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.


--Deb said...

I agree. Ebooks and paper books shouldn't be an either/or proposition like VHS/Beta, HD-DVD/Bluray, Republican/Democrat. Books are books--it's the words, the writing, the stories that make them sing--the rest is just formatting. I just don't understand why one or the other has to "win," when couldn't we be promoting both? (Not to mention audio books, who seem left out of the conversation a lot, but they, too, are just one more variation on the theme.)

TC said...

Excellent post.

For me, I will always love paper books more than ebooks just because of some of the points you made. The art, cover, etc of a book can enhance the experience(at least to me.) There's also the greed(if you want to call it that) of collecting books.

Overall though, while I will always prefer paper books to ebooks there's no reason to condemn one or the other. A lot of it is change as well. People hate change, believe me, I know.

John L said...

Reading is an intimate experience between reader and story, and I think the printed book still provides the more intimate, tangible, effortless transfer of words to the reader. But ebook readers are so new, I think they will become better and better at becoming effortless and transparent. There will still be printed books in the future, but I think when the dust settles, each kind of book will have found their place in the new scheme of things.

John Atkinson said...

Electronic books is a good thing. Readers can download books anywhere in the world in a instant. But because ebooks are so easy to get published, there will be a lot of second rate reading flooding the market. In time the free market will take care of that. Don't worry. Be happy

Adrienne said...

Thanks everyone for your thoughts! Glad to see most agree that both media can work together.

Timekeeper - I think my concern with the inevitable influx of self published ebooks is that I don't trust the free market. I worry that authors who are just good at being authors will see their work sink to the bottom, whereas authors who are maybe okay at writing but brilliant at marketing etc will float to the top. It would make me sad that authors who are good at their job might fail because they aren't good at other people's jobs.

But I do hope you're right and I am wrong :) .

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I think some of the glee comes from authors who have self-published e-books and think that e-books outselling paper books means that a) their e-books are the wave of the future and b) fewer sales of paper books will lead to the collapse of the traditional publishing industry, against which some of them harbor ongoing resentment.

(I'm not saying that this is the case with all self-published authors - it's not - but it's uncanny how many of the "death to paper books!" comments I see are from people who tried for years to get published by a major house, and eventually turned to self e-pub.)

The problem with this is that the vast majority of e-books making up Amazon's sales are actually e-books put out by the traditional publishing industry/Big 6. Different mode, exact same product.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem I see with Ebooks and the author's idea of "skipping the middleman" is the same problem authors have with self-published books; the idea of legitimacy. Many people believe that if isn't published through a reputable publisher it can't be any good. (Unfortunately quite often they're correct.) Publishers act as a sort of a quality control, separating the wheat from the chaff. And no matter how good your book is, if the reader doesn't know about it or can't find it, no one reads it. (Most) publishers actually market a book, and have distribution networks, something the average self-published author can't afford. So while EBooks might make it easier to "skip the middleman", it's kind of like neglecting to tip the doorman and your favourite club--you might get in, but you'll get a lousy seat and no one will know you're there.

Jimbo G said...

I haven't read any of the reports about the fall off of Paper Books vs eBooks. I would be curious to know though what the fall off of Paperback vs Hard Bound is. I view Paperback books as throw away material where as Hard Bound are collectable and intended to be read over and over. As a society we are becoming more and more environmentally conscious ad the thought of throwing away something that we could otherwise never physically own sounds great! Now of course there are many great ways do recycle physical books and I hope people are taking advantage of those opportunities and not literally throwing away their books, but you get my point.

Anonymous said...

I love both paper books and e-books. I buy paper books when I know I will want to keep a book and re-read it. I buy e-books now for the many books I plan to read only once. Sometimes I make a mistake and love an e-book so much that I go buy a paper version of it. But, then, I buy both CDs and MP3s as well. AND I buy LPs. It's all good.

Anonymous said...

I must also agree that there is room for both mediums. Prior to the iPhones/iPads I was always against ebooks as I had only experienced reading them on the pc meaning I had to sit up, resulting in neck aches and sore eyes etc. Then I tried reading them on my smartphone, the experience was a lot better, and as an added bonus I could read in bed next to my wife without the lights on whilst she slept.

I do lik the printed book, but from the practical side of things, I don't have enough room in my house for all the books I read. Now I purchase the majority of books as an ebook and only buy the hardcovers of my favorite books and authors for my book collection.

One thing I must admit to, I am coming to prefer the ebook option as it means I don't have to worry about kids getting hold of them and ripping pages out. And the fact that all my books are in my hands and do not need to worry about losing my place, or even having to try and find the book I want to read only to find it has been borrowed and not given back.

In short, both mediums are going to be around for a long time so stop worrying about how you are going to read the book, and just enjoy it for what it is.