Monday, August 8, 2011

Nostalgia vs the Future: ebooks - Yours and Mine

“Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), Leon Ames, the head of the family, returns home from a hard day at the office, and wants to delay supper so he can soak in a cool tub of water for one solid hour this very hot day. I don’t know if he reads in the tub. One of the chief complaints detractors about e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook, etc., have is this reading in the tub business.

Fooled you. Today’s post is not going to be about an old movie. It’s about the revolution currently happening in the publishing industry. Since most classic film fans are also great readers, I wanted to address a few thoughts to you, because you are readers -- who may not be aware of the maelstrom occurring. To some, it represents Barbarians at the city gates; to others, a sense of freedom in the wake of revolution. I don’t think either faction is entirely correct.

There are plenty of other blog posts setting the Internet on fire wherein writers are hashing out the pros and cons of this self published e-book stuff with other writers. Literary agents are jumping ship, or adding e-publisher to their shingles. I have nothing of value to add to their discussion, it would only be preaching to the choir anyway. Instead, I wanted to address those swell people who email me and want to know when an e-book I’ve published is going to be available as a “regular” book.

We have all become classic film fans due to technology -- very few of us would ever have access to these films if it were not for TV, then the VCR, then the DVD, etc. Most of us do not simply want to watch favorite films (caught, if lucky, once in ten years, as used to be the case), we want to own them and have easy access to them.

Convenience is the chief motivator of technology. We’re always looking to make things easier, cheaper, and more convenient.

E-books were invented, and are each year taking over more and more of the market share of published fiction and nonfiction, because of their convenience and economy.

I won’t go into a whole history of publishing, or the industry-shattering changes taking place today -- you can find that with a quick Internet search (has anybody seen any encyclopedia salesmen, lately?), but one thing most readers may not know is that when a “regular” book is published, most of the copies that are printed are not sold. Bookstores order more than they need, and are allowed to return the ones that don’t sell back to the publisher. These returned copies can no longer be sold as “new”, lose market value, and most of the paperbacks, at least, are thrown in the proverbial dumpster out back. From printing press to landfill. Or back to the pulp mill.

It reminds me of that line from “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) when Dana Andrews remarks on the field of brand-new military planes that are no longer needed at the end of the war: “From the factory to the scrapheap.”

For people who prefer “regular” books because of the feel, or the smell, or taking in the tub, do not acknowledge that most of them are manufactured to be waste.

There are many such examples of what has driven the publishing industry to its knees in the past few decades, and I won’t list them. Suffice it to say, there are only a few major publishing companies left because they have been gobbling each other up for a long, long time.

For the writer, making a living in this structured system has always been difficult. Most novelists do not earn a living solely writing novels, even in the good old days. In the past few decades, more and more writers have been squeezed out of the publishing industry’s worsening constriction. There just isn’t enough room at the table. Unless you’re Snooki or some other no-talent celebrity.

The Internet option of self publishing e-books has in the space of only a few years, turned the industry upside down. What this means for the writer is earning a greater percentage of income on one’s books -- that will never go “out of print”. Established authors whose “regular” books have long gone out of print are scrambling to the get the rights back from the publisher, so they can turn them into self-published e-books.

What this means for the reader is a vast variety of books -- including obscure tomes that are being digitally formatted to have a new life -- to be accessed much more conveniently and cheaply. For someone like myself who does a lot of historical research, it means finding that 1867 memoir by a widget manufacturer (or what have you) right at my fingertips -- through my computer keyboard. I don’t have to fly down to East Cupcake, check into the Cheap Digs for Cheap Writers Motel, rent a car and drive to the University library and get permission to go down the cellar and find the only copy in existence.

And not having your own books go out of print -- lovely. If you’ve ever had that happen, you know how lousy it feels.

Interestingly, the elderly are among the early adapters of e-readers. The young, technologically savvy, as well, of course. But the middle aged folks, who comprise a lot of us old movie bloggers, are slower to respond.

I think we have a lot on our shoulders, caring for elderly, caring for our youngsters, and stuck in the middle, we are loathe to be dragged into a future for which we’re not ready. We’ve already got too much on our plates.

Especially if we’re the type that watch old movies as if they were a religious experience, and even listen to Old Time Radio, as many of us do.

Digitally re-mastered, that is.

Like the movies we love.

Like the music we purchase.

And now, like books.

Oh, it’s a slippery slope of compromise for us nostalgic types who want to preserve the past, but need modern technology to do it. Here’s a fun clip about an invention that combines the tradition of a typewriter with the flexibility of computer word processing:

I don’t know how many will sell, but I love that somebody worked on it.

On a recent trip, I noticed an elderly woman with a Kindle reading in a train station. She was traveling with a small group of other ladies, some club outing, I think. She was showing them her Kindle, how to use it, how to make the print bigger, etc., and they were oohing and aahing. She wouldn’t be without it, she says.

(I also saw a young Amish woman gabbing on a cell phone, but that’s another story.)

I don’t know how she came by the e-reader. I don’t know if she bought it herself, or if perhaps one of her children, stumped for an idea for a birthday present this year, thought, “Oh, well, if Mother doesn’t like it, we can always return it.”

But Mother likes it. A lot.

I knew an elderly couple who were voracious readers, this was before e-reader devices. At the end of their lives, the husband had such poor eyesight he could no longer read comfortably, even the large print books from the library weren’t doing it anymore. He finally got a device from the Commission for the Blind to magnify printed material and project it onto his TV set. He was a proud, belligerent sort of cuss, and wanted to maintain his independence. He didn’t want to be read to or give up his favorite hobby.

The wife, after a couple of operations for cataracts, had quite good vision. Her hands, however, were arthritic and holding a book, turning the pages became too painful. If she had needed large-print books, just holding one would have been agony, since they weigh more.

E-readers would have changed their lives.

Also the girl I know who has such severe allergies, she grew up in a bedroom that had to be dust-free. No wall of books for this kid. She couldn’t take it.

Empty nesters, moving to a smaller home, needing to conserve space. You can keep thousands of books on a wafer-thin tablet on your nightstand.

College kids no longer heaving 50 pounds of textbooks on their backs across the quad.

People will adapt to e-readers for their own specific reasons, but they will adapt. E-readers are not perfect, and are not traditional, they do not have that comforting familiarity that a book will have in our hands. But they are another choice.

I don’t expect “regular” books to become extinct, at least for a while. But e-readers, now that they’re here, are here for good. As a reader, I may regret the possible future loss of “regular” books, but as a writer, I am relieved to have another income stream.

That’s what it’s about for writers these days. Not banging slavish away in a garret on a great work of art. It’s all about product and income stream.

So, to answer that question about when my e-books are going to be printed as “regular” books -- I don’t know. I’d like to sometime, but it involves extra formatting, and extra expense both for me and the reader. Humbly speaking, I can’t see why a reader would pay some $15 plus postage for a book by me, an unknown writer, when they could try it out for a couple of bucks on their computer (you don’t really need to buy an e-reader, you can download books to read on your computer with e-reader software from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., that is free).

Especially in this economy.

And for the writer, there is something exciting to be sure about becoming an entrepreneur in a new era. The movies we love were once derided as “flickers”. Lillian Gish told a funny story about when she and her sister were acting “on the legitimate stage” and felt sorry for Mary Pickford when they heard the gossip that young Miss Pickford was forced by family financial problems to work in the flickers.

Not too long after that Mary became “America’s Sweetheart” and moved into a Beverly Hills mansion. We should all have such hard luck.

Or, Old Time Radio fans, suppose you’re Jack Benny, working in vaudeville, and somebody comes up and says, “Hey, something called radio is starting up. It’s 1920 and the very first commercial station, KDKA in Pittsburgh is on the air. The customers don’t pay for the service; we get paid through advertising sponsors. Want to do a radio show?”

Now, do you say, “It’ll never last. It’s just not the same as vaudeville. No thanks.”

It’s an interesting decision to have to make, especially when you consider that in sight of 12 years, Jack Benny made his fame and fortune on his radio show that lasted a couple of decades -- before he went into that other new-fangled invention, television.

(Okay, OTR fans know that Jack Benny’s show was on NBC, and KDKA was a CBS station. I don’t mean that he was literally approached to work on that radio station.)

Well, folks, e-books are here. It’s 1920 and station KDKA is on the air. There’s no turning back now. Do you step in front of the mic, or go back to the burlesque theater?

Do you buy a radio, or do you say, “I’m not having one of those things in my house”?

Maybe Leon Ames is really reading on a Kindle in his bathtub before dinner. Ah, but he had another other technology woes, didn’t he? That new-fangled telephone in his dining room. And that string of electric lights beaming at the St. Louis World’s Fair at the end of the movie would surely threaten the nostalgic ambience of the gas-lighting in his home. Oh, the good old days, when a large house, an extended family, and a servant, could be supported on one income.

It’s okay to be teary-eyed over such things. But that doesn’t help you survive today.

By the way, I’ve just released my latest novel on e-book, “The Current Rate of Exchange” about an American woman’s post-9/11 journey to New Zealand. More about that on Thursday.

Well, you didn’t think you’d get away without a commercial, did you? This is America.

I’d like to know what you read. Do read more fiction or nonfiction? Do you buy most of your books, or do you get most of them from the library? What kinds of books interest you, what kinds of stories are your favorites? Do you read in the tub?


Caftan Woman said...

My books are my friends. I have lots of friends. I have too many friends! They are crowding me. There's no more room in the **** house. As I draw nearer to the cheque when I can afford my e-reader, I get more excited.

OMG! That USB typewriter is amazing. I got weepy watching Lucy deal with the unraveling typewriter ribbon in "Miss Grant Takes Richmond".

LucieWickfield said...

Wow, really enjoyed your post! I've been fascinated by the e-book debate. I once heard a woman pooh-pooh the Kindle because she couldn't put it over her face and snooze, as she could with her paper back. :)

I'm definitely a fiction girl. My books usually come from the library. I have a weakness for classic fantasy and Dickens (though the two never mix). A bubble bath plus a good book equals bliss. :)

Rich said...

I have a little experience in self-publishing, and I remember when print-on-demand started to become a thing, and then of course the rise of e-books and e-readers, so I completely sympathize with you when you talk about e-books as a revenue stream for modern times. I imagine I'll have to get on board with them sooner or later as well...

One thing you didn't really go into is the decline of bookstores. As the chain stores struggle to stay afloat, I've found that the smaller, independent, local stores that have managed to survive have adapted as well. Here in New York, my favorite independent bookstore deals in e-books considerably, and they make it a big part of their online presence. In addition, they work hard at building a sense of community with their numerous in-store events. People see that local bookstores can offer not just books, but a unique experience that can't be found anywhere else, and that's important.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Caftan Woman, you remind me that "Miss Grant" was on again recently and Once Again I Forgot to Record It. Sometimes I could kick myself.

Lucie, I'm a Dickens girl myself. As for sleeping under a book, I never did that, but I did fall asleep on top of my old manual typewriter once. The mark on my forehead from the platen finally went away.

Rich, you raise an excellent point about indie bookstores adapting. I think, despite the challenges, they are in a better position (for once) than the chain stores to adapt to the New Normal.

John Hayes said...

Wonderful essay! One problem I've always had with the luddite mentality, at least in this day & age is: how far back do you go? How much technology is "ok," & when is it no longer "acceptable"? I know people who deride cell phones or Twitter, for instance, but think nothing of email, which is pretty doggoned newfangled in the larger scheme of things. I'm really glad that you've been issuing these e-books--I just need to get to reviewing them on RFB! Maybe now that I've moved I'll have more time. & I'll admit to having a serious yen for a Kindle.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, John, good to hear from you again. In thinking a lot about this lately, it's occurred to me that your poetry would have a completely new audience if issued as e-books. Readers of ebooks seem to be eager to try genres that are new to them.

Caftan Woman said...

Jacqueline, have you noticed the "Liebster blog" floating around? A new acknowledgement of favourite blogs, and I have forwarded one to you with the kindness with which it was presented to me.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you kindly, CW. I appreciate that very much.

Yvette said...

A wonderful essay, Jacqueline. I enjoyed reading it even if I am one of those 'luddites' that everyone talks about. I see the good points of the e-book format. When and if the time comes when I need to magnify type much more than my reading glasses can handle, I'll think the whole thing over. I would definitely have one if I traveled a lot or if I were a college student.

And while I realize that things will never be the same, it doesn't mean I have to go with the flow. At least not right now. The simple truth is I just don't like reading pages and pages on a screen. It becomes a chore.

Reading shouldn't be a chore.

Right now, most of my books come from the library. Although I've got bookshelves in every room in the house and books on every shelf.

I like being able to buy used books online (though I'd rather do it in person) for a few dollars and do so occasionally.

But the library is my main source at the moment.

I love fiction, mysteries, thrillers, some sci-fi, some fantasy, art books, the occasional classic lit, travel books, animal books, biography, non-fiction adventure, WWII history, English history and even a romance now and then.

I guess you could say I just plain love books.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by Yvette. I think you read more than anyone I know, and with such a wide variety of interests.

It's okay to be a Luddite in some things. I admit to listening to 78 rpm records and mowing my lawn with a pushmower. My reasons for putting out my own novels as ebooks is purely a business move.

Like you, I also like used book stores, and also booksellers outdoor fleamarkets (which we have a lot of in my neck of the woods in the good weather). So much fun to browse.

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