Brave New (Writing) World: E-Books Become Ubiquitous

Over on the SFWA Blog, Cat Rambo did an intriguing piece about the future of electronic publishing in which she made the following provocative observation:

Any debate about the current struggle between electronic and traditional print publishing begins with this fact: no one thinks that online publishing will not eventually overtake the traditional, hold-in-your-hand, made-of-dead-trees model.

Copia e-readerI certainly agree with her. While the reading devices are still shaking out — here on BVC we’ve been discussing a new one that will supposedly retail for $99 — the writing is now on the cyber wall, not the paper one.

I was glad that Cat phrased it so bluntly, because I still talk to a lot of people who want to argue about whether e-publishing is here to stay. A friend of mine was grousing about the proliferation of “gadgets” just the other day. He thinks we waste too much time and money on them. That might be true, if they were just a passing fancy.

But while the specific devices we use are going to change and change again — which can be frustrating if you’re more interested in, say, reading books than in playing with gadgets — I do not doubt for a moment that we’ve crossed the Rubicon here.

Every news report I listen to mentions e-book readers. Barnes & Noble is up for sale because they’re losing money (and they’re the biggest bookseller in the country). Amazon says it’s selling more e-books than print ones. And even the staid Washington Lawyer — the magazine for the D.C. Bar Association — has a feature article on e-books this issue.

I think I decided there was no going back when I realized that lawyers who subscribe to my company’s publications — which are very expensive — were reading them on their smartphones. People who need information fast do not want to wait to get print in the mail.

But as irritated as I get with people who seem determined to resist the changes, I do have some sympathy with the Luddites among us, because I know that the original Luddites — the weavers who destroyed the newfangled mechanical looms — were skilled workers who were being done out of their jobs. A lot of people have lost their jobs in the last couple of years, and while the economy is getting the blame, I suspect technological change means that a lot of those jobs aren’t coming back.

I mean, when you’re stuck in voice mail jail, do you ever remember that every business phone used to get answered by a person who would direct your call to the right person? I thought the answering machine was a great invention when it first came out, but it never occurred to me that it would end up replacing people; I thought it was just going to be used by those of us who couldn’t afford a person to answer for us.

Smashing machines or refusing to use them isn’t going to stop the changes, but let’s not kid ourselves: This is a revolution and some people who haven’t done anything wrong are going to get hurt. It’s sobering.

But the changes bring good things, too. Sitting here surrounded by way too many books (and yet frequently moaning that I don’t have a thing to read), I look forward to the day when I have a library of thousands of books that’s the size of a nice trade paperback. A searchable library, so I can find that damn phrase I vaguely remember that I’d like to quote, or that bit of history that was in one of those books I read 15 years ago.

Besides, these days I’m publishing online, and even find myself submitting to the good online markets ahead of the print ones, in part because I suspect they’re getting wider readership. In fact, this week you can read my latest story — “Or We Will All Hang Separately” — on Futurismic (not to mention all my work here on Book View Cafe).


Brewing Fine FictionI have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction. My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.

The Clarion West Write-a-thon has ended, but you can still sponsor writers after the fact. I did meet my goals: I finished two stories that are out at editors right now, and did most of the work on a third, plus made progress on not one, but two novels. Next time I do this, though, I’m going to think of something to measure progress besides word count: I had a devil of a time figuring out how to count the hours I spent on revision!



Brave New (Writing) World: E-Books Become Ubiquitous — 7 Comments

  1. One of my writing group peers has *two* e-readers. She’s also a musician, and told me that many pieces of sheet music are now available in the public domain. She looks forward to the day when there are music stands which have e-readers in them that not only allow the user to download sheet music, but annotate the music as needed.

  2. Wow, that would be cool. I suspect my uncle, who sings in choirs, would like that. He’s already practicing online — there are apparently programs where you can sing along and hear the other parts while you’re singing.

  3. I’m with you on this, Nancy. I don’t care how my work is published. It can be published on the side of a blimp, as long as I get paid and paid well. Leaving aside the issue of the economics of e-books for the moment, though, I have one serious concern about them. How do you pass on a favorite book — or even give — a favorite book to a friend? What happens when the latest e-reader gives way to the next e-reader and all the books on all the old platforms are now unreadable?

  4. And there are an entire suite of features about a paper book, that tie into that. A book signed by a friend or relative is a great keepsake; a book that you read in a certain edition when you were young takes you right back to that age when you hold it again. None of these things can be done with a Nook.

  5. All those things Diane and Brenda raise are true, and as someone who has a stack of VCR tapes and who has held on to some special LPs even though I don’t have a record player, I understand the problem.

    I know there are methods of sharing e-files, because my public library loans out e-books. (I haven’t tried this yet, so I don’t know how it works.) I think the technology still has a ways to go before we get something that works really well.

    As for keepsakes — well, I think print publishing will say around for artistic books, at least, and that probably includes some of the great children’s picture books. But we might lose many of those keepsakes, just as in this world where we email all the time we are losing all those collected letters from lost lovers and the like.

    Change is hard and not all of it is good.

  6. There is also the issue of durability/readability across platforms. Media in general have been getting more and more fungible with each change in technology. We’ve been losing whole libraries of data because we don’t have readers for them any more. We’re running the danger of finding ourselves in an eternal prison of “now” (which has repercussions on the chances of our long-term survival, to say nothing of our emotional and intellectual status).

  7. Yes, I think that’s another one of those technological challenges that needs to be addressed. Right now printed books last longer, though they don’t have indefinite life, and they can be used by most people easily.

    I hope some of the developers of e-readers are thinking about these things. I feel certain there are ways to address it. It probably won’t be done by Microsoft, though, which is convinced we all want new versions of MS-Word that are incompatible with older versions. What we need are serious readers who also have engineering minds.

    And after all, a lot of older books are only available in a few dusty libraries. And keeping years worth of magazines is a trial, but many of the stories in those magazines are worth reading again.