With the advent of the over-the-top iPad, we have entered a new realm of publishing and reading. As far as I know, it started with Amazon, as so many things have in the last couple of decades. A Kindle in your hands means a library in your hands. And believe me, the thing works. You slide a finger across the screen, the page turns. You can change (means “enlarge” for me) the font, switch back and forth between books without losing your place. For traveling, it takes up less weight and room than most hardbacks and or a thick paperback. Unless you demand the texture of paper and print, it’s hard to argue against it. I suppose the Barnes & Noble and the Sony readers work well also, though I haven’t touched one of them. And I’m sure there are others I haven’t heard of. Attractive as the whole idea seems, though, I’m having a hard time coming to terms with all this, and I’ll bet many of you are as well.
My stepdaughter and family are living with us temporarily during a construction project at their place. I open my newspaper. She boots up her laptop. “Just have to have that paper in your hands. huh, Carl?” Yep, I do. Expensive and admittedly inconvenient as it is, poring through the news and features, page by page, is a satisfying habit. Does no one any harm. No matter that her electronic edition of the same paper contains stories hours newer than the ones I’m looking at, she and people like her are the reason newspapers are in such trouble. We know that publishers and booksellers are in the same trouble for the same reasons. Which means, of course, that writers are in trouble. Or does it mean any of that at all?
Here are some facts and gossip I’ve picked up on the subject over the last few years:
. Americans are reading significantly less, which means the publishing market, at least for fiction, has dwindled. We spend more time on video games and game shows than on reading.
. The conglomeration fever that has seized the rest of the corporate world has seized publishers as well. One agent told me that she may submit to as many as 10 editors, but knows that in essence she’s submitting to perhaps three publishers because the label on the door doesn’t signify who’s writing the checks. Thus, if the editor likes a property, she will have to fight it out with other editors not so much from her own “company” as with the company that owns her company as well as the other companies in the conglomerate.
. Barnes and Noble is buying up College Bookstores. They can undercut the independent guys who used to hang on the campus fringes.
. Barnes and Noble and Borders have both taken to publishing their own editions of classics such as Austen, Hardy, etc. By selling them directly, they bypass and undercut people like Penguin and Modern Library.
. Both B&N and Borders require that publishers submit cover art to them for approval before granting them privileged display space in the stores.
. Some independent bookstores in my area have managed to survive and even thrive by watching their inventory, being careful about space, trying to stay inside their niche. And the personal service they provide has kept them competitive with people like B&N and Borders.
. An editor from Harcourt Brace told an audience at Sewanee a couple of years ago that he could often get a copy of one of his own books faster from Amazon than he could from his own warehouse.
But check this out. Have you noticed all the independent booksellers on Amazon? I don’t know how many, if any, of these folks also operate brick-and-mortar operations, but I’ll bet many of them wouldn’t be in business at all if they didn’t have the web presence that Amazon and other such portals provide.
And check this out as well. Kindle and iPad offer opportunities for authors to bypass the ever-narrowing agent-publisher funnel. We can go directly on line and offer our goods for–in the case of Smashword–whatever price we choose. s long as it ends in .99. They keep 15%. We keep the rest. I’ve heard (perhaps apocryphal) stories of people starting on line and working themselves into print. Not common, I’m sure. But…
Chances are, people will still turn more to video games than novels when they pick up their iPads. But if they don’t have to use yards of shelf space and lug a 30 lb backpack around to enjoy good writing, who’s to say that market won’t expand as well? The point is that for readers and writers alike, this e-reader thing could spell expanding rather than dwindling opportunity. I might even get to enjoy it. It’s for sure going to happen. Oh, wait. Has happened. It didn’t take me too long to get used to this computer (we need a new name for these things, don’t we? “computer” is about as accurate as “iron horse.”), so another step in that direction shouldn’t be all that hard to take.
I’d be very interested in other folks’ thoughts.