Sunday, July 27, 2008

What Will Happen to Books?

Hello, all. I am happy to be back here blogging at Tote Bags ‘n’ Blogs. This is part of discussion I had on my current blog, and I thought I would further it here with you as you are writers and readers. And most writers and readers I know have a crush on books. A major, long-term, over-the-top crush on books. In-fat-u-ation. And I’m talking simply about the stories in the books, but the actual, physical object itself. The hard or soft covers, the way they feel under our hands when we pick them up off the shelves at stores. The smell of the fresh pages; the whiff of print ink and wood pulp. Writers looking at their first book almost kvell with joy, seeing their photos on the back cover, reading the shiny jacket cover copy. Readers looking at a long anticipated book for the first time kvell as well (think how you felt when at your last Harry Potter!). A book is romantic. When we see someone carrying a book, we make assumptions about that person, usually good. Someone reading a book is thought to be smart or at least interesting. Books in our house show that we are thoughtful, learned, and maybe even wise. Books imply that we’ve gone to school and studied, one or both. Books are evidence of a human’s thought process, tangible bits of a person’s dream. And this romantic notion is hard to lose.

I have been keeping casual track of the ebook phenomena, the economy, the environment, and publishing and reading trends, and one morning as I lay in bed trying to fall back asleep--thwarted by the fact my body could not adjust, thinking it was on either Central Time or Eastern Time but not Pacific Time--I had to come to grips with the fact that books as we know them will go away. Mind you, I’m not trying to go apocalyptic on you, but troubles in the industry and world have been bouncing in my head for a while, leading me to these thoughts. I don’t want books to go away completely. Certainly, we will always have libraries full of the paper books we know and love now. Our home collections will likely be with us, passed down through the generations. But we really can't sustain the book business as it is now.

If we publish about 175,000 books per year in this country (and I don't think that includes self published books) and have print runs of 20,000 for each, that's 35,000,000 million books. Even though I was thinking about this great number while in bed, I didn’t and don’t want to think about what that costs the planet. Trees, energy, pollution. Even if every part of the process went completely green (which I doubt is possible), we still would have some by product of toxins. Have you seen my romance covers? While I love the cover of Being with Him , I shudder when contemplating what that type of printing must cost in terms of materials. They are thick and glossy and full of color that can't originate from the shells of some beetle that is farmed on a beetle farm for ink.

And let's say that 20,000 copies of my book are sent out. Only 10,000 sell. The publisher has to figure out what to do with the remaining 10,000. They don't make their money and pulp half and remainder the rest. The bookstores end up shipping back half of the 10,000 that "sold," and then we have gas waste and more pulp. All that paper, all that dye, floating around in some river somewhere headed out to sea to join up with the plastic floating island of smudge in the Pacific.

This is just the environmental part of the argument. Of course, there's more.

The idea of revamping the advance/per copy sales amount given to an author is at least a partial solution for this. Book stores commit to what they can handle and authors are paid less upfront but earn more per book. The book store will be holding onto their 5 copies of our book till kingdom come, but it's a done deal. They can remainder on their own or give a copy to the poor guy who comes in and has forgotten his wallet. It doesn't matter. We are paid for those five copies; the publisher doesn't have to deal with the return. Less gas waste, less environmental pollution. Not bad.

But still, there are the 175,000 books out there and maybe the 5,000 copies per book.
Ebooks eliminate some of this, though I have no clue about the waste involved in making computers and Kindles and Sony readers. But once they are made, people keep those things for longer than a 6.99 mass market paperback. The books come into the readers and computers easily without paper waste. Without gas. The sales are final. No returns.
So that gets rid of a number of the issues.

I just bought my mother a Kindle reader, and what she says is that she likes to sit down on her couch and read it. Just like a book. I know I have said that I would miss holding a book, but I think I would miss forests more. I would miss a lot of the things that our current practices of living are producing for us. Things like clean air and glaciers. We want our publishing business to go on the way it is, but it is not sustainable. It's tremendously flawed in so many ways.

Of course, I want the stories to thrive and live, and they will because we can’t stop ourselves. We've been telling stories to each other since before we could really articulate them. We painted tales on walls. Then we told them around fires. Then we figured out how to chip into blocks of stone. We've moved on, adapting the stories to what is around. Printing was viable when it was smaller. Then we cleared out the forests. Now we are clogging everything with the leftovers of what we want. It's hard to breathe out there, folks, and things are going to have to change, even if it means you will need a little reader to read the next big book coming down the pike.

What are your thoughts on this? I'm curious to know how you feel, as we are the ones who are or want to be in "print," as we are the ones who buy the books.



Lois said...

Well, when I think of it objectively, I guess there's no getting around the fact that at some point, most books (can't imagine it will be all, so I'm leaving the word most) will be electronic and not print.

But when I put my bias into it, I'm sure glad the time isn't here just yet. LOL I love the feel of a book, regardless of the fact that I can only fit one or maybe two in my purse, but still. :) I do plenty of looking at stuff on my computer or my ancient PDA that I am not in any mood to do more -- I look forward to shutting it off and picking up that paperback.

But I couldn't venture a guess, nor would I want to, when that day comes. Maybe it won't. . . maybe books will still be around but in both ways, but other things like newspapers and magazines definitely will go electronically only. In any case, it's just too hard to guess. . . nor do I want to because I want to pretend it won't happen. LOLOLOL :)


Christine said...

I have a son age 10 and a daughter age 6 and in 70 years, when they are little old people, how will this affect them? How will all the books I have already bought and will probably buy in the future change their quality of environment? Will all the paperback books that I have bought contribute towards such bad air quality that they will have problems breathing? Will all the effort that goes into making these books be taking away gas or electric or shade on a hot summer day, or clean water when they are so thirsty? Will my selfish desire to hold an actual book in my hands, as opposed to an electronic device, make the way they live their lives worse? This is a serious consideration and one that must be contemplated with much gravity and perhaps sacrifice.

jessica said...

Lois--I am with you. I love books and I like the feel of them. But what I remember is that we haven'thad them around us for that long. I mean, you basic population of humans. And we've always been in the state of evolving in terms of how we have received our stories. I am sure books will be with us for a long time. But--to put it this way, all my romances from Reason to Believe have been sold in ebook form, and from Believe in me onward, Kindle, too. What book will be solely ebook?

I don't know, and I WILL miss the paper under my hands if that does happen.

Christine--You made me think that so much of what we do know will effect our children and their children. So much of what our relatives before us did effected us (think strip mining!). I just hope we are smart enough to figure some of this out! I hope we can.

Thank you both for writing about this, as it gives me so much more to think about.



Estella said...

I like to hold the paper book in my hand, but I also read ebooks.
As long as stories are written I will buy and read them, be they print or ebooks.

Nathalie said...

I now prefer ebooks as I have some storage problems! However, I still love to feel the pages when I read,

jessica said...

Maybe we can have both, which would be nice and preferable and give a sense of rightness to all!

and somehow, we can figure out the publishing issues and make them more sensible.


Cheri2628 said...

I really prefer holding a book. I enjoy the book covers, too. I like to keep favorite books on my shelf to be re-read. I also enjoy collecting autographed books.

jessica said...

Book covers are like art, really. I know many authors who frame them, especially when they can get their hands on the original artwork.

So I agree. I would miss them in my shelves: the color, the mass of them.


Lily said...

I am becoming more accustomed to ebooks... mainly because I lack space, and people don't know what I am reading, as some covers can be quite osé!

jessica said...

Yes, we can hide what we are reading in a Kindle. That can be a perk! Though I just read that a book read on the season premiere of Mad Men just went wild on amazon's list. So It's nice for a writer to have the basic reading exposure.