"Are Books Dead?" (1 Viewer)

Funny, I just wrote an article at work about the "long tail," and my third graph demonstrating our niche market also applies to the small press. The small press has always been on the low side of the power law, so all this weeping and wailing over the death of books and the death of writers is meaningless.

It's just change, and change, especially disruptive change, like the internet, fucks over a lot of people for a while, then we figure out a new way to do things.

The author of that article makes a few valid points, but he misses many more points, and as a result he misses the big picture.
He does leave out, entirely, the idea that writers have a choice. They do not have to buy into the ebook business model. You want my book? Buy it on paper or you don't get to read it. Imagine a future where only the small presses publish the best authors, in traditional books. If you want to read good writing, you have to buy those books. That leaves the ebook as nothing more than webpages with crap content, on browsers called Kindles and Nooks.

What I like about the article is that it tell writers: you think that ebook sel-publishing empowers you? Think again, and here's why.

Has there yet been a major, bestselling author say "No" to digital download of their work? (Not a rhetorical question; I'm asking) I'd like to see a resistance movement.
"Amazon can sell millions of books by obscure authors, while at the same time those authors, when they get their Amazon receipts, will see that they have sold only five books in a year."

Because they would have only sold five books in a year anyway!

One of the interesting things about that power law distribution is that the area of the long end of the tail is equal to the area at the "mass market" end of the scale. Meaning there is just as much selling going on, only the number of products is increased.

But that's exactly what has happened in the past anyway. The total number of all poetry books sold since the invention of the printing press doesn't equal the number of Harry Potter books sold in the last 10 years. That relationship between the mass market and the niche has not changed, and it never will change.

Disruptive change forces invention, and just because we may not have a viable version of electronic books now doesn't mean viable electronic books are impossible. People who fret over the demise of this or that are thinking within established, traditional methods. People who think outside of traditional methods will come up with the new methods and everything will carry on as it always has. Human nature does not change, and there will always be multiple markets and multiple products to serve those markets.

The point of the article seems to be that authors won't be able to make a living anymore from sales of their writing. He bases that conclusion on the current, disrupted market. He's worried that J. K. Rowling won't be able to buy another castle, or Stephen King won't be able to find other millionaire writers to play in his garage band. But the rest of the writers, the broke ones, were broke under the old, traditional system regardless of what the handful of mass market writers earned. Nothing has changed.

You can say, "it's harder to cut through the noise, there are 800 million writers now," and that's true. But at least now you have a chance of cutting through the noise on your own. The old system did not allow for that. Publishing is facing the same thing the music business faced 10 years ago. They are in a panic because they are losing control (read: money). But look at what happened in the music business: more musicians are making a living now than ever possibly could have under the old system. The same thing will eventually happen with writers. The music business is larger than the publishing business, so it may not happen as quickly, but the same kinds of changes are inevitable.

Thanks for your insights, mjp. Yours is a much broader picture than the one presented in the essay. As you say, there may be a way to make ebooks work for the writer. I'm not against writers aiming for that. Personally (and this is just me being stuck in the past, I know), I have zero enthusiasm for digital publishing. It feels like nothing happened. I'm an analog person, at heart. It might work, some day, but I don't want to be a part of it. My loss, I understand. I have no passion for ebooks. I'd rather be the guy that sells five physical books a year than 100,000 downloads. This is perverse, but it's how I feel. Guess I'm not an "embrace change" kind of guy.
these articles about "the demise of the book" in 25 years remind me of the pulp magazines from the 1960's imagining people in the year 2000 flying around with personal jetpacks and eating all their food in pill form. that prognostication strikes a cord because books seem so central to our cultural experience that people fret about the fact that they're going away. the main flawed assumption (among many) in that article is that no one but the author notices the decline of the book, and no one is worried about it. but almost everyone is worried about it - that's why these articles get cultural traction. and the fact that everyone is worried about it pretty much guarantees that books will continue to live on well into the future. ebooks will too, sure, fine, whatever. and maybe there will be less paper books than there are ebooks. but they won't go away altogether, because society won't let them.
but almost everyone is worried about it - that's why these articles get cultural traction. and the fact that everyone is worried about it pretty much guarantees that books will continue to live on well into the future.
That's the main point, right there. I think the authors of these articles miss the irony in that.

And for what it's worth, I do commute to and from work using a jet pack.
Books are so useful. For example, only the other day we bought an old wardrobe for our daughter, the floors in our flat have a higher gradient than the Atlas mountains, so we had to balance it out with a good stack of books to stop the wardrobe falling over and making kid pancake. And then there is interior design. What home is complete without a good bookcase to display how well read you are? I mean those false fronts are fine until someone actually goes to read that book on african venereal diseases.

But I am a progressive man and so I went into my local shop to test a kindle the other day. The sales assistant informed me that they were all out of ones bound in 300 year old calfskin, but they did have some in white. I asked if I could run a few tests, to which he reluctantly agreed. Firstly I placed a half drunk mug of coffee on the top of it, to see how easily ring marks could be removed. After some spitting and rubbing the screen came up lovely and shiny. The next step was to see how it stood up to the dangers of the 'toilet read'. I began kicking it around the shop floor and then sprayed it with my water pistol (apparently not everyone carries a water pistol with them wherever they go, but I can't begin to think why not). Finally, I went about testing its fly squashing capabilities. Unfortunately, there was some collateral damage during this test (apparently childrens skulls aren't as tough as we thought) and the store manager asked me to leave.

I have to say, I was disappointed. I got to thinking; what would happen at a book signing? It would be like a queue of UPS Couriers requesting the author make a squiggle in the box. Plus, and I think this is the most pertinent point, I would lose the one thing which I use to detract pretty girls from my face with- to quote Sparks-

"Looks, Looks, Looks, Looks, that's why we rely on books!"
I hadn't thought of that! What will authors sign if they are only published in ebooks?

You guys have reassured me, somewhat. I still think it's a nasty trend.

People come into the bookstore where my wife works and ask if they sell books for Kindles. How ridiculous is that? They're afraid of downloading and want the store to do it for them. My wife explains that the staff at the store HATE Kindles and tells them they'll have to download the ebooks themselves at home. These customers always go away confused.
I was in line at Chipotle the other day and there was a twitchy jerkoff in front of me in Bermuda shorts and an ironic t-shirt reading from a Kindle. He barely looked up from it to tell them his order, and when it was time to pay he laid the Kindle down on the counter in front of him and continued to look at it while he handed over his ATM card. I wanted to punch him in the throat. Not because he was a Kindle zombie, just because.

"Hi! I see you have a constant need for attention. He's some..." [Punch to throat, twitchy jerkoff collapses, Kindle cracks open as it hits the concrete floor, bystanders gasp, then begin to applaud] "Have a nice day."

Of course I didn't do that, because, well, it's Chipotle, and I had to get that burrito back to my office quick and get it into my belly. Otherwise, you know...

And that, my friends, is the future of books. Civil war and untold carnage. Grieving widows and same sex life-partners. It's going to be worse than Mad Max.

(Until I get a Kindle myself, at which point they will immediately become man's greatest invention in my eyes. I'm fickle like that.)
The Kindle adverts in the UK show groups of people all huddled round one smug little friend, who is showing off their device like it's a 12" rubber cock. The advertising folks are obviously trying to imply that reading from an etch-a-sketch pro will make you infinitely popular, whereas books are for loners who just get the pages sticky.

In defiance, I'm going to start cuddling up next to book readers to show them reading from a book needn't be a lonely experience. I may even show them my 12" rubber cock.
People come into the bookstore where my wife works and ask if they sell books for Kindles. How ridiculous is that? They're afraid of downloading and want the store to do it for them. My wife explains that the staff at the store HATE Kindles and tells them they'll have to download the ebooks themselves at home. These customers always go away confused.

I don't see ebook readers replacing paper books in a hurry, but they're also not going to disappear like betamax any time soon.

If there's an opportunity for a bookshop to attract people into the building and make even a small profit on an ebook sale then I think that its something they should do. Maybe I'm wrong, and that would be shooting yourself in the foot, but my first instinct would be to keep customers coming to the store.
I don't know why ity has to be an either/or proposition. Why not both? Why not reach eReaders with eBooks, and regular readers with kick-ass, artisan-made books?

I think the future of Ebooks isn't as replacements for real books, but as supplements to them. In much the same ways the broadsides of old introduced readers to writers cheaply, so eBooks could become a cheap way to sample new writers, and help you decide which real books to buy.

It could happen...who knows if they will.
well, if bookstores are in the business of selling paper blocks, then e-books are antithetical to their business model. if bookstores are in the business of selling literature, the arts, and culture, then selling e-books makes sense. the stores that have done well in this area sell e-books through google, since even the heathens with kindles still like the atmosphere of bookstores and will browse titles in person before making a purchase for their reader.
Ignoring or rejecting electronic books now is only forestalling the inevitable. Eventually everyone with a stake in the written word will have to come to grips with the format(s) and technologies.

When Amazon launched the Kindle and sold half a million of them on the first day, frankly, I was surprised that many people still knew how to read. That people are still interested in words at all, in any form, should be seen as a positive thing.
People come into the bookstore where my wife works and ask if they sell books for Kindles. They [...] want the store to [download] it for them.
Not taking someone's money in exchange for doing something they can do themselves = business fail.

Not to belabor the obvious, but when book stores with attitudes like that go out of business (when not if) they will blame consumers and society, but their failure will be their own fault.
The sad truth is that many people use brick and mortar stores as libraries. With the advent of smart phones that scan, it is easy to see a book that you like, scan the barcode and have it shipped to your house at 30% less than the store sells the book for. Tbhis goes for all kinds of other products, but with books and music, you can now browse a store and instantly download the content far cheaper than buying it.

Many independent booksellers are very old school. For example, some don't know how to do email, and don't want to learn. They are about selling physical books, not literature (it's a dirty secret that many booksellers don't read any more. They may talk about books all day, but it's buy/sell talk. They once read in their youth but gave it up at some point.). The old school types see ebooks as putting them out of business, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. One way ebooks hurt them is that fewer paper books are being printed, which means less are available as used stock. I guess I'm pessimistic. I expect most bookstores to go out of business. A few will survive as antique stores / art galleries.

I'm not so sure all writers must come top terms with digital publishing. I intend to ignore it as long as possible. That will hurt my future sales, but I never cared much about selling books anyway. I'm sure hoards of young writers will embrace it and a few will do well under it, and that's okay by me.
Book stores will go belly up because they've dumbed the material they stock down to the lowest common denominator, and have also refused to embrace the technology. When you go into a bookstore and all you find are lawyer/vampire books, then why pay 30% more for it when you can get it online or shipped to your door?

Bookstores used to be a place to discover new stuff back when bookstores (& big publishers for that matter) gambled. A decade or so ago they decided to only print/push books they figured as profitable -- and those cool little books you picked up on a whim, read a little of, and then bought all started disappearing. Now, every time I walk into one of the bookstores here in town I know I'm gonna have a hard time finding a 'new' book I'll like. I have a much easier time at used book stores. The big bookstores painted themselves into a corner, hoping to out-Amazon Amazon with the same books + 30% to cover retail space, bathrooms, comfy chairs, and a coffee shop...when what they should've done is gone more aggressively at smaller publishers (which have been repeatedly and very obviously screwed over by Amazon). I don't know if the outcome would've been any different...but at least they would've found a better angle to work.
I have a Sony Ebook Reader. Got it as a present, unasked for.

At first (like everybody else) I thought it'll suck big time, but now I see the advantages: It's great during long train rides, in dentist offices and etc. You're carrying 50-100 books in your pocket, it's slim and small and reading on it is really easy and does not suck at all. In fact, it's quite similar to reading a book. There are some things that suck about it, but they are minor.

After all, it's the words, not the medium. As much as I love books (and I've always loved them, since I was a child) they are only material to me. I respect and admire true craftmanship and labours of love in that field (found especially in the small press scene and i.e. in this forum a lot - the usual suspects know who they are 8-))) like in any other, but still it's only things to me. I will bend the pages, throw them around, leave them on the toilet lid, pour coffee on them and so on. I always have books surrounding me in large stacks, couldn't imagine living otherwise, but I don't treat them especially carefull or as holy. Some people object to this but I simply can't care.

It's true, in a way it is amazing that people still read and want to read, no matter what. I was talking to some guy the other night and he said that the only reason why Dostojewski could have written a couple of +1000 p. novels and gotten away with it was, that in his time there were no alternatives. You had the book, a little theatre and maybe an orchestra now and then and that was it. And that nobody would want or need to read a +1000 p. novel today. Of course, he himself had never read a word by Dostojewski and so he was only talking about himself and didn't even know what he was missing.

Great literature, or any literature at all doesn't have to be forced on pimpled teenagers or nursed trough carefully planned university courses and cultural events or any of that crap to some bored indifferent reader to maybe have a look and SPEND SOME MONEY, please. It's there and kicking ass, it does it's thing. Right next to pc games and tv and cinema and youtube and all of it. You can pick it up and join the action. If you don't know or like to or have the time, too bad: For you.

Crying, begging and complaining will not change anything. It will go the way of the music industry, it already is; money and distribution channels will change, still there will be more books and writers and ebooks as ever, books books books, more than anybody can ever read, there will be open and unpunished murder in the streets, it will be guns and roving mobs, land will be useless, food will become a diminishing return, explosions will continually shake ... sorry, where was I?

I'm recently rereading Women on my Sony Ebook Reader 8-))

After all, it's the words, not the medium. [...] 8-))

I'm not so sure that is true. I may sound nuts saying this, but, to me, words on paper have more meaning, more power, than words on a screen. Sure, you can read the same text on a screen as on a printed page, and those printed words may have been composed on a screen, but when words are on paper, there is some sort of magic at work. I can't prove it, and science may not support the idea, but it is very real to me. That's why I have no interest in ebooks. I read lots of words on screens. But when I want to experience literature, I go to printed books. Don't confuse electronic texts with Books. They are not the same thing. I realize it's me against the world, taking this extreme stand, but so what. I would be lying if I said I thought ebooks have value as literature. They're good for searching, and you can carry 1,000 of them in a lightweight device, but they are missing something important. No magic.
The thing is, though, we are not the ones who can gauge what is valuable and what is literature and what is magic anymore, because most of us predate books on computers (or even computers), so our opinions and biases are becoming irrelevant.

Should I never use an ATM card or take a plane to New York or let black people vote just because those things weren't possible or common when I was born? Saying 'no' to technology just because it introduces change seems a bit too Burn the witch! for me.

Technology is magic. When you can download an app to control the Mars rover from your cell phone, arguing whether electronic books are relevant is pointless.
see, david, i like you a lot but that honestly sounds like crazy-talk to me. as hosho points out, there are a ton of books out there that aren't 'literature', and i bet the kind of literature you like will always be published in book-from by small presses anyway.

if a literary book can only pull you into its world via paper and not in e-reader format, then it must be a pretty shitty book.
Yes, it is crazy talk, I knew that going in. What I'm saying is that there is something more than just getting the text going on in books. The way our brains perceive and process a text on paper is different (I believe) than a text delivered in electrons. Science may or may not back me up on that.

Most books are crap, and it matters little how they are delivered. A good text will be a good text no matter what medium it's in. But reading a good text on a screen will be a different experience than reading it on paper, and the difference is significant.

I realize up front that I'm taking a radical position when I make such statements, but the discussion is so much fun, I don't mind sounding like a lunatic. There's always a strong chance that what I'm saying is pure, indefensible bullshit. I just speak from the gut and worry about objective truth later.

And yes, technology is magic, too, but a different form of magic than words on paper. It's magic that we are having this discussion electronically. I'm just saying that something is lost when books are not on paper.
The way our brains perceive and process a text on paper is different (I believe) than a text delivered in electrons. Science may or may not back me up on that.
I suspect, "may not."

Your brain processes tiny bits of random data into what seems like a continuous experience all day, every day. This is an argument that people who claim digital images or sound are somehow a degraded form of more "natural" sources will always lose, because all of the so-called "natural" or traditional methods of reproducing images and sound are also tiny bits of information that the brain assembles into something we recognize as continuous or "natural."

If I pluck a string on a guitar or press a piano key and you're sitting in the room with the instrument you hear a note, but that string is vibrating at all kinds of frequencies, most of them higher and lower than what you hear. You're brain gives you the average of all that input. The same thing happens with wind instruments; the reed or the mouthpiece vibrate and create fluctuations that we hear as a singular note. If you want to record that sound you need a microphone, and the microphone translates those vibrations into electrical impulses. Whether you record those electrical impulses onto magnetic tape, a wax cylinder or a hard drive, you're recording electrical impulses, not sound.

Blah, blah, blah, I know. But your eyes work just like your ears do. You can't see a hummingbirds wings when they are flying, you just see a blur. When you look at a word printed on paper you don't see the billions of tiny bits of pigment on the paper, you see a word. Not at all different than electrons on a book reader screen.

Saying digital is somehow "different" is just splitting hairs. We are at the point now where you can sample massive, almost incomprehensible amounts of digital information as sound or images, much more than you could ever capture on magnetic tape or the tiny bits of silver on film or in a photographic image developed in a darkroom.

Everything is digital. Even sunlight. Your fingers and your toes and your balls are just clusters of molecules, aren't they? Digital. It's just a matter of perception.
I stand corrected. (I should have that tattooed on my back.)

I'm no stranger to the ideas you laid out so nicely, mjp. I have a friend who is a musician and an electrical engineer, who explained all this to me some time ago. Yet, I persist in my folly that I can tell the difference, that there is a difference. The truth be known, I simply do not like ebooks and can't make myself cozy up to them.

I really should watch how many of my wacky ideas I share. I don't want all you good people thinking I am a complete flake. I'm only a partial flake. There is a section of my brain that is coldly ration (I swear it...)
While ones brain may process printed text and electronic text the same way, there is a fundamental difference to consider - that of mindset. In a situation where you actually want to absorb some information, the ease with which you will assimilate it is related to your mental approach when reading it. I'm annoyed by electronic text; therefore, unless it is a requirement of my work, I will generally approach electronic text with a sense of deep disdain and loathing (the current forum excepted, of course). On the other hand, gleaning said information from a nice book is a pleasure. So, perhaps an argument can't be made about how the brain processes information diffferently, but an argument certainly can be made as to whether that information will even have a chance to be processed.
True. What I had in mind had to do with senses. The brain experiencing reflected light vs emitted light. More importantly: the smell. Books smell of paper and glue and cloth and mildew and dust. An ebook smells like warm electronics, I imagine. The feel of the book in the hands vs a plastic device. The sensual aspect of the experience was what I was thinking about, and not how the brain handles the words as information.

I genuinely fear I may be just annoying people when I propose such ideas. That's not my intent, but it may be the effect. If any of you do find me annoying, I sincerely apologize. Christ, I hope I'm not a type of troll: the guy who proposes untenable ideas and then goes down in flames defending them. I think of ideas as being like colors. Mix them up like paint. Don't take me seriously!
Yes, I was very much talking about the sensual experience; not only the physical nature of a book vs. a device, but the important (to me) difference between a lit screen and a more softly-toned sheet of paper. This is a big part of "The brain experiencing reflected light vs emitted light." I spend a great deal of time poring over databases and reviews and technical articles that are on-line, and I do appreciate the search capability associated with the electronic medium (especially for quickly grabbing some data and then incorporating into my work), but when it comes to actually reading something through, I'll always print it out and read it.

So, when it comes to pleasure reading, it's not even an issue. Hard copy all the way.
Maybe that's it. I get more enjoyment from reading hardcopy, and it's a different kind of enjoyment. For that reason alone, I can't see myself ever going to reading on a Kindle. I don't buy that many new books, anyway. New Bukowski titles and a few other favorite authors. Mostly I read older books, so it's not like there's any market impact from diehards like me refusing to get on board with ebooks.
The sensual aspect of reading a book is something I love too: The feeling of it, the sound of the pages turning, the printed word on pages ... I'd be very sad, should it be gone forever and there'd be just the screen left.

Still, that won't happen. Books and Ebooks will be coexisting, maybe not always peacefully, but you will be able to choose, I think. Piracy will be able and very easy, it already is. Even more so than ripping up or downloading music files.
Mostly I read older books, so it's not like there's any market impact from diehards like me refusing to get on board with ebooks.
It's not the impact on the market that's important though, it's the impact on you.

I don't have a Kindle or any other book reader (I just surrendered and bought a smart phone though, and you can read books on them I suppose), and I will print things out rather than reading long texts online too. I don't like the experience of reading from a screen.

Having said that, and speaking of old, rare or otherwise scarce books in particular, the computer and electronic reader are exactly what will save those old books. How much rare Bukowski material have you had a chance to read because someone went to the trouble of making an electronic file? The answer for me is, 'quite a bit.'

People laughed at Google when they said they wanted to scan all of the world's books (and started a class action suit to prevent them from doing so), but imagine that - an online library of every book that's in the public domain. What a resource. It would make the Library of Alexandria look like a backwoods bookmobile.
That's true. I've downloaded PDFs of a few rare titles in public domain that I have no chance of otherwise seeing. I read only the short sections I was interested in. If I wanted to read the whole book, I'd try to buy it as a POD reprint.
I agree that length of the text has a lot to do with how viable it will be in an electronic form. I don't like reading more than a few thousand words in a sitting words on a screen...but do like reading much more from a physical book...sitting for an hour or two just devouring a book.

And new life for all kinds of little books we'd never ever be able to read is a pretty good thing. That's why the small press should be running wild and embracing eBooks. It should be scrambling to reprint their favorite writer's backlists -- all these books that came out in 30 copies which have been sold out for years. But that hasn't been the case. Instead small press folks (myself included) are slow to embrace eReaders, and bemoaning the death of actual books. In truth, what might be happening is the death of mass-produced, poorly made books!

Or maybe I'm just dreaming...
Oh crap. I just discovered that a book I really really want to read, that is long out of print and sells for $500, is available in an ebook for Nooks. For $1.99. I am so losing this argument ... er, discussion.

I don't own a Nook, so I can only hope it shows up in a Print On Demand edition. By the way, the book is still under copyright, apparently, but the publisher believes it's in the public domain.
the publisher believes it's in the public domain.
A more likely scenario, unfortunately, is that the "publisher" knows full well it isn't public domain, but it's not the product of a large publisher (with large lawyers), or it's not a well-known book that's on anybody's radar, so they just don't give a shit.

Am I close? ;)
i think some of you need to actually take a look at some e-readers in person - it's NOT a mini computer and the screen is very different. they don't emit a light the way computer screens do.
A more likely scenario, unfortunately, is that the "publisher" knows full well it isn't public domain, but it's not the product of a large publisher (with large lawyers), or it's not a well-known book that's on anybody's radar, so they just don't give a shit.

Am I close? ;)

The original edition was from a big publisher, and it's now a well known book -- just made the 100 most in demand titles list. The book is House Without Windows by Barbara Newhall Follett. Published in 1927, the author disappeared in 1939, so maybe they assume the copyright wasn't renewed, but it was (probably by the publisher) in 1955 (all dates are approximate).

i think some of you need to actually take a look at some e-readers in person - it's NOT a mini computer and the screen is very different. they don't emit a light the way computer screens do.
I tried a Kindle for about 10 minutes. Did not like how it navigates. The screen seemed okay.
Here is what I found. I believe it to be correct, but it is based on the info from the Library of Congress records and my own theories...

That book was published January 21, 1927. By law, it had to be renewed in the 28th year after it was published, which would be anytime in the year 1955. It was renewed on December 10, 1954. That would seem to mean that the copyright was registered too early. That could make it invalid. If not, why say in the 28th year and not at about the 28th year? The government is usually pretty specific. If they say the 28th year, they mean the 28th year. That renewal, if even valid, ran for 47 years, which would mean that it would have gone into public domain on December 10, 2001, BUT in 1998, congress signed a copyright extension bill adding 20 years to any title still in copyright.

So, the question is, does the copyright lapse on December 10, 2021 or did it lapse in 1955 when they failed to renew the copyright in its 28th year as required?

Also, in 1968 Avon republished the book. I do not think that they were ever part of Knopf. Did they buy the rights to publish it, or did their lawyers figure that the copyright was invalid based on being too early?

Any thoughts?

Users who are viewing this thread