Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Jenn & Emily: The Future of the Book

We duke it out, Lucha Libre style, over the future of the book. This will probably become a series of posts, so stay tuned!
  • Emily's take: The Book is NOT Dead, Especially if Digital = Medium, not Format


I've been agitating since early this year for the death of the book. Well, ok, not really. Actually, what happened is this: the giant stack of ARCs behind my desk fell on me. Again. Which (possibly because of the ensuing brain damage) led me to believe that digital ARCs were the answer to all of our problems. Instant distribution! No shipping costs! Save some trees! And most importantly, no giant stacks to fall on bookseller heads.

Which then begged the question, how would I read them? I don't know about you, but reading on a laptop or a computer is one of the things I am least interested in in life, a close second to anchovies on pizza. But alas, I'm a poor bookseller, and cannot afford spiffy techno-thingies that cost several hundred dollars and don't even have a WiFi connection. So my next brain child (see brain damage above) was that publishers should buy booksellers eReaders (not Kindles, but really anything else would be fine). It would probably save them money in the long run (Instant distribution! No shipping costs! Save some trees!) and if a publisher would actually buy me one, I'd promise to read their books first. Or something like that.

Turns out publishers don't feel like buying booksellers eReaders. Who'd'a thunkit? It also turned out a lot of publishers don't want to send me digiARCs, for fear that I will put them on the Internet and then the author will feel violated and never write again and no one will buy the book and it will have been all my fault, lions and tigers and bears oh my! Or at least that's my guess as to why they don't want to send digiARCs. And yeah, I can kind of understand. But wait, what happened to my brilliant (brain-damage-induced) plan?

So my solution: I bought myself an iPod Touch (WiFi! Email! Fun games! No monthly service fee! Oh yeah, and it can be an eReader too!) and signed up for NetGalley (which has an amazing number of good books on it, yours for the asking). Hey presto! I was reading digiARCs on my very own eReader. Is the experience all its cracked up to be? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes. There are some snafus in actually getting the ARCs onto the iPod, but once they're there, the reading experience is great. So far, it matches actual books for visibility (you can see the screen in direct sunlight quite clearly, schockingly enough) and you can carry around, well, a bajillion times more ARCs with you than if they were regular ARCs. And then, after I've emailed my review in to the publisher, I can make a monkey pop balloons with darts.

The moral of the story? DigiARCs won't fall on your head and are fun to read, an iPod Touch is a great investment, and pizza is better without anchovies.

The Book is NOT Dead, Especially if Digital = Medium, not Format - Emily Pullen, Skylight Books (for her full review of Asterios Polyp, visit the Skylight Blog)

[After reading Asterios Polyp,] I realized that this kind of pleasure will never be had with a Kindle, a Sony Reader, or any other sort of digital reading device. Technologically, they can't do it, and even if they could do color, it wouldn't be the same. This is why I don't fear the death of the book. And this is why I think that publishers who are going gaga over digitizing everything are taking the wrong approach. I think digitizing is useful, but it shouldn't supersede The Book. Nick Harkaway posted some very interesting thoughts about this on his (fabulously designed) blog this week.

Bear with me here. I think that it is absolutely right that we talk about comics as a medium, as Scott McCloud and others have taught us to. But why aren't we thinking about digital in the same way, as a medium, rather than a format? Reading Asterios Polyp reminded me that the graphic medium can accomplish things in a novel that the written word cannot. Similarly, I'm sure that the digital medium could accomplish things in a novel that graphics or the written word could not, and THAT is where its innovation and interest lies for me. Not in its ability to replicate exactly what I might get in a book. And yet, that seems to be what developers of devices and digital formats are striving for at this point. They have yet to examine its possibilities as a medium.

To me, a Kindle or an eReader is a content storage device, not a book. It is mighty convenient for people who travel a lot or who have too many books or who deal in manuscripts on a regular basis. Forgot a book? Whip out your iPhone, it's so easy! But Asterios Polyp could not exist on any of these devices, and a child will never gleefully unwrap several of these devices at a birthday party, and rarely will someone have occasion to scan your device and glean something about your character. Devices are convenient, but they are not the be-all and end-all. Don't scrap your printing budgets just yet.


  1. Touche, Emily! Digital as medium certainly has a lot more (and also more interesting) talking points than digital as format. And of course, I started with ARCs -- a perennial bookseller problem if ever there was one. But I will admit that some of my regular reading has shifted digital. For example, I LOVE having access to the Gutenberg project classics without having to go out and scrounge one up when I realize that it's been years since I reread Stoker's Dracula. That being said, I have yet to pay for an e-Book (and no, I'm not a pirate! Plenty of free to go around!) and I don't see myself doing it any time soon. A digital library lending program, now there's something I'm interested in ... But the point I'm trying to make here is that while convenience can be an argument in favor of digital as format, I agree: don't scrap printing not only not just yet, but ever.

  2. Hi Jenn and Emily -- great post! I more or less agree with all of it. Coincidentally, we had the EXACT same trade of thought about Asterios Polyp specifically at last night's McNally Jackson Graphic Novel Book Club. I contended that graphic novels might in fact be the best counter-force to digitization (and then had to admit that I stole the idea from an Art Spiegelman speech). But I love the idea of thinking of both as MEDIUM, not format. The interesting thing is when they overlap, as in webcomics -- that creates a whole new format, which some creators understand how to use better than others (shorter story arcs, simpler page layouts, etc.)

    It's a brave new world out there, in the best sense I think -- excited that Emerging Leaders is right out there in front navigating it.


  3. I think that digital as format will take off for certain types of books more than others, and I think that ARCs, mass market paperbacks, and public domain classics are all good candididates for digitization. A bit of a double-edged sword, however, because people also like that you can beat up those types of books or drop them in the bathtub, but do the same with a device and you're out of some precious pennies.

    I have purchased one item for my device (a sony eReader I won): Issue One of Electric Literature which included 5 phenomenal short stories. Wasn't disappointed, but otherwise I've done public domain titles as well, in addition to a couple of ARCs from HarperCollins.

    Book Nerd, another interesting angle are "graphic adaptations," which we did an endcap for at the store: Terkel's "Working," Zinn's "History of American Empire," Shakespeare Manga, etc. Those, I feel, are using graphic as a format, rather than a medium...

  4. There is that whole bathtub/beach argument -- but that gets us back to format. Is there anything wrong with having a book in several formats? Let's say I'm reading Dracula in the tub, but then I have to take a flight the next day and don't want to pack it. I can read it on my iPod instead, and then when I get home pick back up where I left off in the hard copy. There's certainly something to be said for that, as we live increasingly mobile lives (unless Harkaway's tortoise library happens, in which case sign me up!).

    But I think that that's really the main argument for format, as a SUPPLEMENT, not a replacement. Medium is where it gets all sorts of fun...

  5. Hello Jenn & Emily. Jen, I couldn't agree more about e-books being a supplement rather than a replacement. I love the idea of switching between the two mediums and it is definitely something I could see myself doing.

    I am without an e-reader and have mixed feelings about getting one. I love reading in the tub...and i would not take a $350+ "book" in the tub with me. I also would not feel like I own an e-book; I could not lend it to a friend, I could not see it sitting on a shelf with other books I enjoy. It's just not the same and this is especially so with an ARC. Reading a real book version of an ARC gets inquiries and is an advertisement in and of itself. Who is going to inquire on the e-book you are reading coming in October 2009?

    I would love to see the e-books given "free" with the purchase of a hardcover and maybe the paperback and e-book could be sold separately later on. That would work for me.

  6. Digital and ebooks won't ever replace print. We're just offering readers more options...taking the stories to where the readers are, which is online and on their handhelds.

  7. Thanks for the great discussion guys! I can't say that I'm opposed to books in a digital format (I also like Jenn's about being supplements not replacements).

    My problem lies in paying $10 dollars for something and then not having a physical thing to hold in my hand to show for it. I still haven't transitioned to a computer/digital saturated life yet... I just made myself a facebook last night and I'm still not sure what a twitter is.

    I'm still that person who doesn't own an Ipod or MP3 player b/c I'd rather have the CD. If I'm going to pay for a song, I want the case, the booklet with all the lyrics and pretty pictures and that shiny little disk. I suppose the same goes with books. If I'm going to pay for a book, I want that dust jacket with the author photo and the satisfying feeling of dogearing a page or breaking the spine (I know, I know, don't shoot me!)

    But at the same time, I like the idea of books being available in a digital format for those people who want to save space and trees. Heck, even I'd like to cut down on some of my clutter. And, I'd love to start reading ARC's this way.

    Gosh, I can't say I have enough information to really make an educated opinion about all of this but I am really interested in seeing where all this is heading! Long story short, thanks guys for spurring the conversation!

  8. P.S. for a little digital book haha check out Green Apple's blog. They are doing a series of video spoofs on Books vs. Kindles that are very funny. I love those guys!