It seems one can't open a writing publication, print or electronic, without finding a headline proclaiming that "the way we read is changing." The gist of most of these articles is that print books are rapidly headed the way of the dinosaur, and that soon (the definition of "soon" not always being crystal clear), we'll all be clutching some form of e-reader, downloading texts, and explaining to our grandchildren just what "paper" was.
An article in the May 2012 issue of The Writer sums up this prediction nicely. It quotes from another article, by Michael Todd of Miller-McCune, who shares his view of the future of reading. In Todd's brave new world, he walks down the street "with an electronic device that fits in my pocket... As I walk, I pass a handful of newspaper stands. There aren't actual papers in them, but electronic bulletin boards. I like a couple of headlines... and so I press a button..." whereupon his device "uploads the day's content... while subtracting a very minimal amount from either my bank account or a media escrow account... If I go to a bookstore, it's the same procedure. There will probably be a few proper books for me to examine, but it's button-pushing time when I want something."
OK, so far, nothing really thought-provoking here. I mean, we've heard it all before, and we're going to hear it again -- and one day it may even be true. But then, a few days after reading this, I received an e-mail from my friend "John" in Nigeria.
John and I were brought together in the first place over the subject of books. John wanted them, but couldn't get them. He couldn't set up an account on Amazon and have books shipped directly, so I agreed to act as his intermediary. Since then we've maintained a correspondence.
In his most recent e-mail, John was explaining why I was getting a fairly long e-mail a section at a time. It was, he said, because he had to compose it in segments on his cell phone. "I'll only get a home internet when I'm able to have... a fairly used laptop or notebook. So I read with the phone on charge because you never know when you'll see electricity. For example, we are just coming out of almost a day of outage and I've just rushed to put the phone on charge while I compose this email. Isn't it interesting to complete a novel under such condition? But I bet you, Moira, you would write better and faster here when you remember the bulb glowing above you won't shine the next minute."
I couldn't get that image out of my head. Somehow, I don't see John strolling along with his pocket-size electronic device, pushing a few buttons to download today's news or tomorrow's bestseller at the book or news kiosk of the future -- not anytime soon, anyway! Michael Todd and John of Nigeria write of two very different worlds. Michael's is a rosy projection of the future; John's is a not-so-rosy picture of a world that is all too real, for too many people, right here and now.
What bothers me about Michael's "vision" is that it's not simply a vision of how the reading world will change. It's a vision of how the world will change for people who can afford it. Michael's vision is of a future for the affluent. He describes his pocket device as being inexpensive enough that he won't be devastated if he loses it, but costly enough that he's "careful with it" -- and he adds, "think iPod."
One doesn't have to travel all the way to Nigeria to find people who can't afford to own an iPod, iPad, Tablet, Kindle, SmartPhone, SmarterPhone, BlazingGeniusPhone, or whatever the latest gadget happens to be. Nor does one have to travel to Nigeria to find people who can't afford the cost of a home Internet connection -- who, if they go online at all, must do so at a public library or an Internet café.
Yet, increasingly, the world seems determined to leave such people behind, no matter where they live. More and more companies insist that one transact business with them via their website, rather than on the phone or in person -- and impose extra fees on people who insist on speaking to an actual human representative. Such tactics impose extra hardships on the people who can least afford them.
Now imagine a world -- Michael's world -- where there are, in fact, few of what he (rather oddly, I think) refers to as "proper" books. At least today, if John in Nigeria wants a book, I can buy one and mail it to him. But as publishers and distributors (like Amazon) place tighter and tighter restrictions on how e-books can be purchased, viewed, and most of all, shared, there is a growing danger that more and more people will, in fact, be cut off from the growing flow of information. John, for example, says that he can't even use the free Kindle reader that Amazon provides -- which means that he has no means of accessing books that are available only on Kindle. And if you have to sit at a library computer or take your laptop to an Internet café just to read a novel, how many novels will you actually read?
There was a day when books were so rare and precious that only the very wealthiest could afford them. To highlight their value, they were bound in fine leather and their covers often embellished with gold and jewels. The printing press changed that -- forever, we fondly imagined. But I am beginning to fear that part of the driving force behind this brave new electronic world of the future is a desire to shift information back into that elite sphere. Publishers aren't creating e-books out of a warm, humanitarian desire to share knowledge and entertainment with the world. They're doing it because there's a profit to be made.
For example, a few months ago, my book Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer was available on Kindle for $9.99. Today, it's selling for $13.83 -- that's just $2.64 less than the print version, for an edition that requires no printing or shipping costs! Now, it may prove that I, as the author, will get a higher royalty out of this (not having seen a royalty statement in months, I don't know) -- but you can bet that the real profits are going somewhere else. More to the point, I can't help but fear that such a price increase will simply discourage people from reading my book and benefiting from it.
And there's the question that I think pundits like Michael Todd are overlooking as they visualize this future filled with handy electronic devices: Who benefits? Is it the authors? The readers? Or is it the publishers -- and those who make the devices in the first place?
The articles that I keep reading about "how reading is changing" seem to assume that this change is a consumer-driven choice. We are reading on devices because we like devices -- and print books are going to vanish because we, the enlightened public, have decided that we don't want them anymore. But here's a not-so-rosy vision: Imagine a future in which publishers decide to issue information only in electronic format, thereby requiring consumers to purchase expensive devices if they want to keep up with the news or with their field of expertise, or just read the latest bestseller. Imagine a future where, if you can't afford a device, you can't read -- and if your power goes out, you're out of luck.
The printing press was the great leveler in the information field. It took books -- information -- out of the hands of the rich and the elite, and redistributed it to the world at large. Today, thanks to the printing press, even if John in Nigeria has to read by candlelight, he can still read a book. So can a child in Inner City USA, so can my 89-year-old mother-in-law, so can you, and so can I. And while I do enjoy my Kindle and I am delighted when people buy electronic versions of my books, I don't look forward to a future where the person who controls my device can control what I can, and can't, read. Let's make sure that as we rush toward Michael's future, we don't leave John's in the dust!
Find Out More...