19 July 2011

What Does All This Mean For Writers?

As a published author, I've been following the demise of publishing (printed) opportunities with interest for several years now. But I don't care much for e-books. Perhaps its generational, but reading for long periods of time from a lighted screen just does not appeal to me. I prefer light descending from above and lighting the page, rather than ascending from behind the page and straining my eyes. I also prefer to hold books in my hand. I like to adorn the shelves of my office and home with books. Books have been very good friends of mine since I was a child. I shall not abandon them in their struggle to remain relevant.

But, I've experienced the impact of the internet age first hand. I was once a regular contributor to the Washington Times' weekly Civil War column. While it only paid me $125 per submission, it was a good outlet for my history passions and interests and the occasional checks provided some nice pocket money. But when the WT drastically downsized and laid off the column's editor, my relationship and submissions ended. The same story could be repeated with a couple of other publications for which I've written. Now comes this about Border's Books:

The chain's demise could speed the decline in sales of hardcover and paperback books as consumers increasingly turn to downloading electronic books or having physical books mailed to their doorsteps. "When you lose literally miles of bookshelves, it's going to have an impact," said David Young, chief executive of Lagardère SCA's Hachette Book Group, which Borders owed $36.9 million at the time of its bankruptcy filing. "I hope other retailers will now step up and make offers for what they consider to be the prime sites," Mr. Young said. "It's a tragedy Borders didn't make it through." The loss of Borders may also make it more difficult for new writers to be discovered. [More here.]
In so many ways, the internet is the Gutenberg Press of the 21st century. Knowledge that was once limited to the ruling class and elites of society is now available to anyone with an Iphone and an internet connection. As Wikipedia correctly points out about Gutenberg's impact . . .

The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities; the sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its peoples led to the rise of proto-nationalism
I believe that there are very few in society who have totally realized the societal and cultural impact of the internet revolution regarding the dissemination of knowledge and information. As I've noted here before, the "monopoly of the ruling elite", aka, much of academia and the ruling class, is showing signs of feeling the same way their soul mates felt at the dawn of the Reformation - threatened.  

And yet, while I trumpet and champion the explosion of opportunities regarding the internet, blogging, and E-books; I admit being somewhat haunted by a whimsical yearning for the "old days" when print publishing was King. While I do not necessarily agree with the comment from the Borders column about new writers (it actually could be the opposite), one must admit that E-books, blogging, etc. have exponentially "democratized" writing and publishing and this has created an almost infinite amount of noise a writer must break through in order to get noticed - even good writers have this to contend with. But the market rules. And that's the way it should be.


13thBama said...

There are some who will love that books have gone electronic. The SS had to fuss with all the ash left over from all those burning books. Today's storm troopers will only need a very strong magnet to remove you from all your books!

Michael Aubrecht said...

Great post Richard. Of course I’m an old-fashioned book guy too…

I think that the most disturbing, yet most realistic repercussion of the “internet revolution regarding the dissemination of knowledge and information” is the belief that we no longer have to learn things (in regards to retaining knowledge).

In a way it’s true. I don’t really ‘have to know’ how to make an apple pie. I simply Google the topic and get 10 thousand recipes. Want to know who fought in the Battle of Carthage? Type a few keywords in and bam, you’ve got it. Virtually every question has an answer floating out there in cyberspace. People can talk to anyone, anywhere at any time and read more books than the Library of Congress has on file.

I have always maintained that information on the Internet is only as good as the person who put it there, but I also recognize that this generation has instant access to more of it than at any time in the history of the world. As a result, they also have the shortest ‘practical’ skill base to show for it.

If you think about it, we carry the world’s biggest library around in our pockets via Smartphones. Now that’s scary.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Michael.

"the belief that we no longer have to learn things (in regards to retaining knowledge)."

You are so right - and its dangerous. We've ceded our knowledge base to a bunch of wires and electrical signals. I read a piece recently that Google had actually changed how humans "remember" (or don't) facts. When we "remember", we exercise our brains. Like our bodies, they're becoming fat and lazy. As you point out, why memorize or learn something when you can pull it up instantly from your back pocket. It is most definitely a two-edged sword.


Lindsay said...

Wow, Michael was right on with his comment...this generation does have the least amount of practical knowledge and I see it every day in my classroom.

When I assign a research project/paper, I have to make it part of the requirements that they must use book sources because they go straight for the internet, namely Google. When I ask them to cite their sources, inevitably I always see www.google.com. NOT A SOURCE!! I spend so much time explaining HOW and WHERE to find information, a skill that they are lacking.

As for the ebook issue, I am an avid reader and I always said I preferred REAL books to ebooks. I received a Nook as a present and I have to say, I enjoy it. Do I prefer it over the real thing? NO! But there are real pros to having an electronic reader. For example, I have had a number of authors requesting book reviews and instead of the cost incurred from sending me a hard copy, they can shoot me a pdf file and I can help publicize their books more quickly and cheaply.

In the school, ereaders are all the rage and frankly, after many years in the public school system seeing the decline in reading in our youth I am glad to see something come along that is connecting young people with books again. I wish more schools would put ereaders in their libraries loaded with classic and contemporary novels for kids to check out, because getting them reading is the main goal!

Like I've said before, we work double-time to combat poor grammar, lack of punctuation, atrocious spelling, and an assortment of other lackings - if an ereader gets books into the hands of people and helps improve these skills by introducing them to GOOD literature, then I am all for it!

Sorry to be so long-winded, your posts provoke lots of thoughts!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Lindsay - you raise some excellent points. I realize some of the benefits of ebooks - convenience, mobility, etc. As I pointed out, some of my resistance, I'm sure, is generational. At 53, I'm becoming less "flexible" in more ways than one.


Mary @ Redo 101 said...

Books have been among my very dearest friends, too. To a lonely child in the countryside, they were everything.