Long Live the Printed Book!

To order The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life

During a spirited, two-hour combination of panel discussion and introductions at the recent Meet the Authors event in Kentucky, the question of our literary times came up: “Will print books be viable, or even available, in the future?”

I’m asked this question a lot – and the frequency is increasing. People are worried that the onslaught of online, digital and hand-held publishing options is going to serious diminish and eventually wipe out printed books. They cite the decline of the newspaper and magazine industries in favor of the Internet, the prevalence of audio and video publishing through everything from blogs to iPhone apps, and the precarious situation facing bookstores, who are losing some customers to e-books, others to Kindle and Sony Reader, and still others to Amazon.com and other online sellers.

To all of these things, I say: Your concerns are justified. For the first time in the 500+ years since Johann Gutenberg fired up his printing press and forever changed the face of literacy in the world – and disempowered a lot of tyrannical governments in the process – the printed book is in trouble. Real trouble.

I know this first-hand, through working with my clients, talking with agents, and watching the trend of the publishing industry. More and more, my clients are starting to see more to life than publishing a printed book. Now they want to know about blogs, webcasts, video books, DVD books, e-books downloadable on everything from Kindles to handheld devices, and the latest: hybrid books, featuring three or four types of media designed together onto, say, an Apple iPad. My clients who have strong stories and self-help messages, particularly healing arts professionals and businessmen and women, are learning how to use books as a “loss leader” (which, to me, is an oxymoron: how can any book be seen as a “loss”?). In this case, they print the book merely to support all the other forms of publishing, networking and marketing. This is the blockbuster movie model, to a T: the movie comes out, it shifts quickly to DVD (where much greater profits lie), then its story and attention at the box office feed everything from games and toys to Saturday morning TV cartoons.

Being a businessman, I’m all set up now to oblige multi-platform authors. Let’s just say it’s been a busy past three months of expansion and development for my business partner and me, and the pieces are coming together quickly.

However, I also have a lifelong history with print books. The writing and reading purist in me is a screaming child throwing the mightiest of temper tantrums. And that kid is screaming at me, among others: How can you turn away from print books? How can you take away all the pleasures of turning pages that we had?

So when I heard the question arise at the Meet the Authors event, my heart dropped as expressions of concern, anger, frustration and loss filled the room. I thought of all the private libraries (including my own 2,000-book collection), the libraries that have informed and impressed people since the ancient Sumerians started storing clay tablets with their cuneiform inscriptions, the countless days and hours of losing myself in book after book while the sun rose and fell and world events spun past … and I cared only about the world I entered between the book covers.

Yes, the printed book is endangered by the digital and multi-media tidal wave. However, there’s another problem: the book industry has taken on a blockbuster mentality that, like the movie industry, is crippling quality writing in favor of authors who have big platforms – and may or may not be good writers. In other words, most publishers will not take any chances with an unknown author. They want to be virtually guaranteed sales before they accept a book, and there’s only one way to accomplish that – by only working with high-profile individuals.

I find this practice troubling, and the real reason why the printed book is in trouble. If the industry made great writing a top priority, and put out those books to readers of all ages, then the books would be sold and read. But society has changed, and the industry has become scared. Consequently, many publishers are constricting the funnel of acceptable material, putting fast money and its top salesperson in the media world, sensationalism, at the forefront. Granted, the industry is not as flush as it used to be, but seems to me the way to promote better reading in this country and tthe continued viability of print books is to PRINT GOOD BOOKS. Never have I seen more great books rejected than in the past five years. It’s a sad indictment, although by no means do all publishers follow suit. Just many of them.

Yes, print books are treading on ground just loosened up by a massive online earthquake. However, I am not one of those who believes they will go away forever. Maybe in the 22nd century, but not now. First of all, my generation and those older and younger than me grew up with print books. Like me, the vast majority will take a print book over an e-book any time, to feel the story as it unfurls on the page, to experience the world that is created between the covers. So no, this is not the reprise of the sad saga of the 8-track tape or VCR.

But the tides are shifting. In a few places in this country, a student can move right through his or her reading education without ever touching a book. (And given the fact parents have to pay exorbitant fees for outdated textbooks in many public schools these days, it’s not always such a bad thing). They research online, their local libraries are entirely digital (I heard at Meet the Authors that the library in Paducah, KY had changed its name to “Paducah Information Center” – how sad!), and they download e-books. Related blogs serve as Cliff’s Notes; by buying a $300 Kindle, they have access to more than a million other volumes. “It’s incredible,” someone said at Meet the Authors. “I have an entire library in my hand.”

“It’s not the same,” author Tom McKenney responded. “Your library is part of you. I lost that part of me, and a lot of first editions signed by authors who are now dead, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed my house. I can’t replace those books.”

How very true. As I’m writing this blog, I’m facing out at my entire library, and thinking of the heartache Tom still feels. I try to refresh my shelves with new books, get rid of books I don’t want anymore … but that’s the hard part. Because when you part with a book from a home library, you part with an experience or a moment that connected you with that book at a particular time in your life. For me, a quick glance and I see: the days spent on a southern creek, reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; or learning about poetry from an Ancient Chinese anthology, Sunflower Splendor; or sitting at Kitkitdizze, Gary Snyder’s home space in the Sierra Nevada foothills, while reading Turtle Island; recalling my friendship and experiences with Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad while re-re-re-re-re reading Chapter 1 of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (which is all about Pete, whom Wolfe considered the quintessential space explorer); or immersing within the remarkable stories of Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits or Anna Waldo’s Sacajawea; or recalling the romps of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Eric Idle’s Road to Mars; or glancing with a heavy heart at a book my friend Barbara Stahura gave me two weeks after my mom died, Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents.

Right now, I don’t know which book I would remove from this library. If I haven’t read them yet, I will; if I have read them, then they carry something very personal within them. I can’t even imagine how Tom McKenney must feel.

Let’s hope that this regret, borne of natural disaster, doesn’t become the lay of the land. I hope all of us continue reading printed books, and never stop.

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Filed under Adult Literacy, Books, Featured Websites, literature, poetry, Reading, Teen Literacy, travelogue, Writing, Young Writers

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