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Bookstores, e-readers and the Future of the Written Word

tom_honig_sA few months ago, I wrote a column about the written word, and wondered whether sentiments like “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” have forever transformed into texts like “U R gr8.”

The basic “harrumph!” quality of that column drastically missed the mark, somehow suggesting that the beauty of the written word was being replaced by something short and horrid, that the future of writing depended on the literary value of a teen’s text or a mini-blogger’s 140 words.

As it turns out, the matter is much more complicated. It’s true that one literary form has already met its demise: the genre once called “The Collected Letters of …” wherein readers were treated to backstage moments with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald or George Orwell or even Neal Cassady.  Today, writers are sending e-mails, not letters.

But the death of that one genre hardly means that the era of instant communication will necessarily kill the literary in general. But the future of the written word, nevertheless, has changed forever.

Enter the Kindle and the iPad. No question about it: I love my new iPad. Classic literature is available for free. Bestsellers are showing up on the new iBooks store. There’s even a Kindle app, so that entire library from Amazon is open as well.

On the same device, though, I can also play a video game, send an e-mail, watch a movie or engage in a dozen other time-wasters. I’ve read two books on the device so far, books that I downloaded and read without even leaving home.

In other words, it ain’t like sitting down and reading a book. And who knows what form new books will take in years to come: video imbedded in text; audio inserted at the beginning of a chapter; hyper-texted articles leading the reader away from the original story.

The implied change is dramatic. No one is watching closer than those who have been entrusted with making literature available to the general public: booksellers.

A trip to Bookshop Santa Cruz—or any other bookstore—isn’t really different from how it’s always been. But it’s changing, and more change is coming. I had interviewed Bookshop Santa Cruz general manager Casey Coonerty Protti a year ago, and at that time she described her biggest fear: “We can survive (now,) but if anything more happens, like e-books—that would take away 10 percent more of the business, we couldn’t survive.”

Well the e-books are here, but Protti isn’t about to fold her tent yet. “We’re not against change in this industry. We’re not digging our heads in the sand, either. I can see a lot of good in the Kindle and the iPad. But, if booksellers lose enough of our market to these devices … it would push independent bookselling to the brink.”

She predicts that Bookshop will be selling e-books itself by the end of the year, but there’s no telling where needed revenue will come from.  She also explained two areas of major concern:

Privacy. Who owns the book that you’ve purchased? Can downloaded books be killed off your portable device? That’s happened on the Kindle.

Will publishers become irrelevant? As e-books multiply, there will be more books that go direct from author to reader. That sounds great, but it’s the sometimes-forgotten role of editing and preparing copy that has been responsible for some of the best in literature.

And, what about the bookstore itself? Bookshop Santa Cruz—along with other independents like Capitola Book Café and even chain stores like Borders—provides a kind of temple for the reader. Imagine the loss if there are no stacks to wander among, no serendipity in discovering a book that you didn’t know existed, no “staff favorite” shelves to help discover new writers. Bookstores are like the best book reviewers: just looking around a bookstore is an exercise in finding out what that shop’s owner thinks is important and interesting.

What if the worst happens? What if bookstores go away? (Don’t think it’s impossible—just think of record stores).

Protti says that booksellers these days are coming up with all sorts of new programs: paid author events, writing classes and, in her case, tours that combine author talks and hikes to local spots of interest.

The tech revolution continues. It has

forever changed radio and then television. Newspapers continue their struggle to survive. Magazines became specialized publications. The music business was transformed by file sharing and 99-cent downloads.

Next up: Books.


Contact Tom Honig at [email protected]

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