Friday, July 13, 2012

Paper books as artifacts in the digital age

I was on an ebook panel at the local library yesterday, speaking with a writing group, and the inevitable defense of bookstores arose. I've come to believe this is an emotional issue, not an issue of logic, data, or even the reality that is occurring all around us--bookstores are closing, and rapidly. I'm not here to gleefully dance on graves, since I like bookstores and they have helped sell my books in the past. But the idea that "Paper books CAN'T die out because I like them" is not going to stop paper books from their rapid decline. They are nice artifacts that give many of us comfort, but the incredible drain of resources to get a book from Point A to Point B will forevermore put it at a competive disadvantage.

(Disclaimer--worldwide nuclear war would restore paper books to dominance because many of them would outlast all the digital information erased by the electromagnetic pulse. But I can safely predict overall readership would still decline.)

Paper books are already clear artifacts to me, comfort items for the shelf. Oddly, I have been reading paper books more than my Kindle lately--but this doesn't mean I've "decided that paper is better." No, I am clinging to the last bits of nostalgia and indulging in some works that might never be available in digital form.

I took my wife to an antique store a couple of weeks ago--proof of the depths of my love and sacrifice, if you know how much I abhor any form of shopping--and I was startled how much of the store was occupied by books. Yes, books are already antiques, even while the major publishers churn out tens of thousands of copies of the latest trendy fiction and celebrity bios. You could look at those huge bestsellers as signs of publishing health, but they actually reflect the disease--publishing is only practical on a blockbuster level: Many sales each of a few titles, not a few sales each of a few million niche titles.

In the store, I found a stack of Dean Koontz books and thumbed through them, mostly out of curiosity, since I have enough Koontz paperbacks to last a lifetime. But I found a tattered 1977 copy of Demon Seed, the movie tie-in edition of the 1973 novel. On top of it was the newer, re-released and thicker version. For those who don;t know, Koontz revised most of his books as he got the rights back and re-released them. In the new version, I read the afterward where Koontz explains how he cleaned up the book and honed it. Of course, I was far more interested in the old version, the rawer, less polished, version. Koontz often works too hard to remove any provocative edge in his books, and my only complaint with him is that his protagonists are always too relentlessly and predictably noble, cheerful, and idealistic. To see how Koontz changed in the quarter-century between the two versions, simply read the Wikipedia entry on the book and what you find is an unfortunate case of revisionist history.

The other reason I chose the older version is because I am pretty sure it will never be available as an ebook. No way would Koontz allow its release. The new version is $7.99 in ebook, while you can buy used versions of the new paperback for a penny plus shipping. I paid $1.99 in the antique store, far more than I'd normally pay for a paperback (well, I also paid gas to drive to the store, but you could argue I'd be there anyway). Versions of the older version are on eBay from $3.50 to $30 plus shipping. They will always be "worth" more than the revised, supposedly improved editions in similar condition.

The moral of the story is that there is no morality in the paper/digital war. Times change, no one is wrong, neither is inherently "better." For this reader and writer, I know when I am buying an artifact and not just a story. I often delete digital books after I finish them. I often give away paperbacks after I've finished them. Maybe I'll keep Demon Seed awhile. Maybe not. It's fun to read precisely because I can see the anti-Koontz in it, the smirky little twenty-something writer who delighted in being a bit naughty and edgy. What you could call "the artifact Koontz."

Bookstores are turning into antique stores. But that's okay, because we cherish our artifacts. And perhaps we will even value these artifacts more when they are no longer widely available. Do you cling to any similar artifacts you know are artifacts? Cassette tapes that mark a time in your life? Videocassettes? Old paper books? 


Mike Arnzen said...

Intriguing post, Scott! My home library is becoming a museum, I suppose! :-) One element of all this is the market for collector's editions (eg. limited hardcovers and such) -- the finest of all antiques. I still buy them... in fact, I seek them out more now than ever before. Perhaps these books are akin to vinyl? -- Mike A.

Sharon Stogner said...

I can count the number of books I have reread on one hand. I don't like to rr watch movies either...yet I have quite the collection of both. I bought the DVD for The Pricess Bride because I loved it. It has never been opened I also have all my vinyl records.

Philip van Wulven said...

What about the Espresso Book Machine, or some similar Print On Demand On Site competitor? As you mention, transporting & storing print books is a drain on resources, so a good solution is to only print & bind books at the point of sale. Currently these machines are expensive, but will become more affordable as more are installed in bookstores worldwide. There are currently two within an hour's drive of where I live, both in University bookstores.

Author Scott Nicholson said...

Hi Mike, yes, we have a record store here--vinyl only!

Sharon, yes, life is too short, and gets shorter...

Philip, I don't ever see the machines producing cheaply enough to be competitive with ebooks--I still believe it will be a nostalgia purchase.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you about Koontz's characters. The heroes and heroines are like cardboard cutouts, and the kids are so sickeningly sweet and quirky you just want to smack 'em. Still, I have several of his paperbacks crammed in one of my bookcases as well. Some I really enjoyed--others, not so much.