Oh how the mighty have fallen.
There’s a well-known saying that is purportedly an old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I was pretty little when my dad first told me this, and at the time, I thought it was kind of silly. After all, it seemed that the only alternative to living in interesting times was living in boring times–and who would want to live in boring times? I couldn’t figure out why someone would want to curse you with fascinating stuff.
Of course, now that I’m older and have witnessed a number of very interesting events, I understand how the curse was intended (unless you’ve been living under a really big rock–say, Mt. Everest–for the last decade, you know what I’m talking about). It’s true that interesting events are sadly not always good, happy, or peaceful things.
However, I’m still not totally sure I want to accept that saying as a curse.
In case you were too lazy to click on that link I posted above (or were just too sucked in by my glorious prose to pause for even a moment–I know how it is), Borders Books announced today that it is officially closing its remaining 400-odd bookstores across the country and liquidating its entire stock. 11,000 employees are now jobless. In short, Barnes and Noble will be the only large chain bookstore in the United States.
I know the temptation for many will be to blame the rising trend of e-readers and ebooks for the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores. I would urge everyone to resist this temptation to find an easy target for finger-pointing. In the words of one of my favorite videobloggers, John Green of the Vlogbrothers, ”I’m just saying: as usual, the truth resists simplicity.” Not only has Borders been on its way out for a long time, but in my humble opinion, the ebook industry is not some vile, virtueless villain threatening the home of the humble hardcover (whee, alliteration is fun!).
*a top-hatted, monocled, and quill-toting velociraptor pokes his head around the corner*
Fred the Regency Raptor: One moment, Miss Mango. What was that you just said?
Ari the Fuzzy Mango: Hi Fred. Uh, well, I said that ebooks are not necessarily a bad thing for the book industry.
FRR: That’s funny. *cocking his head to one side* I’m sorry, I’m going to have to clean out my ears, because I could have sworn you just implied that ebooks are not the root of all that is wrong with modern society. But of course, you would never have done such a thing. My mistake.
AFM: Erm, no. That’s what I said. Or rather, what I didn’t say. I…Fred, what is–
FRR: Sorry, one more time. Ebooks. Not the literary antichrist?
AFM: No, that’s Twilight. We’ve been over this before. (JustkiddingTwihardsIenjoyedreadingtheseriespleasedonotkillme.)
AFM: Fred, don’t sulk.
AFM: There’s no way we’re going to have a decent dialogue on this topic unless you say something. What’s on your mind?
FRR: In the common vernacular of the day, I believe you people would say, “lolwut”.
AFM: ”Lolwut” meaning…
FRR: TRAÎTRESSE! WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR LOVE FOR BOOKS? THE SMELL OF OLD TOMES IN USED BOOK STORES? THE SOFT SLIP OF PAPER OVER YOUR HANDS AS YOU TURN A PAGE? THE SOLID WEIGHT OF–
AFM: Fred, are you cry–
AFM: First of all, you’re completely right. I do honestly love all of those things–and more–about paper books, and I will never stop reading them. The sensory experience of reading a book can not be replicated by any e-reader on the market. E-readers also offer competition for brick-and-mortar bookstores, which makes me sad because I love bookstores. And their introduction has turned the publishing industry topsy-turvy (more on that in a second).
However, just because I prefer the experience of reading a physical book does not mean that I think all e-readers should be tossed into the nearest bathtub/toilet/koi pond. They undeniably have their uses. They allow you access to a library’s worth of reading material but take up the space of a single paperback. They’re often smaller and lighter than some hardcover books. Because of this, they’re great for traveling. But most importantly to me, they can actually encourage people to read more, something that I cannot not condone.
What I’m trying to say here is that much of the angst surrounding ebooks is justified to a certain extent, but I don’t think they’re all bad. What they represent is an enormous change that is taking place in the publishing industry right now. And as someone who plans to work in publishing in a couple of years, this is a change that I find extremely interesting (in all of the senses I’ve just discussed). It’s what happened to the music industry with iTunes, and what happened to the movie industry with Netflix. Except that it’s happening right now with the book industry and I’m currently on track to end up in the middle of it.
To write about ebooks in publishing would take a while, so I’ll save the nitty-gritty details for another post. Suffice it to say, however, that from the perspective of publishers, ebooks mean many things. They mean diminished sales figures because (although people may read more with e-readers) ebooks are generally cheaper than their physical counterparts. They mean less control for publishers, as authors are able to sidestep traditional publishing and sell their work directly through sites like Amazon.com with no middlemen at all. They mean confusion and stress over digital media rights overseas. They mean dealing with digital piracy. Above all, what they mean is change.
And for better or for worse, change like this is pretty damn interesting.