Friday, July 24, 2009

Finger Food?

Someone asked me recently whether I was at all concerned that my comments on Amazon's Kindle and eBooks in general might someday come back to bite me. After all, I am trying to get a novel published and then I have to sell it to people. That necessitates making nice with retailers.... so, isn't that biting the hand that feeds me? Have I really said anything bad about any one bookseller on here? Because they all seem to get my money at some point in time or another. For the record, I'm a big fan of bookstores. All of them, really. When I was first dating the woman who is now my wife, we would often go on to the Tattered Cover instead of going to a movie. That sounds terribly romantic doesn't it? We've been married almost ten years and a nice day out still involves at least one bookstore. Isn't nerd love sweet? I want booksellers to thrive. I want all of them to survive. The Tattered Cover, Elliot Bay, Powells as well as Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. I would miss them if they were gone. Without Amazon, I wouldn't have been able to find esoterica like Middleton's A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique. That title would still be scrawled on the index card in my wallet instead of up on the Amazon wish list where my friends found it and bought it for me. Powell's is the only place I can think of where that sort of book might pop up on the shelf and I don't get down to Portland nearly often enough... Incidentally, one of the things that inspires me to write about publishing and bookselling and allows me to go into detail comes as much from the decade I spent working for one or the other major book retailer as it does from my experience as a writer. This blend of perspectives is where I come from when I write this blog. There's a reason why I added "Technology" to the topic header. We are standing at the intersection of technology and our literary culture -- for better or worse, the industry is transforming in front of our eyes. You can't talk about that without discussing e-Books. And you can't discuss e-Books without discussing the industry leader in the e-Reader market. The Amazon Kindle sets the pace for e-Readers if only because of its name recognition (actual sales figures are a subject of great speculation). There's no ignoring that. Everyone who comes along -- whether it Barnes & Noble's new site or someone we've never heard of -- everyone will be casting themselves in the Amazon mold. Despite a Luddite streak a mile wide (it took a major illness in my family to get me to begin carrying a cell phone), I think e-Books are an excellent idea if we can get the kinks worked out. I recently read a biography of Gutenberg by John Man that mentioned as an aside that the printed output of western printing presses is roughly equivalent to the mass of the Alps. Not a mountain of books, a mountain range of books. In terms of ink and paper, that simply isn't a sustainable output. Much though I love the smell, feel and heft of a real book, the e-Reader seems inevitable. And it makes sense. But that means that our society as a whole needs to facilitate a frank and open discussion of what form the next evolution of books will take. It means hammering the dents out of our copyright laws and finally aligning them with the current level of technology. In my view, the music and movie industries failed to begin this discussion early enough. The creators of the music didn't get involved early enough. Now, if the writers' blogs I read are any indication, the authors seem to be more open to the discussion digital rights than their musical counterparts were. For all it's problems and ensuing legal entanglements, the Google Books settlement with the Author's Guild was evidence of this. The changes are happening now. The market is being created around us. In many ways it's being defined in the legal battles that swirl around Amazon and Google. Each decision creates the precedent upon which the next will be decided. Once there's a body of law, it will take something extrodinary to change it. The time to sort this out is now, while things are still in flux. Keeping the story in the realm of the reasonable mean, keeping the story from moving entirely to the fringes, and moving the debate forward toward a resolution is good for readers, it's good for the book industry (Amazon & Google included) and it's ultimately good for me. I don't bite the hands that feed me. But I do nibble the fingers once in awhile.


  1. I am quite sure Amazon will not refuse to sell your book because you once said something mean about them. That is not how retail works.

  2. That too. The comments that drew me to write about this drew together an impressive web of elements worthy of novelization in their own right...


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).