They are easily downloadable, cheap — if not free — and highly portable for those settling in on a long plane ride. And though no one’s quite sure when they first arrived, e-books have confounded the publishing world since they first reached mainstream success in 2007, when Amazon unveiled its Kindle e-reader.
For bibliophiles, the changing literary landscape poses a series of uncomfortable questions about the future of reading. (What happens when a reader’s digital library is erased? How are starving authors expected to support themselves?). What will happen to the relationship between the reader and the printed page?
As technology brings more of the written word to the digital screen, these frightening questions warrant well-considered answers.
On Monday, author Scott Turow published a well-written article in The New York Times titled “The Slow Death of the American Author.” Turow, who is the president of the Authors Guild and expects to publish his 10th original novel this year, is perhaps one of the most qualified writers to explore the drawbacks of e-publishing and does so with remarkable poetic style.
Like several writers wary of e-book popularity, Turow cites the reasons why literary culture is so important in America — and it’s not so he can preserve his own status as a bestselling author.
“Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress ‘to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,’” Turow writes. “The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy. That culture is now at risk.”
Turow goes on to describe the lessening value of copyright protections for published works, growing trends in book piracy and the problematic nature of e-book lending in public libraries, all to publicize the negative effects that the electronic reading market has had on the lives of authors. Though none of his arguments are new per se, Turow does a fantastic job of compiling viable concerns that fans of the printed page might have after the recent surge in e-book sales.
Still, what’s most interesting about Turow’s article and recent exposés on the horrors of digital reading can be boiled down to a single question: Will technological advancements affect the personal interaction between a reader and a beloved novel?
According to a 2013 article on Publishing Unleashed, e-books accounted for 22 percent of the publishing market by the second quarter of 2012. Upon a first read, this might not seem like much, but according to that same article, this statistic marks a 49.5 percent increase in adult book sales from January 2011 to January 2012, which is quite a large jump considering that e-books hit a major boom just six years ago. In response to such rapidly growing numbers, Pricewaterhouse Coopers’ Global Entertainment and Media Outlook told paidContent that it expects e-books to make up 50 percent of the U.S. trade book market by 2016 (see Daily Trojan graphic below). It would seem that, like it or not, e-books are here to stay.
To be honest, I’m just as skeptical of e-books as the next person. I make a point of visiting Barnes & Noble at least every other month, buying all of my required readings in a print format and laughing at my Kindle-loving friends whenever the battery goes dead on their e-readers.
But at the same time, I’m also inspired by the durability of reading in American and Western culture. Though e-books might seem like the death of the novel as we know it, it’s important to remember that trends in literature and publishing have always been unstable. Mega bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble or Borders (which went out of business on Sept. 18, 2011), only appeared in the early ’80s, despite how old and familiar they might seem to today’s generation. And before these companies, there were smaller, family-owned book shops, which fizzled out in the wake of such grand competition.
Amazon, which was founded in 1994 and currently holds the largest share of the e-book market, only represents the latest development in reading trends. Because of Amazon’s ability to sell used books for less than a dollar, the company quickly became the largest seller of online books before diversifying and selling other products. Now, five years after its launch of the first successful e-reader, Amazon is giving major publishers a run for their money. But don’t fear, readers. This too shall pass.
I’m not saying that e-readers are a passing trend or that Amazon hasn’t permanently changed the publishing industry, but we should keep in mind that books have always adapted to meet the needs of the reading public. The publication of written stories has evolved from the stone tablet and the papyrus scroll, to the handwritten manuscript and, finally, to the modern printed — or digital — novel. Though we’re unsure of where books might be moving next, the evolution of publishing will most certainly be in the best interest of those who love reading. And as we navigate this evolution, issues like copyright and the rights of the author will fall into place.
So for now, just settle back into the bathtub with your favorite paperback or curl up in an armchair to download the latest New York Times bestseller. After all, what’s most important is the intimate relationship between readers and the stories that have the potential to change their lives.
Carrie Ruth Moore is a sophomore majoring in English. Her column “Cover to Cover” runs Thursdays.