Tomorrow's E-Utopia? [Part 1 of 4]

Next week I’m going to be in Reykjavik for the Icelandic Literary Festival, where I’ve been asked to give a brief speech on e-books and translations. In preparation I’ve written something that’s far far too long for the speech . . . But, I thought I’d run it here over the weekend, giving me the chance to incorporate any comments/suggestions into the actual speech. So, here’s part one.

It’s amazing how much physical ink has been spilled in talking about e-books. I’m just guessing here, but by my estimates, reporters/publishers/authors/booksellers spend approximately 5 hours discussing the e-books and e-book devices for every single e-book that’s actually sold. And I’m only kind of joking. According to an Associated Press article from August 14th, e-sales account for approx. 2% of total book sales. An ironic figure given the subject of my speech and the fact that translations account for less than 3% of all books produced . . . yet result in far less media coverage.

But there are good reasons for that. E-books and graphic novels (which, at least at this point in time seem perfectly incompatible) are two of the fastest growing segments of a pretty slumpy book market. Beyond this rapid growth—and of course it’s rapid, it’s gone from zero to something in a mere year-and-a-half—there’s something about e-books that captures the imagination and out-strips any of the advantages or flaws found in the Kindle or Sony eReader or iPhone. In every other medium, digital has proven to be the future, and as books move in this direction, everyone is collectively freaking out.

And I mean that in the most polarizing of ways. E-books and the future of reading tends to be a very divisive topic, with bibliophiles lamenting the loss of that book smell, with geeks panting over the possibility of an iBook reader, with bookstores watching their ever shrinking margins continue to erode, with publishers and the Authors Guild locking into an outdated DRM-model and fretting over the quickly-becoming-standard $9.99 retail price, and with authors nervously trolling Scribd to see if anyone is illegally stealing their work. (Although it may be worse if no one is thieving your work—we all want to write something worthy of piracy, no?)

As you’ll see below, I’m internally divided as to whether or not the e-book revolution will good for book culture or not. (The first time I saw an ad for Kindle accessories in the NYC subway, I had visions of the apocalypse. And yes, I am one of those weirdos who’s annoyed by the fact that I can’t see what book people are reading on their Kindles. I love having the opportunity to make snap judgments about people based on what they read in public. And, to be honest, my dream is to see someone reading an Open Letter book on the subway—a dream that will go unfulfilled if the Kindle takes over the world.) But there are at least a couple of distinct advantages offered by e-books that are worth looking at—especially in relation to distribution.

Before getting into all this though, I do want to state upfront that I’m going to indulge in a bit of science fiction in this speech and imagine a more ideal e-book market with different e-readers than exist today. So forget the Kindle and its DRM issues and shitty page-turning buttons for a few minutes and imagine a world in which everyone’s adopted an open e-book format that works on any number of gizmos from fancy full-color enabled e-readers to the most basic of cellphones. Scripts are no longer a problem, and e-books are available in Arabic, Japanese, etc., etc. And almost everything published can be purchased wirelessly from either a digital retailer or directly from the publisher. Bookstores? We’ll get to them in a minute.

One of the great possibilities of the e-revolution is the belief that by eliminating a lot of middlemen, authors/publishers will be able to reach readers directly—check that, they’ll be able to reach far more readers directly than they currently do. This may be different in other countries—I can really only speak for the U.S. and to a lesser degree for the UK—but distribution is one of the biggest problems non-corporate publishers struggle with. It sucks to know you’re publishing one of the greatest books of the twentieth century—for the sake of argument, let’s use Ilf & Petrov’s classic The Golden Calf as an example—and to only be able to get it into 100 Barnes & Noble stores across the country.

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