The World Will End with a Download

There have been a number of times in the past when people have panicked over the unwashed hordes bashing against the ivory gates of literature. And apparently, the newest threat, the most insidious of them all is the advent of the e-reader. The Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Barnes & Noble Nook, and the Apple Tablet are supposed to be the four horsemen of the literary apocalypse.

At a conference I attended, somebody actually stood up and shouted, “They are going to destroy publishing!”

These people are usually the same ones who piss and moan about the impending death of the written word, the same people who buy exotic paper made from an African river reed, and only write with a particular brand of fountain pen. They say nobody reads anymore, and maybe they’re right. But why aren’t we celebrating the e-reader? After all, it makes books more accessible. Maybe someone will accidentally preview the first few pages of Jack Kerouac, instead of Jane Anne Krentz, and who knows, actually enjoy it.

What makes me nervous about the e-reader is that every book ever written would be under the control of only a handful of companies. Remember Amazon’s “glitch” last spring where they removed the sales rankings for gay and lesbian titles? It’s just too much power in too few hands. Wait a second, I just described the publishing industry itself. After the latest spate of mergers, the big publishing houses have been offing and absorbing one another like something out of The Highlander. So really, online sales for e-readers are trading one massive, insulated corporation for another.
There are stacks of articles predicting the e-reader’s eventual hijacking of the book market. Amazon has announced that they will have every book ever published available in a digital format in the next ten years. For the literary old guard, this is the equivalent of End Times. This is the same sky-is-falling kind of mentality that got a lot of press in the early eighties for the audiobook. Experts predicted that books on tape would diminish literacy, and we’d all be drooling for story time on our headphones. As you know, audiobooks didn’t destroy literature, it just made books available to the elderly, and long haul truckers.

A cheap e-reader is still two hundred dollars, the same price as forty used paperbacks from your local bookstore. The cost to download a book is still comparable to the cost of a book off the shelf, even though the publisher doesn’t have to pay for printing costs, shipping costs, pulping costs, or have to buy back excess stock from retailers. The e-reader might actually—for better or worse—save publishing. The overhead for a pdf file is nominal compared to just the cost of the paper to make a book. If e-books did in fact take over the market, it would save trees, freeing up vast expanses of forest to be digested into toilet paper and burger wrappers instead.

Conversely, the e-reader is already expanding a writer’s ability to publish. Whereas an aspiring writer used to have limited access to readers—an agent, publisher, or small press—they can now upload a word document directly to Amazon, and for a fee, sell it online—a big fuck you to FSG. Whether you like it or not, it’s capitalism. It’s writers and readers. But maybe this kind of freedom is what books need. For the majority of the 20th Century, books have basically been domesticated animals. Publishers have dictated the aesthetics and practiced selective breeding for so long that maybe its time to give Darwinism a chance. This will inevitably make tons of utter shit available. But whether we like it or not, vampires and teenage wizards aren’t going anywhere. Writers now have direct access to readers, which may allow literature to accomplish what it’s been unable to do on its own—to change.

7 Comments

  • Sam Edmonds says:

    http://mhpbooks.com/mobylives/?p=11903

    The way I see it, if aspiring writers want to publish complete and utter shit by schlobbing Amazon’s knob, that’s their business. It just means their reputation is going to crash and burn faster than it would if they were to earn their credentials through proper publication. Sure, we “real” writers may risk stringing a noose together with rejection letters, but we’ve been doing it for years, and I suspect that very few people are going to read, much less pay money, for some no-name’s dead grandmother story. Furthermore, just as mp3s have a preview option, these shit stories will have the same, and after realizing just how exhausting all this previewing is, many readers are going to return to those writers who have earned their reputation. The point is this: solid writing is still solid writing, and that’s never going to go away. We don’t need to surrender to the 21st Century: we just need to get to know it a little better, see how it’s working. The times they may be a’changin’, and perhaps I’m being completely idealistic here, but I don’t think Kindles are going to kill the publishing industry; they’re just going to make books seem like vinyl – like the real thing. Speaking of, the music scene is more promiscuous and exciting today than it’s been in years, and that’s thanks in part to digital downloading.

    Basically, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. Besides, plenty of people are still gonna buy books, because they smell good; I doubt Kindles do.

    • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

      Sam, why would aspiring writers crash and burn if they go outside of mainstream publishing? It seems like the old infrastructure is dying, with a new one developing. Small, independent publishing is more vital now than I’ve ever seen it. I don’t buy the “proper publication” idea. Just because something is published outside the mainstream houses doesn’t mean it’s bad. Most of what the big houses publish sucks. You’re last point seems to argue against your earlier points — if the music scene is in fact “more exciting today than it’s been in years [and I’m not sure it is] and that’s thanks in part to digital downloading,” why shouldn’t that be true for books? There’s a lot of fear about the whole thing because the old gatekeepers and their supporting infrastructures are losing power: the fear might arise from uncertainty as to the new gatekeepers will be.

      • Sam Edmonds says:

        Sam, I’m not saying that aspiring writers would crash and burn if they were to go the Amazon route, and I agree that small, independent publishers are doing exceptionally well. What I worry about is if Amazon offers the opportunity for anyone to publish their manuscript, then writers, aspiring or otherwise, are going to pay to be published, so they can bask in the same gloss as every other writer, putting all in the same boat. Obviously everything I argue is based on speculation, as we don’t know what sort of interface/presentation is going to surface as the Kindle Revolution gathers its forces, but I’m just skeptical.
        And you are right about the music bit – it does grind against my earlier argument. I still think it’s an exciting time for music, but I am also waiting to celebrate the Bad Seeds’ next Birthday Party, if I may be terribly corny late on this Friday night/Saturday morning.

        I’m glad you’re blank slating all of this, Kathryn.

  • Adam OR says:

    Tiny point in all this, and I do have strong opinions about e-publishing, but Sam (Edmonds): writers can pay to be published in print just as easily as on Kindle, and considering the dozens of high-quality POD shops, the book quality chasm that used to exist between a self-published POD book and a book printed at a “proper” offset printer has virtually disappeared.

    • Marcus says:

      Absolutely correct. The cost to publish your own 200-page book with a 4-color cover is ~$2 a copy, providing you can do the layout and design yourself, or have a friend with InDesign. So you’re talking Joe Schmo Writer can rip off 400 copies of his latest in the “Investigative Vampires” series for under a grand, set up a couple readings with bookstores whose managerial staffs couldn’t care less what’s being read (so long as they get a cut of sales or an upfront fee), and boom, in a few months Joe’s sold half those copies and feels good about himself. Granted, his aunt and a half-dozen clique kids at school are the only ones who think it’s any good, but still, that avenue’s been open for a while now.

    • Brian O'Grady says:

      Good point, Adam–vanity presses are the analog analogue to the Publish on Kindle model. (Ostensibly) shitty self-published writers will always be with us.

      What’s more interesting is that the possibilities for Getting Published by a Legitimate Entity are far larger than even five years ago. There are fewer hurdles to jump through, more entry points, and more Legitimate Entities. And writers have more direct access to potential readers.

      The same goes for music. Ten years ago, if someone told you to check out the Mooney Suzuki, your options were to get your ass to the record store and buy a 7″ or borrow the CD from someone who had it before deciding they’re fucking boring, derivative fashionista pricks. (Also, they could play at your college and then hang up on a 911 call on their way out of the after party.) Now you can hear buzz about a band and decide if you like them or not within five minutes. The net effect is more musicians are getting more exposure to more listeners, and–this is probably more important–listeners are on the whole more savvy. People learn to trust their instincts as opposed to those of the DJ or Pitchfork. There are probably drawbacks to this, but I think the world of music (and writing) is better off when people have more access to a greater variety of output.

      Since we’re on the subject, what’s the publishing equivalent of 180-gram vinyl?

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