Monday, April 13, 2009

The E-Book Revolution- Part II

When I was advising Sony executives when they began the groundwork for creating the Sony Reader, I implored them to keep the device pure, meaning to create a comfortable user friendly alternative for paper books. I argued against tarting up the device with calendars, telephonic communications, e-mail, video or any multi-tasking that would inhibit the reader’s concentration on content.

My argument was based on the presumption that a truly dedicated reader approached the book as an entry into an intense parallel world that required deep, trance-like concentration to fully appreciate and absorb the author’s intention which, on his or her part, required a similar singular focus.

As a pioneer and evangelist for the e-book alternative to the paper book, I was simply reacting to what seemed obvious, that digital technology was moving at lightning speed into the mainstream, that reading on screens was a generational certainty as new generations began their screen “reading” long before they could actually read, that the use of computers, while not quite replacing oxygen to sustain life, was on the verge of becoming ubiquitous and as common as underwear.

I was, of course, reacting to my own bias as a reader and a writer. When I opened a paper book I did so with the expectation of the privacy and isolation required to absorb the full scope of the author’s intent. I wanted no distractions, nothing to inhibit my concentration. I knew that the author was crying out for rapt attention so that the reader would buy into the one-on-one communication system that is inherent in the process.

Admittedly, because I am an author of works of the imagination, I have a certain reverence toward books and the hard work of creating a coherent narrative. I am certain that writers of informational material, like text books, self-help, spiritual, instructional, and other categories feel the same way. Why spend countless hours creating such material if there was not an audience of even marginal interest out there waiting to read it? Which brings us to the most salient point of all, why would a publisher acquire a book if not to monetize its potential?

I am well aware that no business is going to invest the huge sums of money required for disseminating such a device without the possibility of maximum returns. The dilemma, of course, is whether multi-tasking is a necessity for the dedicated reader or that the add-ons will compete for attention and downgrade reading as its primary intent. On the other hand, purchasers of these devices might like the possibility of switching conveniently to other tasks while pausing in their reading.

There are lots of ways to argue the point, but in the end the bottom line will probably determine the outcome of how these digital readers will be configured. Then there is the dire statistical news about the decline of reading which, if true, might further inhibit dedicated reader devices.

My own views are not stubbornly biased in favor of the dedicated reader, the human version, nor do I look pessimistically at the future of reading, despite the gloomy statistics. The power of reading and its pleasures, for example, in the realm of story telling in providing insight entertainment and wisdom needs no defense. In fact, the worldwide expansion of literacy makes the point moot.

With all these new readers coming into the market, some percentage will certainly drift toward book reading as a prime content provider and will opt for the convenience of digital readers. The pool of potential readers is expanding not declining and many are sure to discover the joys and advantages of reading.

The advent of the Kindle offers a step-up in the competition since it cuts the umbilical chord of the computer and, at least at first, has managed to get some publisher’s consent to lower its offering price. This may not continue as publishers see it as a growing challenge to its paper book pricing. It is unlikely that they will be able to succeed in such tactics as more and more people opt for digital readers.

While it might seem jingoistic in favor of the English language, I inject this interesting statistic. America is only the third largest national market for English language material. China with its vast population is number one in English literacy, followed by India. Thus, for a writer in America, the chances are pretty good that the authorship of digital material in English has a good shot at expanding his or her audience without the inconvenience and expense of translation and paper book distribution.

I know these arguments will be stubbornly resisted by those who believe that the dedicated reader will lose the monetary competition to movies and videos in the marketplace.

In my opinion, as an avid consumer of movies, I believe books trump movies in this realm. Movies are a passive story telling device requiring not much brainpower or even concentration and a suspension of belief that the characters acting out the story are merely mimicking real people in their actions.

On the other hand, the characters in books and their pursuit of narrative goals somehow seems more true when filtered through the human imagination. We can spend lifetimes debating this point, and I cite the Bible as one example where words have created an enduring narrative that has been sustained for more than three thousand years with far more impact than any movie ever made. I am well aware I am pushing the point to extremes and risk everlasting calumny for what might seem like heresy. Remember I am talking story, not religion, if that is possible in any discussion of the Bible.

As you can see, I vote strongly in favor of the dedicated reader without any of the bells and whistles of distraction. I’m not balking at an audio add-on, since that process satisfies the requirement of privacy and isolation required for the absorption of content, although I wonder whether it can compete totally with the eye-to-word experience. We are talking here of the delivery of reading content and the future of this process.

In this age of massive revolutionary change on all fronts technological, financial, international and ideological it’s probably not wise to make long term bets. I made the author’s digital bet because I believed that this new technology would prevent books from ever going out of print. It was prudent for a living author to have publication rights reverted and to create a website as a way to promote his or her titles and continue to keep his or her authorial name alive as long as possible, on and on into the unknowable future.

With Google’s promise to digitize all books out of print I may have to refine my strategy, although just having the books available as digital fodder may have no effect at all like paper books moldering on shelves in libraries.

Things are changing so radically in shorter and shorter time frames and a subject like delivering reading material might not engage many interested parties. But in this age of fractionalism, I like to think that there are enough people to care about books and reading to make this take on the problem relevant. At least I hope so.

All of Warren's books are available for the Sony Reader and Kindle

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