Litquake 2010, E-readers, and One Opinion

       At the 2010 Litquake in San Francisco, at the water cooler and behind the podium, at the bar and in the queue for the restroom, I heard a distinct bias even revulsion to electronic publishing and e-readers. I think the reaction is normal, but I hope it is just jitters. Digital content is a revolution for publishing. As an industry it started as a hobby for the wealthy, and electronic publishing promises to be the great equalizer with access to read and create for all. Litquake is an annual literary festival for authors, authors-to-be, and readers. It includes how-to symposiums, readings, awards, and culminates in the world’s largest literary pub-crawl. On the last night, attendees can drink, socialize, listen, read, and network through a hundred events in a single night. In the age of over-the-top mass media saturation and unfettered access to information and ideas it is rare to see bars, bookstores, and alleyways brimming full and streaming out onto the sidewalk to celebrate and discuss all things literary. The best advice for newcomers to the pub-crawl is to wear comfortable shoes.

        The negative reaction to electronic media ranges from personal deference to texture to out right alarm at the speed and force of its change and propagation. I’ve heard several negative quotes about the new medium and its tools.

“It doesn’t feel like a book.”
“Kindle is not the same experience. It makes you read too fast, like you can’t wait to change the page.”
“Did you ever smell a Kindle? I like the way a book smells.”
“It’s hard to read on a laptop. It hurts my eyes.”
“What are we going to do, don’t you know what we are about to lose here?”

        I worked for a college textbook publisher, a mainstay in traditional publishing, when personal computers replaced typewriters on the desktop. The ease of creation and correction of content and paperwork was a giant leap in productivity for acquisitions, development, and production editors. It was not unusual for an editor’s office to be stacked full of galilees, page proof, and cover design samples. I am not even including filing cabinets full of paper forms, memos, and announcements. The only way to access this information was painfully slow and linear: one fingertip at a time, and time is “the” premium in publishing. Also, paper is expensive and difficult to produce. In fact there are only a handful of paper mills, because the investment and cost of turning a raw resource into a sheet of paper is so great that few entities can capitalize over time.

        All of this information in digital form gave rise to databases and data warehouses. It became easier and quicker to access it. This allowed marketing and sales to tap a vast storehouse of shared knowledge and experience to predict the market.

        E-books started in 1971 when Michael Hart created the Guttenberg Project. His goal was to create an electronic library for the greatest distribution of written material. He saw it as an ideal Democratic tool to educate the greatest number of people possible. Desktop publishing reduced the cost of expensive typesetting machines and disk to plate eliminated the labor cost of stripping film. Universities were already using a loosely controlled electronic network to share ideas more quickly then books, letters, or symposiums. Email is the most important form of communication to develop since international post. Speed and accuracy transformed the exchange of ideas into a boiling pot, accelerating collaboration and change itself.

        NuroMedia released the first handheld eBook reader, the Rocket, in 1998. The Glassbook launched in 2000 with Stephen King publishing Bag of Bones exclusively for it. At $2.50 a copy, King sold 500,000 copies in 48 hours.

        I’ve owned an e-reader for about six months, a Barnes and Noble Nook. I choose it over the Kindle, because it runs Android, has a virtual keyboard, and the capability to lend or borrow books. In beta, it can surf the net and play a few games. I gave it a lot of thought before I decided to purchase one. As a writer, I wanted to experience the potential that digital media offers and if it may be possible to expand narrative beyond linear. Also, I wanted to be able to carry as many books as necessary, fiction, non-fiction, or reference. At the moment, I am reading one of each, Justin Cronin, The Passage; Lama Surya Das, Awakening the Buddha Within; and Mac OS X Unix Toolbox. I have a PDF of my incomplete serial steam punk novella on it as well as a reference.

        The e-reader is not the same as a book. It is not as good and better. I felt the same as the quotes above. Would it read the same? Would I enjoy the experience? Would the Nook read more like a book and less like a laptop? Reading on a laptop is not ideal, if you read for any length of time, the backlight for the LCD strains the eyes The answer is yes to all.

        My Nook does not feel like or smells like a book. It doesn’t have a taut or loose spine. For most e-readers the book file’s cover is not in color, nor as dramatic or accessible as a book. The Nook has a small color screen for navigation and the user can display micro-covers in color. The real question for me was how important are these characteristics? The Passage is over 800 pages, Awakening the Buddha Within is over 300 pages, and the Mac OS text is over 500. Together their weight is more than three times the weight of my e-reader, and I also have 20 more titles on it.

        The smell of fresh paper is pleasant and texture between your fingers is substantive, but these are not as noticeable the longer the time a reader spends with a book. If you read used books or use the library, this smell becomes a romantic memory of childhood. It dissipates with age, and hopefully you’ve not checked out one, perhaps number 4 in a series of 5 that was a little wet at some time or accidentally painted with mayonnaise, and formed mildew or worse. I would not get my Nook wet either; electronics and water do not mix. I do not discount the value of tactile experience, but are they the reasons you choose a novel, and is that what you take away?

        I find that I tend to read faster on an e-reader than a regular book. Initially I believe it is excitement of new ownership. Clicking the page turn is as exciting as those first few mouse clicks on a computer, or key taps on a typewriter, or stitches on a sewing machine. Is this a quality of experience issue or a bad habit? Well, I guess depends on each reader, and the subject matter. If I am a college student reading a textbook then I probably will read slower and in a different fashion. Students are trained to read headers and pick out primary words. They usually have a lot to read in a small amount of time and need to retain as much of it as possible. If am an accountant, I am going to read slowly because I am legally responsible for my understanding of the content.

        If I am off work and at home, in mass transit, or in public, and am reading for entertainment, the pace is purely relative. I can read as fast as the action in the content demands or I can read as slow as the organization and choice of words are complex or beautiful. I have not experienced a noticeable change in the way I read any of these on an e-reader versus an actual book. In my opinion, it is the content that is valuable and not the way I access it.

        I still read paper books. Not all of the content I want is available digitally for many reasons. The work may be out of print, it may have unresolved copyright, or demand has is just not great enough to make it a priority. Generally I read according to three lists. I read what I need to read for work. I read from a lifetime list of great fiction and non-fiction. Finally, I read at random what is available in the moment. If I were to guess, I read 15% per year off the lifetime list, 60% for work, and 25% at whim. If I check it out of a library, it is a book. If I purchase it and it’s available digital then it’s a file. Otherwise, I purchase a book.

        A lot of technical books that I read are updated every 2 to 3 years as technology changes. If I am not learning something brand new, I generally do not read these all the way through, but access them on a need basis. A digital file is easier to manage and search than purchasing a new book and using the content page or the index to search one finger at a time. The power to search quickly and precisely is the best reason to purchase a digital tech book rather than a paper one. I can get the information I need in real time without spending time on what I don’t need, and if absolutely necessary, print out just what I need. Hand-searching a book is easy if the information or key you need is in the index, if not, if the author expresses it differently, you spend too much time reading and processing information linearly until the concept presents itself. Searching is one of the most valuable use for the internet. It is powerful to be able to find information with a few keystrokes, information that would otherwise take a day or more to find in a library card catalog if at all.

        I do not believe books are going away anytime soon. A book still has several advantages over a digital file or an e-reader. A book does not require a power source. If necessary you can read it completely off the electrical grid in the full moon. In general, a book is “Green,” it is recyclable, both from hand to hand and to dirt. Although it takes a lot of energy to create one, the infrastructure is well defined and manageable. Forests are farmed to create paper. The process of making the paper itself is the most toxic, but on a scale of 1 to 1, an e-reader and its content are probably almost equal over a long period of time. Most of the material in an e-reader is recyclable, and the files are shareable, but it will always require an energy source.

        My Nook is more convenient than a typical hardback, and although heavier than a trade paperback, its heft is justifiable and getting lighter, especially if you are carrying and reading more than one book at a time. If I am out to lunch or dinner on my own, I can set the Nook on the table and easily read it. I don’t have to hold it up or down to keep it flat, and a page turn is a single finger click. If I am commuting, I can hold it one hand and turn the page with the same hand. This is a tremendous help if you are standing and have 30 or more minutes to go. If I have to sit it down suddenly, I don’t have to worry about my place mark. The Nook will remember where I stopped reading on every book that I am reading. It can look up a word on the fly in its dictionary. I can make notes about what I am reading and create place marks with specific keys.

        The e-reader has its drawbacks. Unlike a book, if you drop it, it probably will break. As I have already mentioned it is still a little too heavy. The trim is about the size of a trade mass-market book and a little larger than a regular pocket size paperback book. You have to plug it in to recharge the batteries, and they will wear out over time. The memory will fill up, but this will take some time, and the user can supplement it. They are expensive in the short term, and books are still the most economical distribution channels with the widest/deepest market.

        One-color electric ink and the display size are not suitable for complex textbooks, magazines, or newspapers. I’ve read newspapers on my Nook, but the content is too thin, and navigation is difficult and not robust. I have seen prototypes of electronic paper that is lightweight, 4-color, and durable in a more suitable size. The reader can roll it.

        Computers, e-readers, and digital content are not the boogeyman. They are the newest channels for literary expression, and their processes are the same until output and distribution. An author has an idea, he/she writes and sells it or vice versa. A publisher buys it and assigns an editor to work with the author. The publisher approximates the market and assigns budget according to return on investment. The publisher produces the final copy and distributes it in hard copy or digital, depending on ROI and market trends. This is a general description of the process and like any dynamic process it varies according to circumstance, all with a constant eye on ROI.

        If e-readers become ubiquitous then books may relinquish to a lesser channel, and brick and mortar outlets will return to local domain. I do not believe they will go away. For instance, the reproduction of art in books is so stringent as to copyright color itself. It is impossible to render the intended color in digital form with any absolute consistency.

        I heard several alarmist predictions at Litquake, and at first, I thought it might be a generational change issue. This is not true. I’ve found that just as many up and coming authors are as suspicious and reticent of the new technology as retiring baby boomers. They are worried that they loosing the opportunity to spend their life in literary pursuits. I think this is just jitters or growing pains. Change is the only constant in life, and publishing is going through the last stages of extreme change. Production and distribution are the most expensive phases of the industry and as Publishers are combining and shrinking, the editorial processes growing beyond their tradition purview. Digital distribution is the greatest advancement in publishing since Guttenberg. It opens the market potential for more people to create and share ideas; and expression is what makes life worth living.

        I still hold the traditional book with great reverence and value, but I am embracing the new distribution as inevitable. I think there still is a lot of untapped opportunity and even if it is the same Shakespearean, Brothers Grimm, or classic western or eastern plot line, we will always need new content. The context continues to change and new voices are always needed to place us in it.

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