what the kindle taught me about my reading habits, and why the print novel will never die (maybe)
I once had an argument with my ex-husband (okay, we had many arguments, but that’s not the point) about the future of traditional publishing: within five to ten years, he declared airily, print publishing would cease to exist.
No way, said I, because people still like and need the physical, the tangible. No matter how digital our world gets, we still exist within flesh-and-blood bodies that crave satisfaction of the senses. And there is a sensual component to reading, as any book lover will tell you: the heft of the book, the cut of the pages, the dolphin-skin feel of a new glossy hardcover, the eye-candy pleasures of the cover art.
Plus I love to read in the bath. Who wants to take something electronic into a bubble bath?
This argument happened over ten years ago. My ex-husband wasn’t right, exactly, but maybe he was just off by a decade (or less). Publishers are scrambling to figure out how to survive (ie: profit from) the new digital reality. There is still a generation of readers who probably won’t accept an e-reader unless you jam it into their cold, dead hands — or at least that’s what they think. But there are generations rising who live and breathe the digital air and might look askance at anything that can’t contain a hyperlink (“Wait a sec, how the hell can I click on this? You mean I click and nothing happens?“). They are the future, not us.
I love my Kindle. I carry it around in my bag like a chihuahua (except it doesn’t bark, which is good). It wasn’t always this way. I resisted buying one for months. When it did arrive from Amazon, I let the box sit around the house unopened.
I love books, and when I say that I mean book-as-content and book-as-thing-on-shelf.
Now, when I buy a book, I face a decision: do I want it as physical object, or do I want it on my Kindle?
When it’s strictly informational reading, it goes on my Kindle.
When it’s a book by a favorite writer, or looks like a deep, rich read, I buy it in print form. Usually hardcover.
Last book I put on my Kindle: PERSONALITY NOT INCLUDED (Why Companies Lose Their Authenticity and How Great Brands Get it Back) by Rohit Bhargava.
Last book I bought in hardcover: THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE by Orhan Pamuk.
So are there any insights I can glean from this?
There are different types of reading. Which is pretty much stating the obvious, except there seemed less reason to do so when they all got delivered in the same print-and-paper package.
There is informational reading, when you are consuming the words for no other purpose than to learn something.
And then there is the kind of reading that hits on an emotional as well as intellectual level. You become immersed in a well-crafted emotional experience (a.k.a. “a novel”). You learn by identifying with the characters and living vicariously through them. The author takes those characters — and you — on a journey.
Book-objects serve different purposes. First, they are the journey; then, after you’ve absorbed their contents, they become a souvenir of that journey. They are emotionally charged mementos. It makes you feel good to have them on your shelf, to remind you of where they took you. People will get rid of clothes they no longer have use for, but books they’ll keep forever.
You can mark up digital books, you can show passages to friends, and e-readers will eventually have social and sharing elements to equal if not surpass those activities in real life.
But digital is not a thing, and when I love a book I want to have it as a thing. Digital is transient. Digital can take you places, but it won’t leave behind souvenirs. A file in your archive doesn’t count.
As any booklover knows, you are what you read (and want to be what you want to read), which is one reason we’re always checking out each other’s bookshelves.
We use objects as touchstones of identity, we see ourselves reflected in them and angle those reflections at others. Books, by their nature, are some of the most powerful touchstones around. As ebooks become more and more the norm, the book-objects you choose to spend money and space on will say even more about who you are, or who you want others to think you are.
Besides, you can’t use digital to line the walls of your warm, cosy study.
I don’t believe print will disappear.
I believe that ebooks will rule, and traditionally published novels will be the minority. I suspect that the latter will be published with increasing sophistication and artistry, in order to be true ‘objects’ a reader might want to collect, and to set them apart from books printed-on-demand. The old school of filter first (via agents and editors), then publish, will turn into ‘editorial curation’: announcing to the reader that this is the best of the best. Traditional hardcover will signal prestige – the best fiction, the best writers – and writers who get published this way will form a relatively small exclusive club.
Ebooks will be the norm, but this won’t happen until the right (and inexpensive) e-reader hits the market – probably still several years off. If print publishing is about the best, then digital publishing is about volume: publish first, then filter. Readers will rely on trusted sources to point them to the good stuff, and some of those sources will become the most influential people in the industry. Online Oprahs.
Mass-market paperbacks will disappear entirely.
The writer, meanwhile, will struggle with the same questions as today: how to get good, and how to get noticed.