OK, let’s admit it. We’ve all done it at some point over the past few weeks – headed over to the nearest Borders to pick the last meat off the bones, grabbing whatever we could to add to our personal libraries before the doors finally closed for good next Friday.
Not that most of us have ever really loved the big box bookstores. Yeah, they have some nice cafes. But every writer worth his salt knows that the local independents treat us better, care about us more, actually welcome us (sometimes personally!) when we walk through their doors.
Still most writers live on really tight budgets. And a bargain is a bargain. This is just a one time thing, trust me! – as we peruse the shelves for hidden treasures, novels by our favorite forgottens, obscure poets or essayists, dictionaries, and research for our in-progress novels.
I was looking for The Landmark Herodotus, but, believe it or not, there wasn’t a copy in sight. Instead, I found rows and rows of cheesy romance novels, cookie-cutter thrillers by authors I’d never heard of, plenty of cookbooks, large-format non-fiction glossies, and those books for kids that include a toy or a small stack of collector cards. Oh, and smelly candles, fuzzy throws and coffee mugs with hackneyed aphorisms embossed in funky fonts. But books worth reading? Well, there were a few I finally bought, but finding them took a while.
Going through the stacks, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility, first, that the second largest bookstore chain in America was closing, and second, at the pallid offerings – our industry’s blemishes bared to the world. True, most of these books were the very last of the leftovers, the ones that no one else would touch. The words between the glossy, trying-too-hard covers may even have been reasonably good. Perhaps I’d never heard of these books because they were poorly marketed, as most books are. Perhaps it was their sycophantic packaging. Pink = chick-lit. Woman with head cut off, turning away from the reader = genre historical. Woman with head still visible, looking just a bit too sexy in her period attire = romance. To me, these packages wreaked of predictability and bad taste. But I don’t blame the authors. Hey, they were lucky. They got published! That’s a feat of such magnitude that none of us has the right to see anything but a fellow comrade in arms.
But in these last dregs of pulp, I saw the precipitated futility of our industry, the sweaty desperation to get something – anything – sold, especially in a landscape that is digi-bytes away from literary destruction.
Or is it? I’m definitely not sure right now how or where books will be sold in the coming years. But stories? There’s no lack of hunger for stories.
I’m no longer afraid of the digital transformation of the book. In fact, I see a lot of value and possibility. First, no longer will books kill trees or burn so much fossil fuel as they are carted in tractor-trailers from printer to warehouse to bookstore to gigantic shredder. And no longer will it take months or even years to publish. It could and should take only weeks, as today’s NY Times article about news-based non-fiction proves.
It’s just a question of how we’ll discover what’s worth our precious reading time and what’s not. That’s what bookstores have always been for.
My husband and I love to go to bookstores on our “date nights”. After a satisfying meal where we actually get to talk about something other than the kids, we head to the nearest bookstore, sometimes losing ourselves in opposite corners, coming together now and then with a book in hand we think the other might like, inevitably leaving the store with a small stack of tomes.
Surfing on Amazon.com or GoodReads.com doesn’t come close. There’s no romance and little chance for serendipity.
Still I see great hope in the least likely corner – the diminutive local, independent bookstore. Anne Patchett’s essay about her book tour this summer portrays independent bookstores as alive and well. In fact, many forecasts say that indies will benefit most from Borders’ demise, and may well take their place once again as the vital central hub of the literary world.
In these smaller, cozier havens for books and their dwindling lovers, authors and their fans can still meet one another to discuss the vagaries of character, setting, language and plot. And booksellers can “hand-sell” as they always have, recommending books based on their customers’ personal interests and passions.
At the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, it has always been a bit like meeting someone at a bar. Sure, you might hook up and have a little fun. But if you’re looking for a more serious relationship, wouldn’t it be better to be introduced by a trusted friend?
That’s what indie bookstores have always been like, and now, after years of struggling to survive, they are emerging from the clouds, populating the book universe like small, twinkling stars. Perhaps their influence will never be enough to recapture literature’s place at the radiant core of culture and society. But for as long as books are produced, printed and sold, these small, local bookstores might just be the best place to pick them up and bring them home.
I was listening to NPR on the drive home the other night, hearing how we should be preparing for the rise out of this economic downturn. They were advising everyone to keep retraining, keep improving our skills, and to stay attuned to our industry, so that we’ll be “ready for the next wave.”
Well, in publishing, the next wave has already crashed. Many of us are swimming around, trying to find something to grab onto. Just yesterday, the news was rife with stories about the new Google eBookstore. It’s an encouraging sign that Amazon finally has competition in this exponentially growing segment of the book market. At the same time, those who adore the book as a physical object must resign themselves: digital books are here to stay.
There are some pretty cool things about this new digital horizon. First, your “book” can turn into a wild, multimedia experience. Check out Interactive Alice and enhanced Narnia. These are truly fantastic examples of what the digital platform offers.
But what does it mean for creative writers like ourselves? Are we expected to become multimedia wizards, able not only to write wonderful stories, but to create “books” that are more akin to interactive, animated movies? Will this part of the publishing process become the purview of our publishers, taking the author’s ageless craft and enhancing it, pairing us with digital illustrators as we have only been paired in the world of children’s picture books before?
It’s a fascinating prospect, one with tremendous creative and marketing potential. But, as you can see from the tried and true titles digitally enhanced above, there has been a pretty solid market for a book before publishers are likely to make that kind of investment. For now, digitally enhanced ebooks are likely to remain a fantasy for all but the most well-known or tech-savvy authors.
Meanwhile, we writers must still ply our craft, refining our skills and our stories as we hang on for this uncertain, if exciting, future. Some of us are already experimenting with new forms, like friend and local novelist Pamela Redmond Satran and her blog novel, Ho Springs. The blog format, with its generally short entries (well, maybe not mine!) is a fascinating venue for developing new forms of fiction. There are other, even shorter formats out there, as I detailed in my post last year, The Evolutionary Invention.
I find all this fascinating, a real cultural revolution. As Haruki Murakami mentions in his recent New York Times essay, Reality A and Reality B, “The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.”
Eventually, great art may come from this short-attention-span, digitally enhanced new medium. The questions we must all ask for now are:
- What form will our stories take?
- How will they be read?
- How will they be appreciated?
- What will really move our readers?
These are the same questions we’ve wrestled with all along.
In the end, does it really matter what form our product takes? We are, all of us, just storytellers, aren’t we? Stories were told orally long before writing existed. As I tell my youngest students, “Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire listening to a storyteller’s words. Now imagine that you are the storyteller. Now imagine that you want your story shared in a village hundreds of miles away.” Writing, and particularly the printing press, made it easier for those stories to survive and be passed along. The new digital media is just Story’s next wave.
It’s amazing, but also scary, what you can find on the web. With a little skillful searching, you can turn up treasures – whole digital libraries you can read online, video interviews and audio clips of some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time.
Just this past week, I discovered two fantastic offerings: most of The Best American Essays of 2010, online and for free, and an honest, witty and wise video interview with British writer and actor, Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18. All this, plus the opening of The Paris Review interview archives that I mentioned a while back just scratches the surface. And believe me, I barely have time to review half the cool stuff that comes in through my RSS feeds every day.
One really worth mentioning is Open Culture, a tremendous resource for all things fascinating. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve posted links to iTunes versions of the complete works of William Shakespeare, a Halloween tale by Virginia Woolf, free online courses, a talk by the Dalai Lama and a documentary on fractals narrated by science-fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke. Whether you’re doing research or just plain curious, as most writers are, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration – and distraction.
At the same time, I worry about what I’m seeing. So much of this material is, was or should be protected by copyright. So many of us are posting work for which, once upon a time, we might have been paid. I don’t mind giving away what I put on this blog. I see it as an extension of my teaching. But in the current marketplace, both the number of outlets for a writer’s work and what we are offered for our carpal-tunnel angst are dwindling at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, I’m seeing interesting movement toward a new pay-model for both digital content and print-on-demand. Michael Hirschhorn summed up the shift in his aptly titled article in The Atlantic, The Closing of the Digital Frontier. Pay walls are going up almost as fast as one did in Berlin back in 1961. And some authors, even on their own, are taking advantage of the new paradigm.
Take science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. His self-publishing platform for a new short story collection, “With A Little Help”, is multi-directional and social network driven. He’s a tech-savvy guy who clearly believes his efforts will pay off. “I’m thinking $70,000 to $80,000 net,” he says in a recent NPR interview. That’s more than most authors ever see even with a contract from a big publishing house. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Doctorow already has a pretty impressive following.
Meanwhile, author Stephen Elliott has made a fine go at distributing his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, via an iPad/iPhone app. Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing, said in a recent New York Times article about Elliott’s technological solution, “If you publish work that is hard to sell in the American market, say literary fiction in translation, this is another format to hardcover, paperback and e-book. A fourth line of revenue.”
As much as the web is amazing and free, it has also gobbled up desperately needed income from many a struggling writer (or musician, or artist, or whatever). Now the digital landscape is offering new income options, if we are wise enough to figure out how to take advantage. Granted, most of us won’t make lots of money this way. But in a media culture that is already so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible to get traction, it’s better to stretch palms and spread fingers as wide as we can so that our works may touch just a few more spirits and minds.
It’s been a while since I wrote one of my “eBooks are transforming the world” rants. Maybe because I’m as confused as the next publishing professional. Maybe because the media world is changing so rapidly that none of us, no matter how diligent, can keep up. Maybe because I’ve given up trying to understand what’s going on.
It used to be that the concept of “reaching the singularity” was far-fetched science fiction. As futurist and author Ray Kurzweil puts it, “The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” Honestly, his definition is more optimistic than I’d heard. I always understood the term to describe a moment when technology would evolve so quickly that it would literally leave the human race in the dust.
Does anyone feel the velocity of the tech revolution picking up speed? I do. Lately it seems many of us feel we’re hanging onto the roof of an out-of-control train by our fingernails.
And it’s not just writers. Look at anyone who has decided to buy an iPad or a new Smartphone. How do you want your media served? Personally, I pick “over easy”. A very intelligent friend recently spent a week in agony after purchasing the latest must-have device. Is it really worth wasting all that time figuring out how to make the damned thing call your mother while you read thirteen newspapers, buy a gift, answer twenty emails, and order food for dinner?
I use my cellphone only to make phone calls and it works perfectly.
And what about all that time lost for daydreaming?
OK. You all know that I’m a loud advocate for “living simply“. But a couple of recent articles in The New York Times (including the above link) seem to indicate a trend that I’m not the only one. Outdoors and Out of Reach observes a scientific study of the brain on and off “digital speed”. And an Op-Ed, Reclaiming the Imagination, presents a fascinating argument for the evolutionary value of human imagination.
Wait a minute… Imagination is a writer’s stock-in-trade. Is this really something we have to justify?
But these are the times we live in. It’s easy enough to dismiss, easy to hide our heads in the sand, but eventually we will get left behind. The singularity is coming and we’re all running to keep up, however reluctantly.
So, in the spirit of running together, check out The Brian Lehrer Show’s new weekly segment, Book Futures. Topics so far have included The Rise of EBooks and The Fate of Bookstores. (Or perhaps they should just be conflated to read: “The Rise and Fall of the Publishing Empire”.) More predictions will be forthcoming from Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace and the daily industry newsletter, Publishers Lunch. (You probably should subscribe to both, if you don’t already.)
Of course, predictions are just that. No one can see the future. I’m thinking back to my blog-post, The Evolutionary Invention, that linked to “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson, published in 1995. Stephenson argued strongly and philosophically against the effects on onscreen reading. His predictions clung amusingly to the inherent and indelible value of experiencing words in physical print. Today we’re having the same argument, but the result is a fait accompli.
Yet literature is surviving. Or is it? Either way, it’s a startling reminder of just how rigidly embedded in our own experience each of us can be. Who are we to judge this strange monster we’ve made? Whatever it is, like it or not, there’s no putting it back where it came from.
Amazon ebook sales topped traditional hard-copy format. The future of the book is so precarious that it requires a think-tank to monitor its demise. And nearly everywhere I look are blithe predictions about what reading and writing will and won’t be in years to come.
In a recent New York Times essay, Kathy Roiphe opens with, “For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation”. How can anyone committed to the work of writing avoid complete paralysis when we are regularly slapped in the face with words like these?
Years ago, back when The Age was New, I learned to read Tarot cards. One of the most startling cards in the traditional deck is the Death card. Death in most developed societies is something scary, ominous, to be avoided as surely as the plague itself. Indeed, the Death card shows a classic image of the Grim Reaper.
But Death in Tarot and in many mystical traditions is not a sign of ending but of transformation. It is far less a card to fear than a card to accept with girded courage knowing that learning comes through change.
Right now there’s no denying that the literary world is experiencing a dramatic shift. The bastion of commercial publishing is as hopelessly unstable as an alpine snow cliff in spring. For those rooted in these institutions, the ground is no longer safe to stand on, no longer certain to hold the weight of our hopes, expectations or needs.
But if we can step back from ourselves just a little, we might also realize that we are witnessing a birth. Something new is growing out of the impending rubble.
I have no idea what that something is or where it will lead any of us. I’m not in the business of making predictions and, honestly, tend to get bogged down in anxiety myself. But somewhere amidst the panic, I’m reaching to embrace this half-formed creature that will lead us all slowly, word by word, creative thought by creative thought, forward whether we like it or not.
I’m looking at this transformation with the kind of speechless admiration a mother bears as she watches her child. As parents, we can either stand aloft and criticize every move that our young one makes, intent to crush its spirit and mold it to our expectations. Or we can nudge gently as we observe our child’s natural instincts, helping to navigate pitfalls and avoid dangers, but still encouraging the child’s desire to explore, examine, create. The first method certainly helps maintain the status quo and preserves an established line of power and control. But it also squelches and malforms. The new creation, like a sapling caught beneath overcrowded trees, grows twisted.
Creativity in whatever form needs a bit of light, room, and air to grow. Maybe I can’t understand it. Maybe I’m one of those grand old trees. But I’m trying not to panic, hoping not to strangle this new life to save my own. I’m lucky I’m not a tree. Loosely rooted where I stand, I’m willing to move aside and leave a little space for the new wonders growing around me.
What the heck is a VOOK?
It’s been all the buzz in the publishing industry lately. Apparently (and I haven’t seen it yet) it’s a digital book with video. The books are mostly short, with fiction and non-fiction titles including a couple written by bestselling authors specifically for the new technology.
We’ve come a long way from Gutenberg’s machine.
The Vook is just one of what promises to be a whole slew of new technologies that the publishing world is trying in an attempt to make books sexier, more accessible and appealing to the digitized world.
But what are all these enhancements really adding to the reading experience?
I remember when reading required no more electricity than it took to power a light bulb; and the only sounds it made, besides my own breathing, were the voices of the characters in my head. I relish that silence and the simplicity of reading. So perhaps I’m in no position to judge.
Perhaps the issue now is to adjust our concept of the activity we call “reading” in the first place. Is it still reading when it talks and moves? Or is it some new form of entertainment? When television was first developed, they came up with a whole new word to describe it. It was entirely different from theater and movies. So is this Vook a variation on a theme or some new species? Someone please enlighten me.
And, speaking as a creator of stories using only words, how do individuals create for this new technological entity? It’s no longer the work of a single-minded writer. A Vook, or any other digitally enhanced version of a book, requires a team with digital expertise, expensive equipment, a cast of actors and, most importantly, a budget. The beauty of writing for me has been (among other things) that I could go open my .doc file or a spiral-bound notebook anytime and anywhere I liked, and simply go to work. I could do it all by myself, hour after hour indulging my imagination; and when I was finished, I had created an entire world.
In this rapidly changing literary landscape, how long will that last? At the most basic level, it feels to me like an inalienable right for one person to ink their innermost imaginings onto a page using no more specialized knowledge than good basic writing skills, time, practice and sheer determination.
But perhaps my questions are moot. As technology has a tendency to become rapidly user-friendly, I can easily imagine a not-too-far-away future when all our kids will be making Vooks on their laptops during recess. But for now, for me, the singular experience of self-expression that writing has been seems under threat of extinction.
If I’m a dinosaur, then so be it. (May future readers love my words as well as my kids love the dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History!)
We’re probably all familiar with Marshall McLuhan‘s phrase “the medium is the message”. McLuhan writes that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action”. In the world of creative writing and journalism, we’re seeing that more clearly every day. Words have migrated from print to screen, and with that shift have come new forms of communication, both more free and more wild. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter tweets and more have completely transformed journalism, knowledge transfer, social interaction and even politics.
Increasingly the world of creative writing is being affected by this shift. Digital readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader are becoming more commonplace. I believe the economic pressures on publishing will eventually force the full adoption of print-on-demand and other virtual solutions.
Meanwhile creative writers are experimenting with new online forms: serialized stories told in blog format in 350 word bites or, even more dramatic, cellphone novels and “Twitter fiction” in which each entry is only 140 characters long! (See “Call me Ishmael. The end.” by Barry Yourgrau on Salon.com.)
I confront this truth every day in my own writing. Even from the start, when I was toying with short stories, I realized that writing was much easier on a computer. As I grew to take my work more seriously, I questioned how I could write at all without the ease of revising and saving countless drafts. It’s a strange thought for someone who wrote long hand in journals and notebooks for years. I have a box of them in my basement, representing mostly early hopeless attempts that never quite got finished. Somehow the flow of typing on a computer without worries about making mistakes freed me to create in ways that the thick slog of pen and paper or an old, clunky typewriter never had.
But as I’ve progressed, I’ve also noticed a downside to that freedom. Though I compose mostly on computer, I end up editing in hard copy. Somehow the words simply look different in print, even when I change my page view to “Print Layout”. My rhythms change in hard copy; my scenes that had been rich online read more flatly, or sometimes they seem overlong or over the top. I’ve come to rely on a hearty stack of pages for final editing, much to my environmentalist soul’s chagrin.
What am I seeing that wasn’t there before, when all the words remain exactly the same? It’s Marshall McLuhan’s message embodied – the medium does matter, innately and inextricably.
I found this article on the topic particularly intriguing: “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson. It is a commentary on “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts that explores, as Stephenson writes, “the relationship between a reader and an imaginative text at a time when serious literature is increasingly marginalized by the communications technologies that are transforming mass media and mass culture.” Both article and book were written in the mid-1990s. They are a fascinating time capsule of the world that was.
We’re now living increasingly in the world as it has become, a world where the written world is less frequently printed, less frequently held in hand. The written word is less private, more public, more virtual, more immediate, more dynamic, and yet more ephemeral. How we process information online – where we go in our minds and souls – is immediately in question. Is it possible, both as writers and readers, to descend into that quiet place inside a story as we once did tucked into a comfortable chair with a book? How difficult is it for any of us to avoid checking our email or going online while we’re in the midst of writing? Are we able to escape, or has our attention span and our time been so truncated that the experience of depth and perception is getting more and more elusive? It reminds me of another article I shared with some of you last year, also from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr.
Overall my question is: what precisely is this transformation and where will it lead us? I’m fascinated by these new fiction forms that are growing like viruses online. Some I’ve barely peeked at; others I haven’t begun to explore; and some honestly, I probably don’t want to. I’m the first to admit that I’m a traditionalist, if perhaps not quite a Luddite, about my literary work. I mean – come on – I do write historical fiction about people and cultures where sometimes even writing itself hasn’t been developed!
Still I’m drawn by the urge to trace this strange path, not only to the past, but to the future. It’s evolution in its purest form – as we watch the human mind transformed by human experience. Our own invention is altering culture itself. And culture is perhaps the most inherent aspect of what makes us human.
As we all charge steadily toward perfecting our work on paper, I am continually distracted by repeated reports on the fate of publishing in an increasingly technological world. Amazon’s Kindle is the latest in an extended parade of electronic devices and strategies that are injecting change into the lumbering beast of traditional publishing.
Joanne Kaufman’s recent NY Times article, With Kindle, Can You Tell It’s Proust?, shows just one minor aspect of the inevitable transformation, made more inevitable by these difficult economic times and the diminishing place of the written word in an over-worked and easily distracted society. Her article focuses on the tangible transformation of the glorious object called the book with its power to define us and elicit affinities among impassioned readers. With the physical book’s absorption into the Kindle’s non-descript white tablet, we are obviously losing something that had previously spoken volumes to the observing world.
But a more pressing aspect of this transformation is technology’s impact on the business model that sustains literary existence. The obvious economic advantages of print-on-demand and digital technologies are beginning to erode the antiquated strategy of sales and returns that have sustained the publishing industry since the last Great Depression. (Also see Why Ebooks Must Fail.)
Whatever the outcome, the world of books is changing in a not-so-subtle if perhaps physically intangible way. What the future holds for anyone who aims to publish is probably not a book made of paper, ink and a beautifully designed cardboard binding. As to how any of us will make our living in this newly digitized world – well, that’s another conundrum entirely.