Since this is my official book blog, I figured this is the appropriate place to post this column from October 2011 about the future of books.
I still miss my books…
Books are beautiful.
Their construction is so basic — paper, ink, glue, and cardboard. But each is a doorway into another time and space, alternate dimensions both real and imagined.
It doesn’t matter if you’re reading true crime, historical fiction, or a cookbook; all are woven from the fabric of the human condition. Books are a reflection of us, who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we might be headed. Books offer a double whammy of knowledge and enlightenment coupled with escapism and fun, simultaneously invigorating and relaxing.
Books have been my friends and teachers since childhood. I loved cracking open a new book when I was a kid (still do). The smell and feel of crisp pages beneath my fingers felt like opening a treasure chest. I borrowed from the library often, and learned to appreciate the beauty of well-thumbed books, too. The ghosts of old dog-ears, the depth of the creases in the spine, and the occasional handwritten note in the margin told the story of all the people who had touched — and been touched — by this book. Who else had feasted upon this tome, and how did their mind digest its contents?
Once upon a time, before the modern printing press (itself a dinosaur now facing extinction), books were rare, precious commodities. They still are and always will be. Because books are the ideas and the words used to express those ideas, not the ink and paper they’re delivered on. Books are created in the heart and mind of the author, and live in the hearts and minds of readers. The bound stack of pages with writing on them is merely a transfer method. There are other ways to read a book now.
Digital books, ebooks, are the new “dime paperbacks,” cheap and easy to distribute. Traditional publishing houses need to either embrace this new technology or face extinction. You don’t have to look any further than the nearest abandoned Borders to see the future of print publishing.
Publishers should sell print editions that come with free/discounted links to ebook and audiobook formats. Print-on-demand technology allows authors to sell reasonably priced print editions — even signed editions — to fans that want to put something on their bookshelves. These new technologies are changing — in fact, have changed — the face of the publishing industry
In the 1990s, the rise of digital music formats — and sites like Napster — caught the record companies off-guard. Sony, BMI and the other biggies were reluctant to say goodbye to the $18 CD, but eventually settled on a $9.99 iTunes download. Similarly, book publishers need to bid farewell to the $30 hardcover, and embrace a lower priced ebook format.
History may repeat in another way. Musical artists learned a decade ago they really didn’t need the support of giant record companies to connect with fans. They could do it themselves with You Tube, Facebook, and Twitter (Justin Bieber, anyone?) Authors may discover the same thing, finding an audience for their work without needing the support and approval of a handful of big New York publishers.
I learned to separate a book from its content when I became a book buyer. I’d read paperbacks because they were inexpensive, and easy to transport. It wasn’t a tragedy if I left one on the bus, or dropped it in the bathtub. If I read something I really enjoyed, I’d seek it out in hardcover, or — back when I could afford it (i.e. pre-kids) — in a signed, limited edition. Over the years I amassed a sizeable collection.
But I donated most of my books to the local library last year when we relocated/remodeled. I figure I’ll replace my favorite books with digital editions over time, much like I have done with my music collection.
But I miss my books, the fading covers and yellowing pages. My wife tells me to stop whining, there’s less on the shelves to gather dust, and I suppose she’s right. (Isn’t she always?) I already read all the books I was donating, consumed their contents, and if I want a refresher, I can find what I need on the Internet.
Still, I miss my books…