I was standing in a circle of Chardonnay sippers at an art show in Santa Monica when the conversation turned to the future of reading. As a novelist, I had skin in the game, so I grabbed a canape, sidled over, and eavesdropped.
"I'll never buy one of those electronic gizmos," said a heavyset man in his fifties, a humanities professor. "I'd miss the smell of ink on paper, the conjuring of medieval libraries and ancient parchment."
Funny, I don't recall anyone blissfully sniffing their books until the threat from e-publishing appeared. Now, readers can't resist comparing their moldy old tomes to the finest Bordeaux.
Respectfully, I say, move over Gutenberg!
E-books are to traditional publishing what the internal combustion engine was to the horse and buggy. Some experts predict that half of all books will be digital downloads within two to three years. That's astonishing. For 600 years, Johannes Gutenberg's printing press and its progeny have produced our books, newspapers, and magazines. Now, in the blink of an electronic eye, the application of ink to paper is approaching obsolescence.
Complaints about progress are hardly new. When Gutenberg invented movable type, a Venetian judge whined that "The pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore." Some New York publishers have called Amazon and Google even worse names.
I'm all for nostalgia. I have dreamy memories of a rickety blue Bookmobile rumbling into my central Pennsylvania hometown, and my standing on tip-toes to haul down a well-worn volume about dinosaurs. But my Kindle holds more books than that old truck, and there are 600,000 more at Amazon just a few clicks away.
A recent newspaper headline asked: "Will the Kindle Save the Written Word?" The hope is that those techno-savvy kids will interrupt their music and games and videos and texts and tweets and blogs...and start reading.
Call me crazy, but I think they will. I predict that packing a portable library will soon become a hip way to impress the opposite sex. More so, hopefully, than a barbed wire tattoo.
So why is that wine-sipping professor so afraid of the Kindle or Nook or iPad or Kobo? There will still be books in hardcover, trade paperback, and mass-market.
Or will there?
Garrison Keillor, the bard of the prairie, recently wrote that "book publishing is about to slide into the sea." The numbers give reason to worry. For the first quarter of 2010, Simon & Schuster reported a decline in revenue from print, but a 233 per cent increase in digital publishing. Expect that trend to continue, industry-wide. Is the book biz in the same position as the music industry a decade ago? It's not a coincidence that Apple's iTunes store now sells e-books, too.
Consider Amazon, where you can buy a 6000 BTU window air conditioner or a Kindle e-reader for the same $189. Amazon is now a book publisher, not just a retailer. The company is cutting deals with fledgling and mid-list authors for original e-books. How long will it be before Stephen King, or some other literary luminary, inks an exclusive deal to publish in both print and digital editions?
Amazon enjoys a huge advantage over both New York publishers and the bricks-and-mortar retail stores. The Internet behemoth knows the e-mail address and reading habits of every customer, and it need not kill trees, run presses, or hire trucks to produce and distribute its electronic products.
There are advantages for readers, too. Classic literature can be downloaded for free. My first two Kindle "purchases" were "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"and "Pride and Prejudice." Both gratis. Prices of bestsellers are in a state of flux, but they're consistently lower than paper-and-ink books.
The new paradigm is a great deal more democratic for authors, too. Writers who could never land a literary agent, much less a publishing deal, are putting their books on Amazon at customer-friendly prices. True, the writing often warrants a C-minus in eleventh grade English class, but there will be undiscovered gems to be dug from the electronic slush pile.
The shelf life of dead-tree books roughly approximates that of a pint of yogurt, but out-of-print books get eternal life on the Internet. Recently, I celebrated the 20th Anniversary of my debut legal thriller, "To Speak for the Dead." The book is long gone from bookstores, which is where e-publishing comes in. For less than $1,000 in costs - scanning, proofreading, formatting, and cover art - I became my own publisher. In the next year, awaiting release of an old-fashioned hardcover novel from the Bantam imprint at Random House, I'll be publishing eight of my out-of-print mysteries and thrillers.
Woody Allen once said, "I don't want to become immortal through my art. I want to become immortal by not dying." The latter remains impossible, but the former - our work living on forever - just became a bit easier.
"To Speak for the Dead," by Paul Levine, is now for sale at Amazon's Kindle Store and Smashwords, with all proceeds going to the Four Diamonds Fund for cancer treatment and research at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital. More information at http://www.paul-levine.com/content/jake-lassiter.asp