Yesterday I made the observation that the publishing industry still seems driven by the paper paradigm and I can understand why. I have friends that go on and on about how they will never give up their stocks of paper books. They like the feel of them. They like the smell of them. Books comfort them like an old sweater. We’ve all been brought up with paper books and we’re comfortable with them.
When I first started writing back in high school, paper books were essential not only to my academics, but to my world view. In those dark days before the internet, before computers, books were knowledge. To my young mind nothing in life was more important than acquiring a good solid library of classic books. The ideal future I envisioned was one where I could spend my days completely occupied with nothing more than reading the works of the learned ancients and gathering their secret wisdom – and writing about it. I wanted to be an author.
Okay, then I went to college and found out that there were many things beyond books. There was beer, girls, whiskey, girls, and music – and girls. I also discovered that one of the objectives of education was to question conventional wisdom and not just accept it blindly. Just because someone was lauded as an expert, it didn’t mean he was beyond examination. And so my ivory tower of learned books crumbled and fell away. The college experience presented me with a new paradigm about the world, one that I could not ignore. That paradigm challenged my view of everything, but most specifically about books and the “wisdom” contained in them. The new paradigm shook my world view to the core and made me question what the very nature of a book is.
With the advent of the information revolution and all the technological innovations it’s brought, what actually is a book anyway? Whether it’s a novel or an encyclopedia, the nature of the book is changing. Tomes have been transformed into digital files and a backpack full of textbooks into a single e-reader. As a digital file a novel can contain links to web sites, video, audio, and reference materials. Writing is limited to ink and paper. A book can now contain virtually anything the writer wants to include to enhance the reading experience. Furthermore, with the advent of eBook self-publishing, authors are no longer confined by the opinions and prejudices of the agents or publishers who would have formerly controlled their ability to get published.
Writing at its very essence is about the creative experience and the desire to share that experience with others. Those others may be listeners or readers, some will be paying customers while others will share the experience through other means. (File sharing is another topic entirely.) From what I’ve read, eBooks still represent only a fraction of publishing world wide, and I doubt paper books will ever go away entirely. There’s a lot more to be said about the permanence of paper versus the impermanence of digital, but that will have to wait for another post.
I guess the bottom line in my mind is that digital files open a myriad of possibilities for authors. They present the possibility for writers to become something more, and for their works to enhance the beauty of the written word. eBooks present the author and the publishing industry with a new paradigm that challenges those of us grown up with the written word trapped in paper to embrace the new technologies of the information age and let our craft flourish.