And then there were digital books

the browsers ecstasy

And then there were digital books

One scenario Amazon projects is writers selling their books directly to them, cutting out the publisher. Publishers have looked to bookstores to sell books, and with direct e-book marketing you can eliminate both – or so goes the thinking of some e-book sellers. (You have to wonder about the fate of the printing press). 

Several major publishers are looking instead at an alternative ‘Agency Model’ for e-books where they become the sellers and online venders act as agents for a fee. Ken Auletta, in his lucid and compellingly researched piece in the New Yorker on e-book pricing, quotes Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster: ‘In the digital world, it is possible for authors to publish without publishers. It is therefore incumbent on us to prove our worth to authors every day.’ Auletta quotes other publishers who point out that publishing is not just about selling but finding and cultivating authors. Book editors speak of the importance of editing and nurturing writers. 

Amazon has plans to bring out a Kindle DX version that will support audio and video. The Vook already shares these features. Penguin is looking at e-books that will allow one reader to interact with another reader. (Will this mean that book editors will also have to consider being video editors)? What is emerging as a clearer and truer scenario is that the printed book and the digital book will and must co-exist.

Some books, for instance, are simply not available in an e-book format, like the books of J. D. Salinger who has not allowed his work to be digitised. On the other hand, a book like J.D. The Plot to Steal J.D. Salinger's Manuscripts, a political and literary farce about a professor’s obsession with the unpublished manuscripts of Salinger is available only as a Kindle book. And if you are a Salinger devotee, you won’t hesitate to put aside the printed book you’re reading to make way for an exclusive (and scandalous) e-book where Salinger figures as a character). 

From a long use of the printed book in our lives we know its aesthetics. In time, I feel that the e-book will acquire its own history, aesthetics and culture. If, for instance, the printed book is one of the few solitary experiences left to us, then the interactive e-book will be the one that offers community, companionship. Interestingly, the kind of object a book is becomes clearer because of the ubiquitous e-book: the form, the texture, the feel of the book in your hand that you’d never given much thought to becomes something to wonder about – even question. (That’s our experience with records, with vinyl – which are, not surprisingly, coming back). 

Before reading devices and digital books, it is the book collector and the bibliographer who mostly paid attention to the physicality of books but now even the casual reader is talking about things like the sensation of touching and smelling and looking at paper. (At Princeton University they put a whole course on Kindle, and more than one student spoke of missing reading from textbooks). The familiar, even sensual ritual, of feeling paper as you turn a page. 

The printed book just feels like the definitive book-reading experience. If there is a hierarchy of modes of book-reading, then I vote we privilege the cloth and paper book (just like the preferred mode to see a movie is in a theatre on the big screen, not on video). 

Nicholson Baker once spoke of how your thumb and index finger know when they have turned two pages accidentally by the familiar thickness of something you’ve known by touch since a child. This is why the printed book becomes the quintessential reading experience. It’s so intimate, this turning of the page unconsciously that you and the book are one.

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