The Print-Digital Divide, Part Two

Moby-Dick

Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” a book with heft. Photo by Vickie Bates.

Two friends walk into a bookstore. One clutches a digital reader to his chest and rhapsodizes that it’s changed the way he reads forever. His buddy ignores the techno-wizardry on display and heads straight for the shelves, breathing in the intoxicating combination of paper and ink, cracking the spine, and enjoying the heft of a printed book in his hands.

They might as well be carrying different banners – Romulan versus Federation, House Stark instead of House Lannister, Red Sox versus Yankees, Beatles or Rolling Stones, Ahab and the White Whale.

Sterile vs. Visceral

In Part One of this discussion of ebooks vs. print books, I mentioned I’d laughed when a digital advocate derided book-lovers for going on and on and on about the smell of books. I get the joke. The smell isn’t really what makes a book a book or what gives us joy from books. And when we print fans talk like that we have a tendency to sound as tweedy as Giles when he asks Willow to “wrest some information from that dreaded machine.” (Although he does make an excellent case that “if it’s to last, the getting of knowledge should be smelly.”)

Critic and essayist Joe Queenan counts himself among the book-sniffers. In a beautiful paean to the printed word, “My 6,128 Favorite Books,” Queenan argues, “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.”

“My philosophy is simple,” he continues. “Certain things are perfect the way they are. The sky, the Pacific Ocean, procreation and the Goldberg Variations all fit this bill, and so do books. Books are sublimely visceral, emotionally evocative objects that constitute a perfect delivery system.”

I find Queenan’s essay eloquent, but I also can’t disagree with “The Medium Is the Message,” a recent article in Poets & Writers, which notes that “for the past five hundred years or so we’ve generally accepted a single version of what a book is, what it looks like, and how it is consumed.”

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, we read scrolls, painted on cave walls and told stories around the fire. Technology has always transformed human stories. Ebooks are just the latest blip on the continuum of our history as story-consumers.

Pricing

This is where ebooks have print books beat hands-down. Virtually all of the digital publishers are undercutting the pricing of new hardcovers and eating into the market for new-release paperbacks, too.

All well and good, you may think. But the cost of books isn’t entirely the result of the real-world materials that go into creating them. It covers marketing, certainly, but also the salaries of editors and other staff at the publishing house who nurture manuscripts and authors alike as a book goes through months of edits and rewrites.

“We’re not talking about that anymore,” noted Samantha Dunn, one of the writers on the Digital Publishing panel at the WeHo Book Fair. “Those traditional hurdles to publishing: getting an agent to fall in love with you and your book. Finding an editor to work with.”

Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David and Dan Smetanka speak at the Digital Publishing panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair.

What she’s referencing is the price of quality. Editors push writers in ways writers can’t push themselves – editors are there to spot plot holes, poorly written sections, superficial characters, and they help writers clean up those problems to achieve more masterful prose.

With 211,000 self-published titles in 2011 (and just as many print books published through traditional means), how do you find books that are well-written, well-edited and worth your time?

Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times was very clear during that panel discussion that traditional critics won’t touch self-published books – there are too many and critics don’t have time. So who helps you sort the great from the dreck?

Now your mileage may vary, but my personal choice is to rely on traditional publishing houses, traditional marketing and the critical review process. My time is valuable. I don’t have hours to dedicate to poring over hundreds of thousands of links in an electronic database, trying to figure out what might have the potential to be decent. And when I do have a spare moment to read, I want to spend it on the good stuff, not mentally copyediting and grammar-checking sloppy prose. I do enough of that at work.

Multimedia

There are very cool things happening in ebooks. Because devices connect to the Internet, readers can follow links from the text, hear a song that a character is listening to in a story, play with interactive treasure maps, or engage in social reading by viewing the parts of a story that other readers have already highlighted.

In that P&W article, Di Blasi talks about the fact that Jaded Ibis “publishes each of its titles in four editions: as an e-book, a black-and-white paperback, a full-color paperback, and a special edition, which can range in form from a snow globe filled with the words of a novel to a book including a page of sealed mud to…clay tablets.”

She predicts gaming-based novels will supersede literary fiction, noting that her company already publishes an app-novel that looks different each time it loads.

“The probability of coming across a page illustrated in the same way you’ve seen before is close to one in 350 million,” she claims.

That’s great news for people who want those experiences – all of which sound fantastically fun and interactive. But, let’s be clear about our terms: these aren’t books, they’re book art and they’re book apps.

And there is a difference.

Neuroscientists are starting to explore the way the brain experiences reading. Early experiments show profound differences between deep and distracted reading. There’s no two ways about it, when you click a link and leave the story, when you allow technology to play a song rather than using your imagination to bring it to life, you’re engaged in distracted reading.

One study suggests that deep reading activates the brain more globally and involves the regions responsible for “movement and touch. It was as though readers were physically placing themselves within the story as they analyzed it.”

If you’re an avid book reader, you have no trouble recognizing this state of mind – it’s enchantment. You’re literally held in a trance by story because you’re so deeply engaged.

I think understanding these differences is important because it allows you to choose the kind of experience you want, or even need, to have. If you’re reading something that involves a lot of new vocabulary or industry jargon, it’s immensely helpful to be able to tap a word and be taken to a definition – the speed of ebooks enables this quickly, so you can incorporate what you’ve learned back into the flow of the paragraph.

If you’ve just bought the latest Nick Harkaway novel, you may prefer enchantment, as the author creates a vivid and fantastical world for you to get lost in.

More important, to my mind, than which medium you choose is the fact that you have choices.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Publisher Dan Smetanka made the point during the WeHo Book Fair that different people read for very different reasons, and they also have differing preferences for the form that reading takes. Smetanka said he believed all sorts of media should be available to meet everyone’s needs.

Marc Hirsh’s excellent essay, “The Critical Tyranny of ‘You’re Doing It Wrong,’” on NPR’s Monkey See blog, strikes a similar vein.

“The reason You’re Doing It Wrong is troublesome,” writes Hirsh, “lies in its tyrannical underpinning, dictating the way popular culture must be consumed, often for no reason beyond a belief that the writer is the only one enjoying an experience properly (or even at all)…There’s no acknowledgement that different consumers might have different needs and responses.”

“One important distinction,” Hirsh adds. “You’re Doing It Wrong is different from The Way You’re Doing It Has Consequences. When book-sniffers worry that the medium and experience they love is being threatened with extinction by the advent of e-readers, that’s perfectly valid.”

That’s pretty much where I net out. Even though my personal choice remains old-fashioned print books, I’m perfectly happy if you love your Kindle/iPad/Nook/Surface/Tricorder. The advent (and the advocates) of ebooks shouldn’t demand the extinction of print books. Ebooks and print books are not the same thing – the new version doesn’t preclude the existence of the old one, the way advances in microchips make old processers obsolete.

So let’s agree to get along and not knock anyone who’s enjoying the wonders of reading, no matter how they do it. There are bigger battles to focus our collective energy on – literacy and supporting libraries (whether electronic or brick) and fighting censorship – than what or how people are reading.

Related posts:

The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Taking a Side? (Part One of this series)
Is Digital the Future of Publishing?

The Print-Digital Divide: Are You Choosing a Side?

What is it about ebooks that’s so contentious? How can they send some people into rhapsodies that used to be reserved for TiVo, while others claim they’re a sign of the impending apocalypse?

Whether you’re an avid reader or a writer, you surely know this battleground, perhaps have claimed one camp over the other. Maybe you’re with the guy who said his brain would explode if he had to listen to book-lovers extol the smell of musty old tomes one more time. (Which cracked me up despite the fact that I’ve made that argument more than once or thrice.)

Superhero Vela Kurv. Image by Victor Ishimura. All rights owned by Riley Rose.

At the West Hollywood Book Fair, I sat next to a good friend at the Digital Publishing panel, and the two of us couldn’t have been further apart. Riley Rose owns several e-readers, loves them, and has published her own series of sci-fi, action-adventure ebooks, Vela Kurv, on Amazon’s Createspace, Smashwords and Lulu. Rose could anchor a panel on ebook publishing, navigating the myriad options and publishers, and how to handle the technical aspects, including promotion. She practically did after the panel, when she was deluged with questions from the audience.

Thinking about our divided opinions made me want to explore both sides further. What I discovered – after a lot of reading and research – is that the pros and the cons of ebooks are not nearly as easily defined as each side would like to think.

Small Presses & Self-publication

The head of Jaded Ibis publishing, Debra Di Blasi, in the latest issue of Poets & Writers, says she founded her company because books by innovative writers “were deemed unmarketable” by traditional houses.

Note she’s not talking about books that aren’t good. What she’s lamenting is that many traditional publishers, operating on slim margins, find it next to impossible to take on books that appeal to smaller, or niche, audiences.

Di Blasi is able to pay her authors a percentage that’s far higher than most big publishing companies: “at least 40 percent of net royalties,” according to Poets & Writers.

For both these reasons – the ability to tell different kinds of stories with unique characters and the potential for greater control and returns – many authors are choosing to self-publish rather than engage even the boutique publishing firms.

Like my friend, Riley Rose, who created a nontraditional sci-fi heroine – Vela Kurv is a woman of color of Amazonian proportions – tens of thousands of authors took to self-publishing their books last year.

Ebooks offer these writers far more options at better margins than going the print-self-publishing route. Plus, the technology allows unique ways to market these books to audiences that might never come across them otherwise. In the past, Rose has been able to provide potential readers with a free download sample of her Vela Kurv series. Through Dec. 31, 2012, she’s offering a coupon for a discount at purchase from Smashwords, which I’m pleased to pass along to you:

Vela Kurv Legacy Series, Part I (Smashwords BYCAB Edition – The Scintillate Seed to Vela Kurv) Your coupon code is NL99M (not case-sensitive).

Vela Kurv Legacy Series, Part II (Smashword BYCAB Edition – The Wiles of Vela Kurv) Your coupon code is XA58Q (not case-sensitive).

(Per the FTC, this is not a paid endorsement. It’s a friend-endorsement.)

Try arranging something like this with a print book, print sample chapter and a printed coupon in a bookstore…

What’s lovely about the existence of ebook publishing is that it makes the storytelling community more vital for everyone – readers and writers, alike – simply by offering more options.

Portability

This one’s a no-brainer – you can add more books without lugging around more weight. This is why ebook readers are great for commuters, travelers and parents of cranky toddlers. Forgot to bring a book? Just download one.

A device would’ve come in handy when I was touring the Greek islands a couple of years ago. I finished the books I’d packed long before we reached our final destination of Santorini. Once you’re ferrying between islands on the Aegean Sea, there aren’t a lot of shops that carry English-language books – and the ones that do charge a hefty price in euros. I think I wound up paying €17 for a paperback of Dexter by Design.

There’s just one tiny, little problem (which, admittedly, only happens occasionally)…

Access

Sunset over Santorini in the Aegean Sea. Photo by Vickie Bates.

If you can’t power your device or find network access, then you are truly stuck. Not only do you not have something to read, all those apps and games and emails you planned to have fun with? It’s Game Over there, too. You’ll be just like me, wandering around Santorini, willing to pay anything for something to read.

On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than wanting to read a new book right now and having to wait for a bookstore or library to open and then discovering they don’t have it.

With ebooks, if you devoured The Hunger Games and love-love-loved it, you can download Catching Fire and dive right back in to the world and characters created by author Suzanne Collins. You just finished Pride and Prejudice and you’re wondering why it took you so long to discover Jane Austen? Click on Sense and Sensibility or Emma or check out her unfinished works, and you’ll be transported back to her world within seconds.

Backlighting

I feel like Bill Maher saying this, but: Stop pretending a downside is a feature, people!

At the end of the day, an e-reader is yet another screen glaring back at you – just like your computer, laptop, tablet, phone and TV. Don’t you get enough of this? When you go to bed at night and close your eyes, what image does your retina retain on the inside of your eyelids? Let me guess: It’s a dark rectangle with a glowing screen in the middle.

Books don’t need special backlights. You can read them in the sun, you can read them indoors, you can read them at night, you can read them under a lamp, by candle or flashlight. Five hundred years of engineering has gone into optimizing the perfect “device” for reading: It’s called a book.

Early Adoption

The thrill of early adoption is that you get your hands on new stuff that (you hope) does new things in a new way. The downside is that you wind up like a TiVo fanatic: you pay an exorbitant fee for something – like a DVR – that now comes free or at greatly reduced cost. (And in order to justify the expensive outlay, you wind up blathering about it to all and sundry, like a walking advertisement.)

Getting too attached to the latest whiz-bang, backlit reading device comes with a downside. It may not be around for long.

It took 20 years to get from the “Star Trek” tricorder to the first commercial tablets; another 10 for Apple to introduce the Newton; and 14 more for the first Kindle to arrive. All sorts of advances in technology may change ebooks and the digital reading experience in ways even Gene Roddenberry couldn’t have dreamed of.

Google already is working on creating the smartphone/tablet experience in glasses – maybe you’ll be reading novels that way in the not-so-distant future. Or, better yet, perhaps there’ll be a 4D experience that takes anything you want to consume – TV show, movie, concert, class, book – and projects it precisely where you want it to be, at any distance or angle that you desire, while you do the dishes, tuck in a child at night, or lounge in bed. Perhaps it’ll even flip pages or channels based on your eye movements.

– – – –

When I started writing this piece, I honestly thought I knew how it would end, that my arguments for print books would win out over ebooks. But, in researching the subject, I find it more nuanced than good/bad or new/old. It’s turned into more of an exploration than a debate, for me. And it’s grown much longer than I expected. In Part Two, I’ll look at pricing, multimedia, deep versus distracted reading, and more.

In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think about ebooks and print books, which reader you prefer (or not), and what you predict the future of reading might hold.

Is Digital the Future of Publishing?

Did you know that the average amount of money earned by authors who self-publish ebooks is $10,000 and that half of all ebook self-publishers earn a mere $500?

The E.L. Jameses are few and far between, according to the panel I attended on digital publishing at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 30.

This was the 11th year for the WeHo Book Fair, which offers an eclectic bag of panels on fiction, memoir, food, mystery, sci-fi, LGBT, poetry, and screenwriting, as well as talks by authors writing for toddler, tween and teen audiences. This year’s event, for example, featured Susanna Moore, Brat Packer Andrew McCarthy, Marianne Williamson, Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch, and Deepak Chopra.

The panel on digital publishing was moderated by the Los Angeles Times’ Carolyn Kellogg and featured authors Samantha Dunn and Anna David, and Dan Smetanka, editor-at-large for Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press.

Both authors have ventured into ebook territory – and the publisher, as well – still, the reviews were fairly muted on the advantages for writers and the publishing industry. While the benefits of digital in terms of price, portability and instant access seem clear for readers, ebooks are causing upheavals to longstanding practices in the publishing industry.

The Digital Publishing panel at the 2012 West Hollywood Book Fair (l – r) Carolyn Kellogg, Samantha Dunn, Anna David, and Dan Smetanka.

Dunn was approached by an ebook publisher about digitizing her back catalogue. While this makes older work available for new readers to discover in ways they couldn’t in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, the panel members noted that unless an author is prepared to publicize back catalogue, no one else will.

Kellogg, who writes about books and publishing for the Times, was clear that critics won’t review older titles. (Even newly released ebooks have a hard time finding their way into traditional, print-based book reviews. Kellogg observes that in 2011 there were some 211,000 self-published ebook titles and an equal number of print books. It would be impossible for reviewers to cover all of these.)

Smetanka said the same was true for marketing.

“All marketing is tied to [new release] print books,” said Smetanka. “The only marketing for ebooks is a price discount, which gets the consumer used to discount prices. You’re training the consumer to put a low price on fine art.”

At the same time, the ebook, with its steep price discounts, is negatively influencing sales of trade paperbacks. In the old publishing model, new titles were released and promoted in hardcover, then, when demand dropped off, they were released as paperbacks. The lower-priced paperback format typically encouraged another surge in sales.

In the new model, inexpensively priced ebooks compete with the hardcover release, making the paperback, which is still typically priced higher than the ebook, uncompetitive. “The market just isn’t sustaining all three formats,” said Smetanka.

It’s clear that with the advent of both digital publishing and digital tools for self-promotion, the burden is frequently the author’s to do everything from finding the right publisher to marketing and maintaining interest in a book.

David has ventured into Amazon’s Kindle Singles, a new publishing format for shorter-form works of about 5,000 – 40,000 words, ideal for essays, extended magazine articles, short stories and novellas. You’ll see on David’s website that her Kindle Single release Animal Attraction is free. So, while many of these digital publishing platforms promise a greater percentage of sales or royalties to the author than traditional publishing contracts, it’s a little hard to imagine how $00.00 gets divvied up between publisher and writer.

Both David and Dunn have websites. Dunn has used things like book parties to generate word of mouth to sell books. In addition to trying Kindle Singles, David has a blog, contributes to a podcast and has built a Twitter following.

Still, every one of these marketing tools has its drawbacks (especially in terms of time for upkeep) as well as its plusses.

“Ashton Kutcher has almost 12.7 million Twitter followers,” said David. “They may watch his TV show, but his last movie bombed. I have 50,000 Twitter followers, but they’re not all willing to buy my book.”

In other words, digital followers and fans may be quite happy consuming your work for free, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a willingness to pay for it.

The upshot is that there are no tried-and-true answers. From choice of publishing format to types of marketing, what worked for E.L. James may not work for a memoir, a literary novel or an investigative journalism piece.

Everyone on the panel agreed on one thing, though: Quality matters. Before you focus on publishing and marketing, writers in the audience were encouraged, make your writing the best it can be.

Samantha Dunn’s books include: Failing Paris, Not by Accident (Reconstructing a Careless Life), and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation.

Anna David’s books include: Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters, and Falling for Me.