simply to keep down printing and binding costs; a version that includes alternate viewpoints or additional backstory about your favorite characters, or even alternate endings.
- For that matter, imagine a book with no ending at all … a book that continues to evolve, digging deeper, uncovering new thematic resonance and hidden emotional depths, for as long as the writer is still alive to work on it.
Some of those new insights would come from the writer alone. But some of them might come from … you the reader? After all, why not? Isn’t every serious reading of a book a conversation across time between writer and reader? Why shouldn’t that conversation go both ways? And why shouldn’t it be part of the book? No reason at all, as long as writer and reader want it to be….
These things aren’t science fiction. They’re all possible — right now, with the technology we already have. The only thing standing between them and you is the fact that publishers are still treating e-books like the red-headed stepchild of paper books instead of what they really are: a completely new story delivery system with its own universe of possibilities and opportunities.
So here are some questions I’d like to ask you about e-books — and I might as well confess now that these questions are the real purpose of this post, since this is only my first, provisional attempt to grapple with what e-books mean for me as both a writer and a reader.
- Have you made the jump to e-books, or are you still on paper?
- Are there any books you’ll always want to read on paper? Which ones? And why?
- How have e-books changed the way you read?
- How have e-books changed the ways you imagine you could read?
I’ll take a stab at that last question myself, just to get the conversation started. And since I’ve bloviated more than enough for one post, I’ll make my answer concrete and personal…
Right now, as I sit in my office typing, I’m looking at a stack of paper in the bookshelf across the room from me. That stack of paper is a book. Actually, it’s three books: a big fat doorstop of a science fantasy trilogy that I finished just before I wrote my first published novel. People ask me about that trilogy all the time, because it’s the book that explains the big picture of the universe my published SF novels are all set in. But even though I know there are readers out there who would love to read it, I’ve never seriously tried to sell it. Why not? Because it’s basically my personal Lord of the Rings. It took over a decade to write. It has an invented language with its own alphabet, marginal notes and illustrations, and lengthy appendices discussing the history, literature, religions, and culture of the major characters. And, um, did I mention the illustrations?
I love all that stuff, of course. And so do lots of readers just like me — the same readers who actually learned Elvish when they were kids and can still tell you who El-ahrairah is and what silflay means. But publishers, of course, hate it with a passion which surpasseth all mortal understanding … for the simple reason that it makes books insanely expensive to produce and screws up their profit margin.
Anyway, El-ahrairah is not the point (though perhaps he should be). The point is that only a decade ago, that trilogy was unpublishable because turning it into words on paper was just not going to happen for any writer whose name couldn’t guarantee publishers an automatic spot on the New York Times Bestseller List. But now? Now anyone with a decent laptop could publish it.
And that is exciting. It’s not all that exciting to me as a writer; even if I decided to get back to that book the second I was done with the books I currently have under contract, I wouldn’t be able to start work on it another five years. And, as the Soviet Union learned to its detriment, there’s a limit to how excited anyone can really get about a five year plan. But it is exciting to me as a reader. Because here’s the thing: If I’m sitting here daydreaming about ‘cheating’ on the books that pay my mortgage in order to self-publish a book that’s too big and complicated and expensive for traditional publishing, then you can bet there are a thousand unpublished writers out there right now who are actually doing it.
And you know what? Some of their books will be great. And they’ll be great in ways that would never have survived the sales, editing, and marketing process imposed on traditionally published fiction. And when those great, new, unconventional books hit the internet … I’ll be right there ready to buy them. And so will a host of other readers just like me.
That’s what it’s all about: readers and writers dreaming together. It is the shared dream that makes a book, not the ink or electrons or paper. If you dream better on paper … well, the paper will still be there for you. After all, people still ride horses for fun, don’t they? But if we use e-books creatively, then they can let readers and writers share new dreams … dreams that might have languished on writers’ shelves in the age of paper. Will the process of transition be disruptive and painful? Yes. I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But it will also be fertile … as fertile as we allow our imaginations to make it.
And when it’s all over? There will still be writers. And there will still be readers. And we will still be dreaming the strange and consuming dream of fiction together. And that strikes me as a pretty damn good thing.
Chris Moriarty has been making a living writing science fiction and fantasy for over a decade. Chris's books include SPIN STATE, SPIN CONTROL (winner of the 2007 Philip K. Dick Award), and THE INQUISITOR'S APPRENTICE. Chris also has a regular review column with the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Visit site.
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