Reflections on Reading and Writing in the Digital Era

bob steinLast Friday I attended a talk given by Bob Stein, who develop the first ebooks in 1992. You read that date right. It was 22 years ago, but the craze only began to catch fire with Kindle in 2007. During his presentation Mr. Stein said that he has always been 15 years ahead of tends in the digital book world. I thought I’d share my impressions of his talk because I believe that the future of the book  is a fascinating topic, one of the great technological transitions of this age.

Since Gutenberg’s day (the printin’ 50s, I might coin it–the 1450s that is), the printed codex (or book) has come to be the world’s dominant form of information dissemination. However, since the rise of the silicon chip in the last 30 or so years, ebooks and the Internet have slowly supplanted the codex. They have not conquered print books yet, but given the popularity of ebooks and ereaders, in 5 to15 years the landscape will be different. I do not personally believe that printed books are going extinct–technologies transform more often than they vanish. That transformation may be enough, however, to change how we read forever.

Traditional publishers have a legacy to protect, said Mr. Stein at the Atwater Library in downtown Montreal during the meeting for AELAQ (the Association of English Language Publishers of Quebec). I was under the impression that many of the publishers in attendance were beginning to think about retirement. Those retiring soon have a reluctance to invest too heavily in digital publishing and a desire to defend the printed word. However, for someone like myself at 22 years of age, the world of ebooks, audiobooks, the Internet, and social media is where I will lay down my professional roots. Not that I don’t believe in print–quite the opposite–but I recognize the potentially exciting things that could emerge from digital publishing too. If you are reading this, you are witness to it; this is a blog, after all, and not magazine or private journal (see the irony in my blog title?).

I will have to come to terms with digital publishing if I desire to enter the industry as an editor or publisher–or even as an author. Authors are being asked to have build a platform through their social media presence. We are asked to not only be authors, but bloggers, directors (of YouTube movies), public speakers, and even voice actors (if we give our voice to an audiobook). Moving with this changing current is part of the purpose of The Vinciolo Journal, so I suppose you could say that you are glimpsing the future while reading this.

I myself have an ereader and the first book I’m reading on it is John Crowley’s Aegypt: The Solitudes, which I shall review next week. The ereader is the size of my hand and contains an entire library, including a thousand-page book of the complete short stories of H.P. Lovecraft–which would no doubt make my bag a lot heavier were I carrying it around all day. I find myself more reluctant to buy any physical book, no matter how badly I want it, because the shelf-space in my bedroom is packed and I still need space for school books next semester. Kobos, Kindles, and Nooks may be the only way to keep up a voracious reading habit.

A pile of rejected books. Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?

Is this the future of the physical book? Will digital books rise from the ashes?

There are other, more unexpected changes that the digital world could bring with it. Here is a list of some changes which Bob Stein said, or suggested, might come to the publishing industry:

-Printing will become more of an aesthetic choice. Ebooks will become mainstream, the option of utility.

-A new genre of literature may emerge once ereaders are the dominant form. It took 40 years for the novel to emerge as the main genre of print literature (from Gutenberg to Cervantes’ Don Quixote), so by 2054, perhaps we will see literature structured like a video game, where readers form their own narratives.

-A transition from solitary reading back to communal reading may be in store. Social media book clubs may become popular, the twenty-first century equivalent of the dominant mode of reading in medieval universities. Comment Press and Social Book allow you to write comments in the margins, renewing a habit of marginal notation that was popular in medieval manuscripts, incunabula, and early printed works.

Since public domain books will remain free, it will become popular to buy glosses on a book. For example, if you were reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, you could get the book for free, but pay to have a historian’s notes on the text. If this becomes a thing, I suspect people will also pay to have a celebrity’s opinion on their favourite books, even if they have no academic understanding to bring.

-Digital books can be handed down through generations like family bibles. Your (grand)sons/daughters will read what you thought of A Tale of Two Cities if you write comments online. They will respond to notes you made twenty, even fifty years ago–and your comments will eventually outlive you for generations and generations.

-People will pay extra for supplementary material. Mr. Stein was one of the pioneers of including director’s commentary on DVDs. Would you be willing to pay extra to learn the author’s commentary on his/her own book? Something like that might be in store.

-Celebrity editors, like chefs, will be an effective way of increasing the branding of books. I find this last prediction fascinating, since I have yet to start my career as an editor. If I am interested in pursuing such a career, I would probably do well to pay attention to setting up my own brand right from the get-go.

I was so inspired to be thinking about the future of the book that when I came into Place Alexis Nihon, bound for the food court to grab my supper, I saw the bright lights and colours of a sports shoe department and thought to myself: what if we began selling books like Nike sells shoes? So much of consumerist culture is about branding and “the fetish of the commodity.” If we arranged shelf space in bookstores around either editorial or publishing company brands and set up rows of finely crafted hardcover codices of bestselling works, could a publishing company with money to invest arrange for a bookstore to sell titles in a way that emphasizes the premium quality of physical books, as opposed to digital books? Will such a niche market for codices arise after the ebook becomes dominant?

I know for a fact that I would visit such a store regularly. However, I cannot say the general public would take to it, at least not right away. For one, the price of these books would have to be relatively high, a reflection of the finer material qualities used in production. Why buy expensive $75 codices when paperback airplane thrillers come in at $5-10? But once everyone has an ereader and traditional books become rare, could this brand shop idea become a viable business plan? An opportunity to decorate one’s living room with attractive book spines?

Would you enter such a bookstore of the future, or would you not? While you search for an answer, I will give some thought to branding myself as an editor and await the coming of the day when I can sell comments on my favourite book for money. There may be money in being an author yet!

The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?

The future of reading? Or just one other stone in the causeway to an unknown future?

 

Photo Credits:

Bob Stein: http://lib.fsu.edu/conference/TheFutureOfTheBook/index.html

Pile of Books: http://walrusmagazine.com/blogs/2007/12/17/new-blog-how-to-read/

Ereader: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kobo_Touch

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2 comments on “Reflections on Reading and Writing in the Digital Era

  1. calmgrove says:

    I don’t know about where you are, but in my corner of the UK physical books seem more available from charity shops (the only things to burgeon during the austerity following the recession) than from traditional bookshops — which are, as elsewhere, disappearing with unfortunate regularity. These charity shops, recycling current and more importantly out-of-print books, form my main source of reading matter. Will they become elitist? Very possibly, but I hope not too soon.

    My main problem with digital books (I have a very basic Kindle, so I’m not a total dinosaur) is that the electronic word seems to me to be much more ephemeral, both in how little time a text may remained unedited online and because I’ve been conditioned to go, grasshopper-like, from one page to another in a frantic quest to keep up to date. I can’t concentrate on more than a few pages at a time before anxiety about missing out on the latest news or the latest social media comment forces me away. Am I alone in this? I suspect not.

    Whereas with a physical book I feel less need of distraction, and have the ability to escape into and immerse myself fully in the world of the page, until duty or hunger or discomfort drag me back to the here and now.

    Anyway, thanks for helping me marshal my thoughts my thoughts about ebooks with this thought-provoking post!

    • Thank you for your comment! In Quebec, Canada, there are some laws that regulate the pricing of books, so Chapters and Indigo can’t discount their bestsellers at a ridiculous amount and drive small booksellers and publishers out of the biz. That being said, of course Chapters and Amazon in particular are in some ways the tyrants of the bookselling world. However, they are not all-powerful: digital platforms can encourage social reading and bring the initiative onto the side of the small publishers. Perhaps.

      I find ebooks to be nice to carry on the bus/train/car because of the portability of Kindles/Kobos etc, but you can’t browse or make comments on my Kobo, so writing a book review on an ebook is fairly difficult, such as if you want to find or quote a particular passage. But these problems can be solved in the future, as the technology evolves–if people are willing to develop it in that direction.

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