Monday, November 19, 2012

Five Ways NOT to Write about E-Books

People have strong feelings about books. Vehement, emotional discussions about the fate of print books in a publishing industry evolving toward all-digital output are a dime a dozen online. At one extreme, the die-hard paper-lovers alternately thump their chests and wail the plight of the demise of traditional books, while at the other extreme, insatiable tech junkies turn their noses up at archaic, dead-tree publications as if they were totemic relics of a savage age.

And then last week, Andrew Piper, in an article in Slate, makes the extreme statement that reading an e-book isn't really reading. (I and many others read that article quite ironically on some sort of glowing screen, not on paper. Or, I guess we didn't really read it, but somehow the words got into our brains.)
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Photo credit: dno1967b

If there's one thing we should have learned from the past election cycle, it's that extreme views are always too, well, extreme. What is often most lacking in these arguments is a little perspective.

If you're going to talk about your opinions, expectations, or predictions about the future of publishing, I urge you to take a deep breath, take stock of the situation, and get some perspective before you start your rant. And if you find your argument has led you into one of the following corners, you might want to stop painting.

Extreme Argument 1: Digital Publishing Is the End of Literature

The controversy of e-books versus p-books is all about publishing, not literature. The printing press didn't end literature, nor did the typewriter, nor the mimeograph, nor the modern copy machine. Nor will e-books.

Writers have always found ways to put abstract symbols in a meaningful order to convey information and ideas, and they always will.

Extreme Argument 2: The Evolution to E-Books is Unprecedented

The transition from p-books to e-books is a transition from analog to digital. Who has ever gone through such a shocking (r)evolution?

Almost every form of cultural and artistic expression, that's who. Movies began moving from analog to digital in the 1980s. At home, grainy VHS and unfortunate Betamax cassettes were tossed away in favor of (for a few) those giant video discs, and then DVDs, and now Blu-Rays. In the theater, all those old analog editing methods that make a movie look so hokey now gave way to digital processing and green screens, so that now entire movies are shot, edited, and presented digitally. No film whatsoever.

But still we get some beautiful, wonderful films that use the old analog processes.

And at the heart of movies, the "standard" form of presentation -- the movie theater -- has remained. Home entertainment systems, streaming video, and online downloads haven't replaced the movie theater.

And then there's music. We went from live bands and orchestras to gramophones, record players, eight-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, and now MP3s and recordings that never exist in a physical form -- just strings of ones and zeroes that get passed from one electronic device to another. And yet music thrives.

Source: Meme Jelly
And it isn't just recordings. New technological developments from innovators like Leon Theremin, Robert Moog, and Les Paul were taken up by serious musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Franco Evangelisti, and John Cage, who experimented with adding digital aspects to performances. Then, recordings were enhanced using digital technology, which evolved into works that are entirely digital -- from Mannheim Steamroller to Dubstep.

But still, music is far from dead.

We see the evolution in almost every art form: photography, cartoons, sculpture, theatre (for what is a movie but recorded and enhanced theatre?), and other performance pieces. (Everything, it seems, except dance.)

And yet these art forms survive. Literature will, too.

Extreme Argument 3: All Changes Are Permanent

Even if e-books were to account for 99% of the new book market, there's no reason we have to stay there. If there's a market for print books, someone will be there to fill it.

We've seen this in music already: Vinyl LP production all but disappeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but it's making a comeback in a major way. Vinyl sales have doubled twice since 2008, and they're on course to double again by 2014.

Extreme Argument 4: Infallible Predictions

Remember: Until it happens, it's all speculation.
"Four or five frigates will do the business without any military force." British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North, referring to the uprising in the American colonies, 1754
"I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning or of expectation of good results from any of the trials we hear of." Physicist and engineer William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, 1896
"Anything that can be invented has been invented." Charles Duell, official at the U.S. Patent Office, 1899
Mick Jagger
Mick Jagger trapped inside an e-book.
(Photo credit: nancyrowina)
"Men will not fly for 50 years." Wilbur Wright, 1901
"We don't like their sound, and besides, guitar music is on the way out." Decca execs in 1962, when turning down the chance to sign The Beatles
"That singer will have to go." Eric Easton, first manager of the Rolling Stones, referring to Mick Jagger, 1963
"It will be years — not in my time — before a woman will become Prime Minister." Margaret Thatcher, 1969

Extreme Argument 5: It's Either One or the Other

There's no reason e-books and p-books can't peacefully coexist, just like landlines and cellphones. E-commerce and storefronts. Ketchup and salsa.

Some books are for browsing, and p-books are better for that. Other books are for reading once and then forgetting; e-books fit that bill perfectly. And there's a whole spectrum in between guided completely by consumers' tastes.

Oh No! Change!

Yes, the publishing industry is changing, but the fact is that it always has been. And that's true of any industry. In business (and in life), change is the only constant, so just chill out and figure out how to go with the flow, and any other clich├ęs that may apply here.
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