E-Book Paranoia Is So 2009

Last year, I wrote a blog post about one of the many “books are dying” panels that went on in 2009. For the record, I also love the smell and feel of books and stand by my post. Real, physical books are not going anywhere! Anywhere, I tell you!

Now, some perspective.

If Nathan Bransford’s annual e-book poll is any indication, it looks like even more people are embracing this newfangled e-book “trend” than ever before. That’s right. Apparently e-books were not just some phase publishing went through in college. Something tells me that by 2012, that percentages in Nathan’s yearly question will reach more than half. And even when that happens, I will still stand by my 2009 blog post. Here’s why:

We all knew an e-book majority was coming. It’s what we’ve been preparing for. So when I saw this article this morning by Leah McLaren, I had to rub my eyes and remind myself what year this was. Are we really still anti-e-reader? Are we seriously, in 2010, lamenting over the still-hasn’t-happened-yet loss of physical books? This line, particularly stood out to me: “…the act of giving books as gifts – once the simplest of holiday rituals – has been perverted beyond recognition as a result of technology.”

Has it?

Among McLaren’s other “most alarming” concerns about e-books is that:
1) “It has robbed us of the ability to share, discuss and passive-aggressively communicate through our mutual gift-book choices.”
2) “Once e-books completely take over, it will become impossible to know who actually reads and who doesn’t”

These quotes make me think she’s winking at her own foolishness, but this article was still written and published, so it’s getting talked about. With 2010 now ending, it makes me wonder why this article was published in the first place. Was it written in 2008 and shelved? Has the author been out of the publishing loop for some reason?

No matter the reason, the point is that the whole e-book “debate” is still, in fact, a debate. Books still make the best gifts. They always will. Unlike CDs, tangible books are still the dominant format, so gift-give away!

Speaking of the music industry, which is the best and easiest comparison, we’re used to updating our music collection with the advent of new technology. 45s, 78s, 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs were all viable ways to listen to music. So, the dawn of mp3s weren’t really that big of a deal. They were just one more evolutionary notch. When I get an iTunes gift card, I don’t think it’s impersonal or tacky. I just think “sweet, now I can buy stuff I like in the format that I usually listen to it.”

But books have been in the same bound-pieces-of-paper format since, well… since books were invented. So naturally, we’re freaking out that someone is trying to change them. I find it sad that people like Leah McLaren are still writing articles that fear technology, rather than embrace it. It’s also upsetting that people with that viewpoint need to be reminded that CDs are still around. People even still buy them regularly! Even the majority of people who now get their music digitally are buying them. They just use them differently now, which, ironically, are more for gift-giving purposes. Owning a special edition or boxed set of your favorite band’s work just isn’t the same when you can see the work put into the packaging and liner notes.

The only difference between books and music is that we have a romanticized notion of what a book means. Or, more specifically, that it has meaning at all. I count myself among those who have this view, by the way. But, for the sake of my job and for the sake of the future of literature, I must put my personal feelings aside. 

Books will eventually become novelties too, reserved only for the retro, the collector, or the die-hard. And yes, to me this is sad. There are those of us (let’s face, if you’re reading this blog, you are included in this group) who will always buy books the way music purists still buy CDs (and even records). But we live in a small world, us literary folk. Eventually the “rest” will win. How they buy books will determine how they are sold. As the minority, we’ll do what we can and adapt to the change, and hopefully through it all, we remember that the words inside the pretty covers are what ultimately matter anyway.

In The Year 2000

Remember the hilarious bit that Conan O’Brien used to do on his pre-Tonight Show show called “In the year 2000…”? I think he still does it, but unfortunately for Conan, I cheat on Letterman for NO ONE, so I don’t know for sure. Anyway, the sketch always featured Conan and a sidekick predicting ridiculous and over-the-top circumstances that will happen in the “space age year,” 2000. (A personal favorite: In the year 2000, Ted Kennedy’s head will be placed on Mt. Rushmore. Not a statue… his actual head.)

These comically grim predictions weren’t so different from those given at a reading/panel I went to on Sunday at The Mysterious Bookshop (which is a really cute bookshop in downtown Manhattan that focuses on mystery and suspense novels). The reading portion of the event was by Vincent McCaffrey, who was promoting his new novel, Hound. The main character of the book is a book-lover of yore who has become highly skeptical of the future of books. Timely indeed.

During the panel discussion, called  “The Future of Bookselling,” but could have just as easily been named “Curmudgeony Old People vs. Idealistic Youth,” I saw that Vincent, a former bookseller, must have modeled his main character very much after himself. As intelligent as I found him, I must say, I did not agree with hardly anything he said. It was as if the invention of e-books were a personal betrayal, and the thing is, I know that other people probably feel this way too. Still, it’s hard not to write someone off as outdated or (at best) sentimental, when he begins a discussion, led by the fabulous Stephanie Anderson of WORD Bookstore, with this question: Will books even exist in the future? – cue La Bamba chanting, in the year 2000… in the year 2000…

Luckily the two younger booksellers, Jessica Stockton, who just opened Greenlight Bookstore, and Christine Onorati, who owns WORD, answered Vincent’s question with a resounding YES! As an optimistic youth, I was reassured, but also disgusted that his question was even posed in the first place. What you do you all think? If e-books take over physical books completely (which, by the way, won’t be in any our lifetimes anyway), does that make them not books? I still like buying CDs, but if I download all of the same songs off of iTunes, I wouldn’t say I haven’t bought the album.

The panel continued to discuss independent book-selling. Living in New York, as I imagine in many places on either coast, it’s sometimes easy to forget that most people might have access to a Barnes and Noble (physical access, that is), but may not have an independent bookstore. Still, and remember that I’m one of the idealist youth, I’m not convinced that other parts of the country wouldn’t support indies, so where are they? One panelist brought up a good point that many people like the idea of independent stores, but their economy simply can’t support them, so they end up going to Wal-Mart or B&N. Non-coasters out there, if you exist, please give me your thoughts or let me know what your favorite independent bookstore is.

The older booksellers remained convinced that indies just won’t make it in our crazy technological world. Now that B&N has an e-reader, there’s no stopping them on all fronts. But, the young remain hopeful and as Jessica from Greenlight noted, booksellers are going to start seeing many different methods of bookselling and publishing. What’s important in order to stay relevant is to cater to as many outlets as possible until there is something resembling an industry standard.

In other words, prepare for chaos. Because it’s Y2K all over again.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t expect them to have the answers because it’s impossible to know how to deal with something that hasn’t happened yet. The important thing is that they are thinking ahead even if they can’t actually plan ahead yet.

I don’t pretend to know any answers either, but I do know that the end won’t be nigh if we just prepare for the change to come. And I can’t wait for the day when, after spending countless nights in our bunkers with duct tape and bottled water, awaiting impending disaster, we wake up and realize we’re all still alive – and more importantly, so are books.