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.