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Protecting the world from ebooks

July 24, 2009

Okay, I’m not such a fuddy-duddy as to think such a thing is possible, no matter how strong my allegiance to bound books printed on paper or to what is unpoetically known as the “bricks-and-morter” bookstore. A friend of mine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, swears by his Kindle (traitor!), forecasting the day when electronic delivery of books will be the norm. Shuddering, I told myself he could not possibly be right.

Then came the chilling day I discovered a convenience store clerk reading on a Kindle between transactions. Cheerfully, he demonstrated the device to me with a zeal bordering on the evangelical. I despaired to see the thing was not as ugly or unwieldy as I’d hoped. That’s when I knew that the digitization of all human experience, including reading, would sooner or later triumph.

So I could not take much joy in the news that Barnes & Noble ‘s stock price slipped earlier this week after the roll out of its new electronic bookstore. Intended to compete with Amazon‘s Kindle, the industry leader, B&N’s ebookstore offers 700,000 titles, and its books can be downloaded not only to a dedicated reader, but also to the iPhone, the iPod Touch, newer Blackberries, and computers using newer Windows or Mac operating systems.

Barnes & Noble will also provide the titles for the new electronic reader coming from Plastic Logic late this year or early 2010.

Stock analysts were not impressed with the news, saying the electronic books market is too small to do much for Barnes & Nobles’ struggling bottom line.

But if recent history shows anything, it’s that sooner or later digital technology swamps all competing platforms, no matter how venerable. It’s only a matter of time — and I tremble to write these words — before my friend’s prophecy comes true.

I’m not going to waste time rhapsodizing about the superiority of the printed book — its tactile pleasures, its sentimental associations, its lovely smell (especially when properly aged, like fine wine) — except to say that it is a perfect technology. Or maybe I am: The book is more like the hammer than, say, the eight-track tape player: It cannot be improved upon. It’s portable, durable and perfectly performs the function for which it is designed. What’s more, a pricey electronic device is not required to read it, and you can share it with as many other people as you like without restriction.

Such arguments have been made countless times. What’s less discussed, so far, is that ebooks will inevitably kill the traditional bookstore. And that will be a cultural disaster of biblical proportions (pun intended). Bookstores nowadays not only serve as retailers, but as community centers, places where people gather for all kinds of activities. Enjoy it while you can.

And has anyone thought to ask where, once the bookstores are gone, will writers go on tour? Imagine attending an author reading at, say, the local At&t store, or Best Buy, or RadioShack. I suppose we’ll get used to it, but good grief. Brave new world, indeed.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2009 1:13 pm

    Hilarious post, Chauncey. Although my book is available as an ebook, I take great pride in being able to hold the paper version in my hands, like the other books I’ve enjoyed. Someday I may invest in a kindle, but for now, I’d rather use my batteries in a portable television during storms and curl up with a good book in the candlelight instead.

  2. July 24, 2009 1:23 pm

    Gone with the wind. Books will be a thing of the past in 50 years. Antiques that take space, and get dusty. The new generation will forget them quickly. Libraries will be small, electronic places. Every thing you read will be kept in government files. The young people will support this for some made up security reasons. (They will have chips in them by then. Again for security reasons.) You will be careful what you read and careful what you write. Again for religious, and security reasons.
    You won’t even trust your dog any more. He may be an information gatherer for religious and security reasons. Your cat will be your hat. What do you think about that. I can hardly wait. You will never be late. Again for religious and security reasons. So take a good look and say good by to your book.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 24, 2009 5:01 pm

      It is rare that I find a person more pessimistic than I am, but Mr. McCann, I think you’ve done it.

    • July 25, 2009 9:23 am

      Thanks. You must realize I am in the book business. I can see the forest and the trees. Best.

  3. July 24, 2009 1:23 pm

    Witty and affecting love letter to the printed word, Chauncey. Sighed and nodded throughout, even as I read it on my iphone (as I find I tend to more and more with articles, not books… yet)? And, I wonder is it the book that is like the hammer, or the word, and even at the risk of sounding esoteric, the spirit that moves behind the word … printed or electronic?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 24, 2009 5:00 pm

      Yahia, your comments make me smile.

  4. July 24, 2009 5:09 pm

    I’ve always loved the physical act of reading a traditionally printed book And, as an author, I far prefer the fatter royalties (in those rare instances publishers actually pay full royalties) regular books earn. But I have to admit I love my Kindle and my wife loves hers.

    Two years ago, with every bookshelf crammed to overflowing with books, I ordered my first Kindle. I found it an easy and comfortable device to read, became addicted the lower pricing, the convenience and the near immediate gratification of wireless delivery of books – and began to read more than twice the amount and a wider spread of authors than I had before.

    As an Ipod user, an XM and Netflix subscriber, I find e-readers to be a logical progression in an industry badly in need of some positive change.(We’d already lost most of the independent booksellers way before Kindle arrived.) My expectation is that e-readers will breathe new life into the industry and possibly also deliver and resuscitate the local news.

  5. rachel permalink
    July 27, 2009 9:19 am

    Not only do I despise the very idea of the Kindle and electronic books, but I have found that I retain less information when I read something on the computer than when I read it on paper that I can hold in my hand. I think that this is very important to note. It is easy to get caught up in doing research on the internet. There is so much information at your fingertips and you don’t have to waste paper or ink in printing it out. However, it is a major drawback not to retain the information that you are taking in.

    And I personally like that my bookshelves are overflowing and that there are books piled up against the walls, and on tables, and my dresser and everywhere really. Books&Books has a nice quote from Borges on their t-shirts: “I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” Nor can I live or work, or be happy unless I am surrounded by books.

  6. July 27, 2009 1:33 pm

    Look no further than the music business to glimpse the future of reading. Napster and then iTunes revolutionized that biz, effectively bringing the record companies (and its dependent families of businesses) to their knees. The traditional publishing model has been broken for a long time; what youre hearing now in this bad economy is its death rattle. Publishing refused to come to grips with the returns problem, snubbed its nose at POD technology, got high on the blockbuster drug, was late to the internet marketing table. And with the book distribution problem and shrinking shelf space in fewer stores, authors are having a harder time finding their audiences. I’m hopeful enough to think there will always be a place for talented storytellers. But the method of delivery will change, just as it did for music. I’m not so sure, after the dust settles and our old-fart angst lessens, we won’t see a better reading “vehicle” emerge that gives the power of access and choice to the reader. And for the record, I am an old fart with yards of beloved books in my home. But I am thinking that Kindle looks damn pretty good for vacation…

  7. July 30, 2009 1:13 pm

    Why I love books

    You can tuck it under your arm and take it to the farm. You can read later after you feed the gator. You can take it for a ride and just set it by your side. After you wake , you can read it by the lake. You can sit at the dinner table and read to your wife Mable. ( if she says you are able). In the early morn you can sneak it in with you, without scorn. You will take it to that special room, which will certainly mean the books doom. Now it is your book alone which every one will atone.
    That why I love books.

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