Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Technology and Books.

Recently, I fielded a phone call from a woman who wanted to "get in touch with a literary agent." Le sigh. But, we get a lot of these. I (usually) know how to handle them. So I give her my usual shpeel about researching online, blahblah, queries, blahblah, QueryShark...and she interrupts me.

So at first I'm all "Gurrrrrllll..."

But then I realize what she's saying: She doesn't have a computer.

What? What do you mean, "no computer?" How do you email breathe? I was literally speechless for a second.

"Do you have a local library?" I asked. She harrumphed.

She went on to express frustration that her writing had to be "shoved into a computer" in order to get it looked at. I mumbled something about efficiency (which is actually a totally foreign concept to me) until she hung up. Not my finest phone moment.

My first instinct was to laugh. But this actually brings us to a crux of the current book world.

On a small scale, for agencies, the electronic vs hard copy debate is about equality. Email queries are preferred: they make no waste paper and, because agents are already addicted to looking at their email, they get answered faster. But we've found some good stuff in the hard copy queries; they shouldn't be frowned upon.

More broadly, tension between old and new, print and electronic, is palpable among a lot of readers. You know, the ones who don't want to shift to ebooks because they "like how the pages smell." Now, this is not me (I have no heart, so...). But it is a lot of other people.

Publishing is one of the oldest industries in the world. It's not quick to change. It's not on the vanguard of anything--except maybe cultural trends. We sort of like it that way. Yet this post, by a publishing person is tagged "technology." And it's on the interwebz!!

Publishing's next chapter is about new and old finally having to come to terms. I've made light, in the past, of the tendency to call digital initiatives "a brave new world." But that's actually not fair. It's reductive to scoff at that.

People who express discomfort and apprehension about publishing+tech aren't really being Luddites. What they're really reacting to is a very real fear that something essential to books, reading, and the noble art of publishing books, of promoting art and artists, will be lost. Or at least irrevocably changed. For the first time in hundreds of years.

And that's nothing to scoff at.

The reality is that books are going to change, maybe dramatically. The way people write and the expectations they have for their publishing journey will change. Readers' expectations will change (what do you mean, Jonathan Safran Foer, that I can't read TREE OF CODES on my KINDLE?!).

I think we should all be aware that, as exciting as all of this digital stuff is, print books have been moving us, deeply, for nearly six hundred years. That matters. It always will.


  1. Great post, and great point.

    CDs are still around. I have friends who buy LPs. I love reading books on my iPad, but I will be forever buying bookshelves.

    Books will never go away. I can't go running up to Amy Hempel and beg her to sign my iPad.

    And while I understand the nostalgia aspect, the anti-tech crowd seems to be missing an important point: One day every book ever published will be available immediately. Isn't that something we can all be excited about?

  2. I have a few artist friends that are deliberate Luddites, because they see technology as anti-creativity. It may be because I'm of a later generation than they are, but to me technology is a partner that has opened up so many resources that I would otherwise not have known about. And as a photographer, the digital revolution has made my audience so much wider, as well as allowing me to experiment with different techniques.

    Although we are complete bibliophiles (close to 2,000 books now I think--stopped counting at 1500), we got a kindle last year. We are quickly fitting e-books into our book-buying heirarchy:
    1)Books that must be owned in signed and/or limited editions
    2)Books that must be owned in hardcover, first editions preferred
    3)Hardcover bargain books
    4)Trade paperbacks
    6)Mass market paperbacks

    So it's interesting that for us, ebooks are mainly pushing mass markets out of our house. We still use the library quite a bit (when it's open) but will often buy the book if we would read it again.

  3. I can understand the lady not owning a computer, but she had to find the number somewhere...and snail mail is still an option.

  4. @Rob--it definitely isn't the same, but wouldn't it be KICKASS to be able to ask someone to sign your iPad or smartphone with some sort of stylus??? Can someone get on that!? (Maybe I'll do it...hmm)

  5. Already started the stylus project. I'll cut you in on the profits.

    And here's something that I just read and it made me think of your post: Writers avoiding wifi so they can actually get some work done.


    Forced Luddite-ism?

  6. Great post! I have to wonder how the woman wrote a book without a computer. By hand? That sounds like it would a nightmare both to read and edit!

  7. I think people are missing the point a bit when they argue paper vs electrons.

    Both are mediums. They are ways in which the story* gets from one point to another. They may change the way in which you get access to the story and the speed at which the story reaches you, but they do not actually have to significantly change the story.

    They are tools of transfer that give you different options for presenting content, but they are not actually content.

    *For story substitute art or information at will. I just happen to read for story.

  8. @Marcy Right?!
    @Christina--true! The story, whether on a screen or on a page, is the same. But some people really do care about the "way in which you get access" to the story. They like the feel of the page. They like having the cover displayed on the train...Not me, but some people.

  9. I am definitely one of those "smell the pages" type of readers, but I think e-books are great for those who want them.

    Nathan Bransford said something last week in his post about Amanda Hocking that I think is pertinent to this post: "...over a decade after the rise of the mp3 the majority of revenue in music is still in CDs."

    It's easy to look at printed books and e-books as an either/or situation, but why can't we have both? I buy MP3s, but I still buy cds, too, and I don't see myself stopping anytime in the near future. I think it would be great if for a small amount more, you could purchase a combo-pack which includes the print book plus a digital copy for the e-reader of your choice, like the way you can purchase DVD+BluRay combo packs now. That would allow people to feel more comfortable venturing into new technology without giving up the tried-and-true print book.

  10. I'm pretty much a technophile, and I would LOVE to have a Kindle - no I haven't bought one yet - but, that being said, there is something about holding a printed book in my hands that tech can never replace. And I prefer paperbacks. Sitting in my rocker, in front of the fire, with a cup of coffee and a Kindle... Not the same.

  11. Great post. Very interesting perspective. But I have to ask, why did this woman "harrumph" the library???


  12. @Rita Well, she was clearly...unstable. :)

  13. I don't have a Kindle and don't intend to get one unless it's absolutely necessary. I don't necessarily have an aversion to technology; after all, I use it every day to write -- to make a living. Which is precisely why, at the end of the day, I want NO MORE TECHNOLOGY. No more screens, no more touch pads, no more anything remotely related to a digital medium. It feels good to hold a real book in my hands and turn the pages at the end of the day.

    MP3s sound very different than CD tracks, at least to my ears. (I don't have an iPod either.)