Booklovers, where to from here?

KindleAs a writer, and as a reader, I am daunted by the digital age. Perhaps this is because I am not technically savvy, but I think the fears are more deeply rooted. Writing that is only published in a digital form seems less permanent and more vulnerable to being tampered with or lost and forgotten. Yet at the same time, I can see that new technology is valuable and holds great potential for the writing industry.

If I were to publish a book, I want to be able to hold it, turn its pages and admire its spine on my bookshelf. I’d like to have a book launch and sign copies for people who want to buy it. To put the work into writing a book, actually find a willing publisher and then only have it available in a digital form seems like training for the Olympics, winning and not receiving a gold medal. Is this my own vanity and inability to embrace the technical direction that society is choosing?

When I take my own writing out of the picture, I am also afraid of losing books – purely from the point of view as a reader. The pleasure of reading is made up of several elements, not only the writing. A book possesses a tactile quality and a physical presence, often even has a smell. When all else fails there is nothing like curling up in bed with a book, bending the cover of a paperback or propping a hardback up against a pillow and letting it stand by itself. Books get passed down through generations and often hold great sentimental value.

I just cannot imagine going to bed with an eReader, iPad or Kindle.

Reading onscreen is a different experience compared to reading from a page. When doing research, I scan information to find what I am looking for and then print it out for further analysis. My eyes begin to hurt after reading onscreen for too long and I read less carefully. I miss the author’s nuances and get less sense of their writing style. There is always a feeling of urgency and I read quickly, keen to find other treasures that might be floating around the world wide web.

However, I am becoming addicted to online journals, writing centre websites and literary bloggers like Chris Flynn, LiteraryMinded and 3000 books. Where else can I find others who get excited about comparing booklists, an author’s new novel or a literary event? What better way to keep up to date with news and opportunities? Writing is lonely and it is fun to tune into the hub of literary activity that is taking place online. It makes me feel excited, involved and part of a community. But you know what? I am reading fewer books because of it.

Is time spent online wasted? Is it dangerous to be devoting this time to reading about books that other people are writing and reading, and events they are attending rather than taking part in these activities myself? I’m not sure, but I am learning about more books, authors, writing practices and finding out when events are actually taking place. I am also motivated by the camaraderie.

Reading a journal online will never stop me from buying a physical copy of it because I think that they serve separate purposes and in fact complement each other. If I want to revisit a piece of writing or read a particular author’s work, I will buy the journal. I also like to make a point of supporting the industry that I rely upon. However, checking the journal’s website allows me to read people’s comments, recent news, events and blog posts between issues of the physical edition.

I certainly hope that this isn’t the death of the book, but that digital publishing will allow writers, readers and the industry as a whole to move forward with other art forms that have already embraced new technology. We don’t want to be behind the eight ball. Of course there are many issues to consider. Copyright, the survival of the publishing industry and capacity for writers to support themselves are just a few that have my head spinning. I don’t know what will happen, but at this stage all I can do is keep writing and reading – both online and off – and be open to future possibilities.

Lina Vale

Lina Vale is a professional writing and editing student at RMIT. She writes non-fiction, poetry and short stories.

More by Lina Vale ›

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  1. Very good post on this here.

    As the publishing industry wobbles and Kindle sales jump, book romanticists cry themselves to sleep. But really, what are we shedding tears over?

    We’re losing the throwaway paperback.
    The airport paperback.
    The beachside paperback.

    We’re losing the dredge of the publishing world: disposable books. The book printed without consideration of form or sustainability or longevity. The book produced to be consumed once and then tossed. The book you bin when you’re moving and you need to clean out the closet.

    These are the first books to go. And I say it again, good riddance.

  2. You raise some interesting questions, and some of them have been my own. Will having your book published as an eBook be considered as special as a printed book? What happens to book launches and signings?

    And the piece Jeff linked to was very interesting and destroyed a few myths. I’m interested by his assertion that screens will develop to the point where they don’t hurt out eyes.

  3. Benjamin asks:
    ‘Will having your book published as an eBook be considered as special as a printed book? What happens to book launches and signings?’
    No, it won’t but that’s because the sense of ‘specialness’ about publishing a book is largely a romantic legacy of the literary past, a legacy manifested most clearly in those creative writing students want to publish but show no particular interest in reading. For such people, becoming a ‘published writer’ is significant not because of what the publication may communicate to anyone but because a ‘real book’ still has a mystical aura that announces its author as creative and special and inspired. But one kinda suspects that it’s an aura that doesn’t really impact on anyone much outside a pretty small writing scene.
    It’s certainly true that publishing online or in electronic form doesn’t have the cachet of publishing in print. But IMO the destruction of that mystical conception of authorhood is almost certainly a good thing, since it might encourage us to talk more about content and communication, which seems more important.

  4. Craig Mod also said:

    Six years. Focused on printed books. In the 00s.

    And I loved it. I loved the process. The finality of the end product. I loved the sexy-as-hell tactility of those little ink and paper bricks.

    I think it will take time for writers and readers to see a shift in the cultural worth of the digitally published text.

  5. I’m with Lina, I like to be able to support the printed word when I can afford to.

    And I am also hung up on the notion whereby ‘posession of objects’ is still important, I just really like to be able to own the physical version of things.

    Ebooks on a portable reader have no seperate (visual) identity from device. A book is a book, unattached to anything else (other than my obsession with them!)

    But the online environment beats the printed book for collaboration/interaction hands down.

  6. Like it or not, digital publishing will become the dominant means of distribution. Book romantics, myself among them, may need to be content with nostalgic fetishism. Collectors and bespoke publishers will prosper in niche markets. My guess is that the surge in digital publishing will result in more ‘books’ being published, rather like the proliferation of bands that has followed the digital distribution of music. Will this mean a power shift from publishing houses to distributors? The Walmart Syndrome is not yet as rife in Australia as in other markets. Our healthy independent sector could suffer. It will certainly mean a greater emphasis on penetrative marketing techniques that may further dumb down the whole business. I dread any further rise in writer celebrity. And what will the world be without bookshops to browse in, not to mention airports without stacks of titles with shiny lettering?

  7. The other day I purchased via Amazon Kindle for iPhone ‘Union Atlantic’ by Adam Haslett. This was chiefly for reasons of cost (the hardcover version plus shipping from the US was going to cost around $40. The e-version, around $11.) This e-book purchase was not just cheap, but fast. As an obsessive book lover, few things are as exciting. But then a real fear got hold of me: how was I to know that this ‘text’ – which is what it was, not a book in the traditional sense – was 1. actually the book I had paid for by the author I had expected; and 2. how was I to know that this text was complete – ie the complete text that Haslett assumed would be in my hands. These questions of authenticity had never occurred to me when purchasing a physical book. Book shopping had always had such an assurance about it; the book one chose was usually identical or at least appeared identical to all of the other books of the same title in the bookshop pile, offering some sort of assurance about authenticity from these objective things. The thing that stresses me about e-books is that there is no way to really know that you are getting what you think you’re getting. For instance, and before we get into secret agent interventions, an electronic glitch can affect the end product much more so than with a physical book where there is some quality control. (And they’re so ephemeral. It’s easy to forget that one has an e-book in this world of informational and format overload.)

  8. I have just started publishing ebooks and am enjoying it immensely. But, I would be embarrassed to call myself “a writer” in public without something a lot more substantial than digital self-publishing (which is more often than not just modern vanity publishing).

    Having said that, there is some fantastic stuff out there that people are giving away for free while at the same time a lot of rubbish is being published by the big publishing houses.

    1. Hi Johnny,

      I certainly didn’t mean to ’embarrass’ myself by calling myself a ‘writer’, however, I do write and wanted to express my fears about digital publishing from that point of view. When is one qualified to describe themselves as a writer?

      1. Sorry Lina,

        I was actually only talking about myself in that comment. I would consider guest blogging for Overland a lot more substantial than what I am doing.

        And as I said, there are writers doing things on ebooks that are fantastic while I keep finding nothing but crap on the bookshelves of Borders and their ilk.

        As for when I would call myself a writer, I am not really sure. I’ll know it when I get there.

        1. Sorry Johnny,

          I think that I misunderstood you! However, you are making a valid point. It is always extremely difficult to take the plunge and call yourself a writer. But the most important thing is to believe in what you are writing. Your messages are sharp and well executed – I think that now is definitely the time to call yourself a writer in public.

  9. I’m as much a bibliophile as you’re likely to find but I grew up with books coming with return slips that had the stamped date of everyone who had previously read the book. I rarely owned a book throughout my childhood. The library was where all my books belonged, so I never had this sense that I had to own the paper. It’s a kind of extraction which leaves the reader with a carcass to dispose of afterwards. I’ve now got many books that are precious to me, but I can’t say I stroke any of them or take them to bed with me to read. There’s still a process of extraction, and if I continue to own the paper afterwards, it’s like keeping photos to remind me of important events and loved ones.

    Having said that–> the new medium will suit certain forms better than others. The opening comments of a recent issue of Wet Ink (responding to some of these questions) pointed out that the book already is an ideal technology, developed over hundreds of years, to transmit a long code. I certainly think this is true for the novel, though I’d agree with Mr. Mod that the airport throwaway will be an exception. Environmentally speaking, the more books that go that way the better. Poetry and short stories might also find new life in eBooks. They’re barely surviving in the paper medium, so for those of us who love poetry and the short form, things can only get better.

  10. I was in a meeting the other day where the company I work for was considering a mobile application for an upcoming campaign. Someone asked why the company didn’t present an iphone application as an option. He said even though everyone in the room at that moment probably had an iphone in their pocket, the market penetration was still about 20%, which is about where it is in America.

    Now the iphone was an improved mobile phone – a device most people in Australia already have and were using daily.

    The ipad is not.

    It may be naive, but I think that demand sells technology and not the other way around. If people want to read on the beach, stuff a book in their backpack, lend dog eared books to their friends, then they’ll continue to buy books.

    Everyone is talking about the ebooks as the replacement of books, but few are talking about the ebook and traditional book co-existing. Think of the dominant market of over 50s female readers out there, how many of those are waiting on bit torrent for the latest copy of Dan Brown’s best seller? Rather than be the death of books, I think it’s more likely that the ebook will extend the reach of books, with the demand for both formats increasing.

    CDs are fading as they offer no advantages over digital formats. Vinyl LPs still sell (albeit in small quantities) as they do have an advantage. Printed books will always have advantages, and I can’t see consumers abandoning the basic advantages they have enjoyed for centuries just because Apple tells them to.

    And for that matter, no one has talked about short stories yet. Surely the digital format is the perfect home for a burgeoning short story market.

  11. I’m into all good things for all people, and not anti-internet or anti digital publishing per se … but the other day when I saw a man reading a Kindle (or somesuch) on the the train, I felt an urge to slap it from his hands. For reasons unknown, I find human beings staring into machines for a sense of inspiration, pleasure and communication disheartening and disquieting. I doubt it’s rational. Lucky, I’m a pacifist and the train traveller will never know the brief and disturbing thought that came upon me.

    1. Hi Clare, I understand how you feel. It is scary to stop and contemplate where society is heading with its worship of technological gadgets. Lately, however, I have found myself yearning for an iPhone, and feeling somewhat behind the eight ball because I don’t have one. I wonder if I will eventually feel the same way about an iPad? Goodness knows. For now I am happy with a crusty old paperback.

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