Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Future of the Book

Last week I enjoyed one of the treats of being a published writer. My local bookstore, which I have patronized since it opened in 1967, held a reading and signing for me. Even though it was a small group, I still felt some anxiety about what to read and how to discuss my newest book, Under the Eye of Kali, but deeply pleased that I had a new book and could talk about it to others.

Near the end of the evening, two other writers and I got into a discussion of publishing on Kindle and self-publishing (not the same thing, but easy to conflate). I haven’t tried Kindle yet, and sometimes I think about it for my earlier books that are out of print, but I am very reluctant to resort to self-publishing in any format, especially in Kindle or the like, for any of my several mss sitting rejected on my closet shelf. But I am increasingly in the minority.

This is not a lament about the end of publishing as we know it, or the problem with a marketplace packed with self-published books that no one has vetted and are probably for the most part unreadable. No, all that may be true, but right now I prefer to see the opportunity in this dismal situation—dismal for traditional writers, anyway.

It occurred to me recently that those of us who have over our working years redirected our retirement savings into keeping afloat the local bookstore have a unique future ahead of us. A friend who is moving got me thinking about this when he explained that he and his wife had hired a “stager,” a woman who works with a real estate agent to prepare a home for showing to prospective buyers. The stager walked through and told them how to rearrange the furniture, which pieces of artwork to remove or re-hang, and, unequivocally, to get rid of the books. “No one reads anymore,” she said. And they removed the books.

A private high school library recently threw out all its printed books, in order to become an online resource center—no more books, not even packed into bookshelves against outer walls as “good insulation,” as my father-in-law often said.

With the Kindle and a generation of people like the “stager” and the headmaster of a certain prep school, books will become rare and unusual and hard to find. Children will grow up not knowing what a book is, what it looks like, how it weighs down the hand or a backpack, how it is used page by page. This is the opportunity.

People like me, who have shelves and shelves of books, old ones and new ones, falling apart ones and carefully protected ones, good ones and nastily critiqued ones, will in essence have a treasure for a museum. We will open our doors to the curious, to show them the BOOK, not to read, of course, but to observe and study, like a vase or a statue. Little children will cry, “But what does it do?” “Does it move?” “Can you change the color?” Parents will shrug and pull out their Blackberries and tweet their children’s cute comments to their grandparents, who will be sunning themselves in tropical New Jersey.

The museum will also be the site of psychological testing. For those who want to graduate to a higher level of functionality in the world, they will have to visit a museum and prove that they can read an entire book, from beginning to end, in a reasonable period of time and remain focused on the topic. And one part of the test will be recognizing that there is a single topic being developed. This person will be awarded a Certificate of Consciousness.

There won’t be nearly as many museums as you think in this future. Alas, to my surprise, I often visit friends, people I’ve always thought of as intelligent and interesting and well read, and discovered not a single book in their home. But there will be enough museums scattered across the country to ensure that everyone has at least a reasonable chance to see one book in his or her lifetime, not to read, but to see, like visiting a Da Vinci (a real one, in oils) or Van Gogh.

None of this means that there will be fewer books written. Alas, no. But they will be written entirely on little phones and other such devices, and instantly erased if they don’t live up to the standards of the software evaluating spelling, punctuation, grammar, and thought (defined by vocabulary and sentence structure). If nothing else, the number of mss floating through cyberspace from agent to agent will decline, but the number on Kindle and other such formats will explode. But by then the length of an average novel will be reduced from 100,000 words to 10,000 or fewer, to make it easier to read at traffic lights or while waiting in line for coffee.

Drinking coffee will not be allowed in Museums, except by the owners.


  1. Hmmm, well, I guess I'm in favor of it all. As someone who has gone the indie publishing route I can tell you that it is more difficult but it is also exciting because it challenges me to find new and innovative ways of promoting my books. Since one of my (5) books in print was a best-seller on Amazon, in its genre, last year, I know it is possible for that to happen.

    And because I have 4 books on Kindle I know that it is becoming increasingly popular. When I open up my bank statement each month and see all those little direct deposits from Amazon I feel kind of successful - even though I won't be giving up my day job any time soon.

    But for me the most encouraging thing as an indie publisher with 4 e-books out has been participating in Operation eBook Drop which allows me to supply free copies of my books to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I get those emails telling me how much a young soldier appreciated one of my books (most of the soldiers have some form of eReader or PDA) it makes me so happy. My favorite compliment is, "I loved your book so much when I get home I'm going to buy it in paperback." That's the best of all worlds.

  2. Time will tell. I still believe there will be printed books around for a while. Now, the choices will be more convenient, that's all.

    Also, don't assume that the majority of self-published books are not up to par. It might turn into the case later, but I don't believe it's so right now. Many people are still afraid to jump in the water and self-publish.

    I did experiment by self-publishing Killer Career, but I made sure to use an accomplished editor. That's would I'd suggest for anyone who wants to do that. Also, next time around I won't accept returns, because bookstores tend to over order when they know they can return the books.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. You do indeed paint an alarming picture, Susan, and I don't think you're far off the mark. As for returns, I don't disagree with your feeling, Morgan, but we booksellers can't change that system and indies don't over order---the chains do that. Until the industry finds a fair way to end the practice, we can't afford to put nonreturnable books on the shelf unless we're offered a much lower wholesale cost. Then again, there won't be many brick & mortar bookstores left in a few years so I guess it's a moot point, isn't it?

  4. Pleased to be a featured guest at a meeting of one chapter of the Idaho Writer's League, last week where I was visiting my sister and researching a new detective story, I was able to demonstrate that in one hand a CD, I called a book and in the other a printed copy of the same book. New forms, I suggest, make books more,not less accessible. One cannot function in today's society without reading,whether on a screen, via electronic ink or from a paper page. The evolution of the book from hand-printed pages of animal skin to tomorrow's next technical innovation will continue and we who use words would be wise to examine and work with it in order to help shape it to the future we desire, rather than stand by and let others shape our future.

  5. Quite a sad scenario Susan.You have written so well about it.We, in this part of India...Kerala, are very fond of books...Bookshops are very popular and the people are very fond of discussing books and authors and currunt affairs too.Most of the classics of the West and also contemporary popular authors around the world are translated into Malayalam by our publishers...and people get to read them even if they do not know any other language well other than their mother tongue !
    I hope we do not catch up with this 'trend too soon.What a lovely feel it is to browse in the book shops .Feel sorry for the kids who will not know the sweet smell of new books.

  6. Your comments all suggest some of my feelings--the ambivalence of finding a new way of getting a story into the hands of readers (Kindle) and the joy of browsing in a bookstore and seeing all those titles, and being able to pick one up, look it over, put it down, and try another one.

    Some of my blog was tongue-in-cheek, but I do think books are going to play a different role in the future; I'm just not sure what that will be. But i do think the scenario I described is far in the future (when New Jersey is a tropical paradise).

    It's nice to hear from you all--I need to be reminded I'm not alone out here thrashing around at the doorway to the future.