There is a war about to begin, yet no blood will be shed. There is a change coming, yet, as is the way of things, most people won’t notice anything unusual. On one side, the rhetoric reads “what is at stake is nothing less than our very freedom” . On the other side, neophytes in metaphorical black suits are attempting to progress the “evolution” of one of the oldest and longest standing conventions in the human world: the book.
The E-Reader “craze” cannot really be classified a “craze” anymore. Craze was last year, or maybe the year before. Craze was before one in four Americans owned at least one tablet or e-reader. Now, there is clearly something larger at stake. Experts across the literary community, who were scratching their heads as they gazed into their crystal balls last year, are now rolling up their sleeves, choosing sides, forming alliances, and preparing for the war over literature.
There are champions on both sides of this battleground, and as the warriors who will ultimately decide the future of books, it is our job to weigh in on the argument, and to fight its battles with our wallets. The debate, which was discussed at a May 2011 lecture sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, essentially hinges on a universally accepted prediction: that within five years, e-books will comprise 50% of all book sales in the United States.
That Wall Street Journal panel, which included authors, columnists, and publishers, and who discussed the future, potential impact, and sustainability of e-books on May 17, 2011 in New York City, provided a glimpse into the minds of the people who truly love books. The problem, they agreed, was that simple love wasn’t enough. The industry, as it is, has forced people to choose sides. The “Adapt or Die” mentality of the Big Six U.S. Publishers, many writers, and upstart youths has, however, created an equal opposition to the seemingly unstoppable rise in e-book sales figures.
The primary concern of anti-e-bookers, which has been compellingly argued by authors such as Seanan McGuire, is that the less privileged will be forgotten. In September 2011, she openly questioned the impact of e-books and e-readers on lower income families. Those concerns run congruent to statistical data, which estimates that 31% of households with e-readers earn between $30,000-$75,000 annually. Ignoring the huge difference between the high and low of that range, one must still keep in mind that $30,000 is nearly double the minimum wage in most states. And, as McGuire has said:
I grew up so far below the poverty line that you couldn’t see it from my window, no matter how clear the day was. My bedroom was an ocean of books. Almost all of them were acquired second hand…if books had required having access to a piece of technology – even a “cheap” piece of technology, I would never have been able to get them. The up front cost would have put them out of my reach forever.
The potential for an entire class of people in the U.S. to wind up without access to literature is alarming, and what’s more: we must acknowledge that these concerns are genuine. That means that people who are living below the poverty line will have reduced access to books, since library funding is also decreasing, and in states like California, has been entirely eliminated. Therefore, it stands to reason that a particular group of people in the U.S. will actually have a more limited access to information since the civil rights and women’s suffrage movements of the 1960’s.
Still, though, technology is not entirely harmful. In fact, above the poverty line, it has helped to improve literacy- with technologies like e-readers, and twitter providing more accessible and “cool” forums to boost reading. To that end, authors like Neil Gaiman have reminded us:
We write. We read. That’s literacy. And [technology like] twitter is simply a medium for communicating in words…It’s not long since the death of the written word was being touted. Instead, we write more and we read more.
And thus, the great divide is being made. In the simplest terms, those who love the look, feel, and smell of books are being labeled “traditionalists”, and those who enjoy the portability and convenience of e-books are propagating the death of the codex book. But the truth is, it’s not that simple. To be certain, there is something amiss with the publishing industry, and the divide that booksellers are creating between readers is almost as ugly as the one that e-publishing has created for writers (but that is a story for a different day.).
Adding to the fodder, however, are new concerns arising from government proposed censorship of the internet with proposed bills including SOPA and PIPA (both of which met a firestorm of opposition from internet users). The potential sort of unchecked power is what has made still more authors wary of digital books. Jonathan Franzen, who is a New York Times best-selling author, has weighed in on e-books in recent weeks:
I think for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience…Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around.
Franzen’s argument, originally published in The Telegraph, is the most compelling yet, amidst a laundry list of concerns over this new technology. Still, though, when it’ is “in the cloud”, a book cannot be censored for long. It cannot be symbolically burnt, or withheld indefinitely. While concerns of censorship or change threaten the permanence of books, they also provide a level of accessibility, and with that accessibility comes the potential to re-engage readerships like never before. Even now, publishing companies are working to re-present stories to readers in new ways. These innovations, they hope, will help to engage readers and bring aspects of the book that have been “limited” to the imagination out in the open.
At the end of the day, however, the book war, like most wars, is rooted in money, but masked in ideology. It will be won with sales figures, and with commitment from readerships. Whether younger generations embrace the technology will not be a question: they will use only what is available to them, or what seems fashionable. The question is, however, who will make the first mistake. Just as technological giants such as Twitter and Google have been criticized for censorship, if an e-book distributor or government chooses to censor book content, the potential resulting backlash could be so detrimental that it ensures the survival of codex books. On the flip side, however, if e-books can form a symbiotic relationship with institutions like libraries, and communities could find a way to weather consumers’ financial burdens, then there is a real chance that print books may have their pages numbered.
Use the hashtag #bookwar to discuss e-readers on Twitter
Read Seanan McGuire’s full article on E-readers, Across The Digital Divide here
Read the UT-San Diego Pew Institute’s Findings here
Read The Telegraph’s Full Article on Jonathan Franzen and E-Readers here
Watch the full video of the WSJ Lecture on The Future of the Book here
Follow Mike Vidafar on Twitter @mikevidafar