Friday, March 06, 2009

You don't have to digitize if you don't wanna

I know in today's manic culture, one must have a strong opinion and loud voice to be heard over the cacophony, but I'm afraid I'm a bit middle-of-the-road, a not-too-much, not-too-little kinda guy. Perhaps I just loved the Berenstain Bears' version of Goldilocks too much as a child - that was my favorite. (And now this site shows me that these books are soooooooo moralistic and didactic and obvious. Were they always?)

Let me get this back to the point at hand.

Over at the Abbeville Press blog, they have an interesting discussion that starts with the premise mentioned in a few places they quote, that books to e-books are like radio to television, and they then take apart this analogy as somewhat inaccurate. The blogger's point - whoever the blogger might be at Abbeville Press - is that what some people are seeing as e-books, as the future of publishing, sounds remarkably like... a website! This is very obvious, but very true.
The more links, videos, audio commentary, and so forth (we’re resisting the curmudgeonly phrase “bells and whistles”) a book accumulates, the more it ceases to be a book at all and begins to resemble, in fact, a website. At most it becomes a hybrid medium in which any and all methods of storytelling or imparting information—video, audio, photography, text—are combined, with text (generally) privileged and the whole package conceived as more unified and circumscribed than the average website.

They are not saying it's a bad thing, but it's different from a book, a whole different animal. I thought of Frontline - a great PBS show that has extensive information for each program online. The website does not take the place of the show entirely, though some may use the website without necessarily watching the program.

Not all bells and whistles are all that great, for one, or at least they are not objectively useful and considered value-added. I for one have found videos posted to newspaper sites like the New York Times fairly pointless. I also find author-created videos in support of new books, especially fiction, entirely useless. Many folks sing their praises - google "book trailers" and watch all the companies telling you what a great "marketing tool" they are - but I just don't get the point. So to me, there is a danger of publishers becoming over-enthusiastic in their attempts to add extras to books, with links and additional information. I don't want to buy a book and have it become like that kid in school whom you invite over and he tries every joke and trick to impress you. That's so awkward and embarrassing, and I don't like that kid.

Abbeville Press has it right, though:
Our industry seems increasingly to feel embarrassed about traditional books, as though they were stodgy and outmoded and better disguised as newer, more popular media... while the e-book presents formal possibilities that are well worth exploring, not every e-book has to reinvent the wheel—and not every publisher should scramble to produce the kind that do, or even to produce e-books at all. Right now it’s at least as important for publishers to recognize what writing and illustration can do that other media cannot; to cultivate excellence in those areas; and to share that excellence with readers as part of a marketing strategy based not on insecurity but legitimate pride.

Not too much, not too little... There is a middle ground here, and we can expect a lot of shoddy products to emerge as everyone races to reach the future, so perhaps some indies should cool their heels and let great writers write great books that sit on shelves for now, separate from a website that has links and videos and extra information. In our rush to network everything at once, perhaps we should remember the value in a singular book, with a beginning, middle, and end, sitting alone with a single reader at one moment in time.

But once again, e-books are going forth and exciting things are happening in the digital world, and some of us at SoTB are intrigued by this buzzing future. Let's keep old-fashioned books safe even as we, as Abbeville Press discusses, look at this different creature, the e-book. This world moved forward this week with news that Barnes & Noble bought Fictionwise, a formerly independent e-retailer. Just like Amazon hogging the innovation on the device end, I hope we don't see B&N hog up the retail side - I suppose with Amazon, as they have the device and the data to put on it.

As the e-book world develops, some of us better put our heads together to specifically address how independent business can survive when these corporations have patents and so much of the market already. Is there a symposium or something planned, I wonder, through the American Booksellers Association or the Independent Book Publishers Association? I'd be curious to know. We need to harness the potential all this technology offers and not have it create endless mush in the hands of those looking only at profit. Let's take control of the future of books and reading!

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