Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Race for the Future

With news that ebooks are outselling paper books at comes the usual bevy of debates on the merit of each form and the future of publishing.

Not that this debate can't just happen because, you know, it's a Thursday. The publishing industry these days seems to want to discuss nothing else, and I suppose rightfully so. There's a brave new world on the horizon and no one, not the fervent supporters of paper books nor those who worship at the alter of new media, can really predict what that world will look like.

I, for one, definitely cannot predict. And I don't much like entering the debate because I really am not as well informed as the likes of J. A. Konrath and Cory Doctorow and any number of publishing industry insiders. I am just an author on days like today. And I ask myself:

Why does this debate provoke SUCH passion in publishing people?

It seems obvious I suppose, after all, our professional lives depend very much on where this is all going, and with the unknown comes fear for some, excitement for others. But a strong emotion either way.

But I think it might also break down into a more basic argument.

I asked people on Twitter to post what they liked best about paper books and what they liked best about ebooks. I also answered the questions. I asked it because I was a little sad to see the glee with which some authors greeted the news of ebooks outselling paper books online, almost as if it was a race to some kind of finish line and ebooks were now ahead. I didn't like the glee, because I didn't understand why one form of media had to be sacrificed for the sake of the other, and why that was considered a good thing.

So I thought we could be positive and discuss the merits of both.

But honestly, the answers I got. BORING.

lol, no. Not really. The answers themselves weren't boring, but the sameness of them all did get a little tedious.

And this is where I realised that the passion of the debate might just come down to a fundamental difference in philosophy between those people on the extreme sides.

The answer to "What do you like best about paper books" was one of the senses. Many tweeters said they liked the "tactile experience" of paper books. I myself went into further detail about how I like how a book can be its own work of art (not just as the words on the pages). The layout, the cover, the construction, the materials used, the inside pages. Embossed lettering or maybe not. Playing with the actual form of "book". Even just the smell of the pages. What we liked about paper books was the "book experience".

Now, the book experience isn't practical. It isn't even necessarily about the author's work. The book experience in fact can often have nothing whatsoever to do with an author as the publishing house is the one responsible for the aesthetic usually. But it's a pleasure. It's something that affects the senses and makes us happy. It's irrational.

On the other hand, the answer to "What do you like best about ebooks" was one of practicality. Pragmatism. It was about how new media made books easier to acquire and to transport. One could even argue that ebooks are more the author's medium whereas paper books are a publisher's medium. After all ebooks are about words on a "page" and that is it. It's about being able to read what you want when you want it. Traveling around the world with but an ereader in your purse and still having access to thousands of great literary works.

The ebook argument is in a way much easier to make because pragmatic arguments tend to be such. It's quantifiable, it's logical.

And this is what I think causes sometimes the rather passionate debates about ebooks vs paper books. You have two sides that are arguing from extremely different starting points. And to debate the emotional vs the pragmatic never works. Because neither side will ever agree. Because the nature of the side you've taken is to be completely the opposite of the other. The pragmatic will say, "But that doesn't make sense" and the emotional will say "it doesn't have to make sense, it's a feeling" and round and round and round she goes.

Now yes, there are other debates going on out there. There are authors who see the opportunity that ebooks afford to put themselves out there without a middle man as truly thrilling, and I see publishers concerned what their role is going to be in a future they can't really predict.

But at the heart of it I think it's more basic than that. An Ego vs Id kind of thing.

I don't know what the future holds. I don't offer any solutions, just thoughts, in this post. My hope is when the dust settles we'll live in a brave new world that embraces both. And maybe there will even be a third kind of magical book no one has yet thought of. I just know I'm getting a little tired of people taking sides. And of the glee when one takes a step ahead in the race over the other. The fact is, I think most people want both forms to exist. And I think both forms could not only co-exist, they could help support each other.

And I wonder if maybe it wouldn't make sense to try to work from that foundation. I feel so much of what publishing is looking at in the future is "who will win" and maybe it ought to double check that we're actually running a race in the first place. Maybe it's just two people jogging for exercise and having a bit of gossip. Maybe, after all this speculation, they aren't competitors.

Maybe, they're friends.