Friday, October 16, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Future of Publishing and Books

We talked about this at an event I attended last weekend, and I thought I would share my thoughts on it here...

There has been a lot of chatter lately about the changing face of books as well as how books in general will fare against the new media. And while I’m all for better living through technology (Roomba, anyone?) I can’t help but be somewhat cautious. Not because I am a Luddite or a technophobe or even just set in my ways. No, what concerns me is the issue of access.

Books are, and have always been, a path to power. Books are the great democratic equalizer of our society. The reading experience is universal. A rich kid reads in pretty much the same way a poor kid does.

Books are also cheap. For seven bucks, hours of enjoyment can be had, then re-read, then passed on to friends or family. But even with books being this cheap and reusable, there are a shocking number of kids in this country who have never owned a book, or who own very few. The question I keep asking myself is how does digital publishing serve them?

And the answer I come up with is that it doesn’t. Add a $300 or $200 or even a $100 reading device into the equation is only going to erect yet another barrier between them and reading. And not only them. There are a huge number of families across America who simply do not have the money to purchase e-readers for all their kids.

Not to mention there is now yet one more divide between the rich and the poor, one more way in which less advantaged kids will be forced to do something in a less cool way than their rich counterparts.

Even worse, what if paper books become to expensive to produce with the primary revenue stream being e-books? Will only old books be available for less advantaged kids? What will happen to those readers then? How much farther behind will they fall? How much more onerous will reading become for them, forced to do it in such an old fashioned manner?

The printing press was a radical invention of its time and caused an enormous amount of upheaval. Suddenly the masses had access to the same information and ideas that only an elite class had had access to before. Wouldn’t it be a shame if our next big advance in book technology was a step backward in terms of access?

One of the cornerstone’s of public education is that it is open and accessible to all, regardless of circumstance. Poorer kids already at a huge disadvantage, even with this highly democratic and accessible system. How will ebooks and expensive digital readers help that? There will simply be more barriers between them and information; between them and the power of stories.

I worry that in the rush for the latest greatest technology or most profitable business model, we are forgetting the role good old-fashioned books play in our society.

As we writers and publishers and educators look to the future, we need to be careful not to leave behind those who are counting on us the most.


Katy Cooper said...

Someone recently showed me his Kindle and said he thought I'd be all over the technology. I said no, not really, because of the unnecessary additional expense. I get tempted every now and again, and then I think of all the other things I could do with that $100-$300 that can't be done any other way.

story_weaver said...

Frightening thought.
But with the economic recession everyone's worried about, I highly doubt people will want to spend money on a kindle.

Anonymous said...

Robin, this is really interesting. I hadn't thought about it via this route yet. The only idea I have that might counter this a bit is that I know kids who--for some brain reason that doctors/scientists are only now beginning to learn/understand--just to better getting & processing information from a digital source. Mostly, I think, it has more to do with a keyboard versus a pencil, but I think a comfort level also kicks in, where they're less "afraid" of the computer/digital arena than they are of the traditional one that's been so hard for them so far. And, yes, I agree, for the kids like this that can't afford e-readers, kindles, etc, will do no good. But for those kids whose families can get them, they may be able to find their own love of reading--which for many of them has been stalled/blocked up till that point.

Overall, though, I just don't see e-readers as much of a kid option, because of the cost--I wouldn't just hand one off to a young child, that's for sure. And in terms of school supplies, it feels right up there with our governor's idea of replacing text books with digital files, assuming every child in California has easy access to a computer. Not.

Dave Johnson said...

This completely sums up my aversion to the Kindle as a primary source of literary access. The printing press forever eradicated the educational disadvantage suffered by the lower classes - why are we trying to resurrect it? The Kindle is great for people doing research, or who travel a lot, but the potential threat it represents to paper books is a huge concern.

Anonymous said...

An excellent point, Robin. So many have already been excluded by the advent of the computer. There are times that I look forward to the Great Blackout, when we will all return to the caves with our candles to read books and tell stories. I'd write this one, except that it's probably been written out. . .

Am thinking about you doing your great thing in Texas!