Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Future of Books


By Alan Caruba

There is, I’m told, a lot of hand-wringing in the book publishing industry these days over the advent of the new, electronic means of reading books. It is a general rule that new technology drives out old technology and we have seen how rapid the growth of personal computers and the Internet has become in just a decade or two.

Back in 1974, Ivan Sandroff approached me and other book reviewers to create the National Book Critics Circle. I had been reviewing books for some time at that point, so it is safe to say I have spent more than forty years professionally reading and reviewing.

My reviewing has gone through several transmutations. In the beginning, I syndicated a a column called Bookviews to weekly newspapers that used it, I suspect, mostly as filler. Now most weeklies use the information provided by the local librarians. Many of the dailies have ceased to publish book review sections.

In time, Bookviews became a stand-alone newsletter that did well enough, but it was replaced by an Internet site, www.bookviews.com of the same name and that lasted the longest.

When it dawned on me that I could transform the website into a blog that would cost nothing to post and maintain, it became http://bookviewsbyalancaruba.blogspot.com. As a website, it attracted about 50,000 visitors every month, but I have no idea how many the blog receives. I assume former website visitors now come to the blog because there is an automatic re-direct that occurs.

I tell you this because, for two months or so, the number of review books I have received has declined dramatically from an average of three to five daily to days when none arrive. Some book publicists have suggested that the drop in 2009 book sales of approximately 20% has something to do with the decline while others correctly point out that, between the peak book-giving Christmas season and the release of books in publisher’s spring catalogs, starting in April, the decline is understandable. Others have candidly said that publishers are sending fewer review copies.

Two things are not in decline. The production of novels continues and, if my seat of the pants evaluation is correct, it is increasing. The other thing is the production of self-published books by authors. The most distinguishing characteristic of self-published books is their general poor quality of writing and subject matter. Since they pass through no vetting process, there is no one around to tell the author they should take up another hobby.

I worry about e-books. For one thing, you cannot apply a highlighter to elements you want to recall later on. You cannot turn down the edge of pages that are important bodies of information to consult. With real books, you needn’t worry about a low battery or storage memory capacity. You can fill the shelves of your home or apartment with them and they become constant companions and references.

As I grew up, the living room of my former home of sixty-plus years had an entire wall of bookshelves and they contained the Harvard Classics, volumes of the world’s great wisdom, the Encyclopedia Americana, and many books about the current events of the day. My father was a voracious reader and my mother, an international authority on haute cuisine, had an entire book corner filled with the finest cookbooks of her day. She even wrote three of them herself.

You can give your children many things, but if you give them the loving of reading, they will find the answers to everything in them, an escape into wonderful imaginary worlds, and a guarantee of a better understanding of the complex world into which they have been born.

I do not know what the future of books will be, but I sincerely hope it is not one in which books become a purely electronic interface. When I put down a book I have just read, I feel a kinship with the author, a link to the past and to the future, and often valuable insights to the present issues of our times.

I am encouraged that books like Sarah Palin’s sped out of the bookstores or that books like the recent one revealing the behind-the-scenes events of the 2008 election campaign will help us avoid being taken in by media manipulation, stagecraft, and empty oratory. I am encouraged that millions of youngsters were stirred by the Harry Potter series. There are the many extraordinary books for children and young adults these days.

In the meantime, I will hope for new review copies that will help me understand the complex issues of our times and to pass the time in ways that avoid the mindless celebrity-driven drivel, predictable television dramas and sitcoms, and vile “reality” shows that pass for entertainment these days. As for the news, there is only Fox News and C-Span.

19 comments:

Dave's Daily Day Dream said...

Oh foul villain! Updating us as to where thy thoughts reside,

bookviewsbyalancaruba.blogspot.com!

It costs me much to read therein, thence flee to Amazon.com.

Clive Graham Smale said...

In the UK there is, and always has been, a massive culture of reading. I have read from an age so young I can't remember when it started.
By contrast, here in the Philippines, that culture is missing. Apart from necessary course books it is extremely rare to see anyone reading - even more rare from an electronic source.
My nearest book store is 60 miles away and even that has been denuded of almost half its previous level and range of titles because of a lack of public patronage.
Most homes do not display or own any books at all - even the more affluent homes.
A compulsive reader, I pack a book wherever I go and as do all my elder children, being introduced at a young age.
I do not think that electronic books will ever supplant paper copies because of that special feeling upon opening a book and flicking through the pages; of sitting in any position anywhere in the excitement of a 'page turner', thoroughly engrossed to the exclusion of the world arund.
All strength to the printing press, I say.

Alan Caruba said...

Sorry, Dave.

I am not convinced Amazon.com is such a bargain...especially when you check out how MUCH they charge to SEND YOU THE BOOK. Or any other item.

Can you spell R-I-P-O-F-F?

Jim Hall said...

Dear Alan,
You need to get your hands on an e-book reader. When reading on my Kindle I can highlight any section of text in less time than it used to take me in a dead tree media book. I can turn down the corner of any page and I can even write a margin note next to any portion of the text using the built-in mini-keyboard. All of my highlights, page/ear marks, and margin notes are kept in a separate register to which I can refer at any time and each of those is linked directly to the text. I do not need to leaf through the book to find where I made notes or highlights. In the better e-books the notes numbers are linked to the notes in the back of the book so that I only need to click on the note number in the text which takes me to the note in the back of the book and then just click on "back" to return to where I was in the text. I find myself frustrated when reading a regular book, because I then need a highlighter and pen handy and it is more cumbersome leafing back and forth between text and notes.

I have a story I tell modifies from the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh. Enkidu, one day, brings to his friend Gilgamesh a sheet of papyrus declaring that here is a modern, superior method of transmitting information. Gilgamesh replies that the papyrus is just a passing fad and will never last. He prefers his clay tablets which he can prop on his knees to read and besides the clay tablets will last five thousand years. At least he was right about that.
Best---
Jim Hall

Alan Caruba said...

@Jim: I am delighted to hear that e-books, at least Kindle, have the capabilities to highlight, etc.

@Clive: I still want to hold a real book in my hand, but I am of an age that associates many good things with such books.

ytba said...

A BOOK IN THE HAND...

...means we won't freeze tonight.

Rich Kozlovich said...

Alan,

Reading is a funny thing. I think how and what we read changes as we age and our interests change.

I never read any book other than a comic book until I was 16. Then it was as if someone turned on a switch in my mind and I became constant reader.

Magazines, newspapers and of course books....books that took you everywhere, and I don’t necessarily mean locations when I say that.

Reading novels is a wonderful escape from reality while exploring differing views of reality; and as long as we can recognize that it is an escape, we benefit from that temporary mental and emotional vacation from our own reality.

In my young years people would actually have discussions on the latest books. There were so many great novels every year and people gobbled them up. In those days you were considered backward if you didn’t have knowledge of the latest books.

Things have changed for me. Often times I will have more than one book going at a time. I am fortunate in that I can pick a book back up two weeks later and pick up right where I left off as if I never put it down. Since I hardly ever read novels these days, most of what I read is either technical or topical and often difficult, and not much fun.

I miss novels, but I don’t seem to have the time or the interest any longer. On occasion I do however re-read old novels that I enjoyed in past days. They don't wear out their welcome in my life.

I don’t seem to like very much of what is appearing any longer and no one seems to talk about the latest best sellers. And there don’t seem to be many that are worth talking about anyway. I did however order Thomas Sowell’s latest book, "Intellectuals and Society"...off Amazon by the way. And I, like you, prefer the tactile feel of a book.

I am looking forward to reading his book, but then again….it isn’t a novel. I wonder if this is true for others and I would also be interested in the demographics of those who are purchasing books.

Just a thought!

Good article by the way. Made me want to wax eloquent.

Rich K.

Alan Caruba said...

ytba: I sometimes think the English have made themselves stupid since losing their empire and being rescued by us yanks in two wars.

I like the English, but their politics are horrid and their socialist and environmental policies are the same.

That said, they have been good allies and I think they want to do the right thing, but no longer can figure out what it is.

Alan Caruba said...

Rich: I can't tell you the last novel I read cover to cover. For Bookviews, I selectively read portions to determine elements of characterization, plot, dialogue, etc.

I am deluged with email requests from publicists to send me new novels. There are, quite simply, too many.

ytba said...

Alan, I think you sum it up quite well. It's a real puzzle to me, too, as is our own turn toward socialism, though thankfully not (yet) as bad as the Brits.

Longstreet said...

My books are my friends.

Books litter my home. Practically every room in the house has an open book lying about currently being read by either my wife or myself.

To my right, as I sit here at the keyboard, are 35 reference books, many on the American Civil War.

In the same room are three full size bookcases filled to over-flowing with books.

In the den we have floor to ceiling books shelves filled to the brim with books. Even in the master bedroom I have a bookcase, which has been filled, long, long, ago and I have begun stacking books on the floor in front of it -- much to the consternation of my wife!

In the guest room there are four bookcases, again filled with books.

By the way, the books HAVE already BEEN READ, at least once, by either my wife or myself -- or both of us.

I was reading even before I began grade school. Mostly self taught, I began reading newspapers as a child. I read The Charlotte News and The Charlotte Observer. I have been hooked on news ever since.

As I approach advanced age, I worry most that my sight may be deminished so much that I lose the capability to read. THAT scares the hell out of me!

I love books... hard backs,soft backs, it makes no difference to me. The treasure that lies between those "backs" is what matters to me.

You may prefer the electronic "books"... but, as for me, I want
a BOOK, a REAL book!

J. D. Longstreet

Alan Caruba said...

Longstreet, you and I are so similar in our outlook that it is astonishing. Might have something to do with why we like one another, you think?

I LOVE BOOKS!

ytba said...

"Often times I will have more than one book going at a time." -- Rich Kozlovich

Oh, thanks for reminding me. I had forgotten it, but for years I couldn't not read more than one at a time. I would start one, then about half way through I would start another. I hit on doing it that way because I found there was always a kind of let-down on finishing one, and if I didn't already have another one going, I wouldn't be able to start another for a while after finishing the first.

Quirky, I guess, but I wonder if anyone else ever got that?

Longstreet said...

Yep! A couple of bookworms, what?!

As a kid, I had my nose constantly in a book. My family nickname was "professor". In school I was the bespeckled bookworm.

These days, when they haul my sorry behind off to the hospital, the last thing I grab before they carry me out on the gurney is the book I am currently reading.

And, you know, I don't think I have ever read a book from which I did not LEARN SOMETHING.

Just this past Sunday I attended a lecture by the author of "Men of God, Angels of Death." The author is Jack Travis, a man I have known and admired, for several years now.

Listening to Jack tell us of his book, and the research he did to assure its accuracy, was an experience few folks have anymore. Thatis a shame.

J. D. Longstreet

Dave's Daily Day Dream said...

I had 32 bank boxes full of books back in the radio daze. Mostly read, they formed a link with those who believed as I do.

15 are gone - trashed, literally. I tried to get them a home but no one wanted them. I haven't trashed "Right Answers" however.

The way those publishers wanted me to talk with their authors was a constant surprise. The books must cost them next to nothing.

PS Amazon shipping is nearly free to some and nothing goes to Sacramento.

ytba said...

"I am not convinced Amazon.com is such a bargain...especially when you check out how MUCH they charge to SEND YOU THE BOOK. Or any other item." -- Alan

I knew a fellow once who was in a business where he would give away free stuff. People would decide what they wanted, and all they had to do was pay shipping and handling. When asked how he could afford it, he said all his profit was in shipping.

ytba said...

"as for me, I want a BOOK, a REAL book!" -- J. D. Longstreet

There are notable exceptions, if you are fortunate enough to find them.

One day, on an outing to the local library with my kids, I looked at a display table and was drawn to a cassette-book, on the cover of which was a picture that looked exactly like someone I knew. I picked it up, and just for curiosity I checked it out. On the way home we popped it into the cassette player, and laughed all the way home.

He may be a Lefty, but I have to admit that Calvin Trillin is one funny guy. (note the teaser audio there, and if you like that, there's lots more, and better, too, if you can believe it.)

So, say what you will about hard copy, there's something special about listening to a gifted story teller reading some of his best work.

ytba said...

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP

In case anyone thinks otherwise, I was NOT advocating buying Trillin's stuff at that website. I only used it because it had the teaser audio. Go to your library, and if they don't have it, get it on loan for free. Don't pay some parasite for what you can do yourself.

(just making sure I'm clear on that)

TJP said...

Hi Alan,

Though I do a lot of my news/opinion reading on-line, I prefer to hold a "real" book while sitting in a comfortable chair when enjoying fiction or history. The scent of certain types of page paper still takes me back to the book racks at my local library where I spent many hours as a kid.

I am also one of those self-published writers you referred to and have written several pre-teen/adult fantasy-adventure novels. And though the self-publishing (POD) model does allow for anyone's writing (good or bad) to be foisted upon the world, that's the great thing about liberty and America. People don't require nameless, faceless editors if they so choose telling them if or how to publish.

That's not to say that manuscripts don't need to be reviewed and edited several times over by the author and others, because they do. But that I can put out a book by myself and get it listed on Amazon et. al. at a relatively cheap price compared to just a decade ago is amazing.

Financing proper book promotion, though, is a whole other story when you go out on your own. And being a reluctant and lousy self-promoter, well, let's just say that I haven't quit my day job!

If I'm allowed to shamelessly plug my website, you can check out my titles (and sample chapters) at www.TomPresto.com. One of my yet unpublished novellas is on the site in its entirety, free to the public. Take care!