Sunday, May 23, 2010
In one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips, Calvin explains to Hobbes that his father is going out to purchase a hardcover book for thought-provoking material, and intending to pay in cash, so the book purchase will not end up being a commercial exploitation of his buying habits. In the last panel, Hobbes says "your father's going into the future kicking and screaming, isn't he?" Like many of Bill Watterson's sociological source materials, these elements are still very relevant today, and perhaps more so than in the early 1990s. Like any new item produced by Apple, there has been a lot of fanfare surrounding the iPad, which was first unveiled by Steve Jobs back in January. It's a tablet-shaped computer with all of the usual apps and features that are synonymous with Apple. I don't see myself owning an iPad anytime soon, and that's nothing against the product itself. So why am I writing about it? This piece isn't solely about the iPad, but about the rapidly changing book market. While I probably won't splurge on an iPad, something tells me that I may have to splurge on some form of technology in the future. This technology will come in the form of an e-book reader. Two recent articles, "The iPad Revolution" by Sue Halpern (The New York Review Of Books, June 10) and "Publish Or Perish" by Ken Auletta (The New Yorker, April 26), detail the underlying questions that come with the knowledge that e-book readers are the future. Naturally, there are indeed a lot of questions surrounding this revolution, but unlike music and the iPod, physical aesthetics are part of this equation.
One of my personal pleasures is sitting on my couch, reading and note-taking, with a cup or coffee or a drink within reach. Whether the device in question is an iPad, a Nook, a Kobo, or a Kindle, the idea of reading with a machine doesn't sit quite right with me, despite the technology that makes the screens look like actual pages. I'm not at all claiming that this is a unique concern. The fact that the producers of these products have made strides to replicate the psychological qualities of reading means that these issues have been problematic and voiced. However, Halpern sums up these feelings quite well, in stern, yet eloquent terms. The magic of having thousands of songs in your pocket is a much different form than having hundreds of books.
"You don't need to be a technophobe or a Luddite to dismiss out of hand the idea of reading on a machine. Maybe it is muscle memory, but there is something deeply satisfying about a 'real' book, a book made of pages bound between hard or soft covers, into which you can slip a bookmark, whose pages you can fan, whose binding you can crack and fold as you move from beginning to end. E-books, by contrast, whatever platform delivers them, are ephemeral. Yes, you can carry thousands of them in your pocket, but what will you have to show for it? What will fill your bookshelves (Halpern 22)?"
In both articles, there's a very distressing quote by Steve Jobs, originally cited in The New York Times, about the state of reading and publishing. Jobs has said "It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore. Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year." Granted, my personal demographic of professional contacts and friends is inflated and includes a lot of readers; if I were to guess, among the people I know, the median of books read in a year would be between ten and twenty-five. However, if Jobs is right, this is a disturbing trend. Book sales have fallen recently, and the hope is that digital books will boost sales once the companies and publishers agree on prices, distribution, and collaboration. This is somewhat comforting, especially with the memory of record labels fighting a losing battle against downloading. Technology is the future, and publishers need to adapt. But, as I mentioned before, the aesthetics of reading add new twists to that rational understanding. Auletta presents a concise, important breakdown of where money goes when one purchases a book.
"Traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores, with the wholesale price for hardcovers set at fifty per cent of the cover price. Authors are paid royalties at a rate of about fifteen per cent of the cover price. On a twenty-six dollar book, the publisher receives thirteen dollars, out of which it pays all the costs of making the book. The author gets $3.90 in royalties. Bookstores return about forty per cent of the hardcovers they buy; this accounts for $5.20 per book. Another $3 goes to overhead costs and the price of producing and shipping the book--leaving, in the best case, about a dollar of profit per book (Auletta 25)."
Naturally, there's the issue of how much a book should cost when there's no physical book to be held. Even with actual books, there was a lot of backlash during the last holiday season when certain online retailers were attempting to sell new hardcovers for $9.99. I believe it was John Grisham who summed it up best when he stated that if readers weren't willing to pay more for established authors, then naturally they wouldn't shell out for new and unproven writers, artists who are hurt the most when books aren't selling. Naturally, there is a trickle-down effect. Unknown writers might struggle, and warehouse and factory employees would find themselves out of a job if all books went solely digital. In today's environmentally conscious world, the idea of saving paper and trees is a natural plus for e-books; but as a friend of mine pointed out, the energy used to produce digital readers and maintain the software could pose its own ecological problems.
Today's world is about choice, for better or for worse (I'd go for worse, but a.) that would lead to another essay, and b.) I don't want to come across as needlessly misanthropic). The availability of digital books, a mouse-click away is no different from having an Amazon account and a half hour to kill.
"Stephen Riggio, the CEO of Barnes and Noble, pointed out that publishing was still big business; at $30 billion a year, it was bigger than both the music and film industries. He also observed that readers wanted books on demand, which is what the Nook--with its access to the Barnes and Noble catalog, as well as to the more than one million scanned public domain books already on offer through various online sites, and, most likely, to the millions of books promised by the pending Google Books settlement as well--would give them (Halpern 22)."
What scares me the most is the idea that books are in need of more "bells and whistles." In an age of constant, streaming information and entertainment, the existence of text that is complex only in its information is important. Yes, people don't read books that much anymore, but the people who do are not in need of "improvements" to books themselves. Digital readers are fine by themselves. I'll gladly make myself look snobby by vehemently opposing the views of Amazon's Russ Grandinetti and Simon & Schuster's David Rosenthal.
"In Grandinetti's view, book publishers--like executives in other media--are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking that they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. To thrive, he believes, publishers have to reimagine the book as multimedia entertainment. David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says that his company is racing 'to embed audio and video and other value-added features in e-books. It could be an author discussing his book, or a clip from a movie that touches on the book's topic' (Auletta 29)."
I love watching author interviews online. I love stumbling upon an idea in a book and being compelled to research it. However, I resist the idea of having other media intrude in my books. Perhaps it's a reality of American attention spans, but books can adapt to new technologies but remain books at heart. Once I have one at my disposal, I'll learn to appreciate the nuances of a digital reader. But text should not be needlessly "complimented." The internet has made information much more available. The apparent minority of readers can be trusted to seek out the information that they need. I have the feeling that books will eventually go the route of vinyl albums and compact discs: still readily available, perhaps a niche market, but a compliment to the digital revolution. For the time being, I'm going to stick to turning pages, not pushing buttons.
Auletta, Ken. "Publish Or Perish." The New Yorker, April 26.
Halpern, Sue. "The iPad Revolution." The New York Review Of Books, June 10.