Reviving Gutenberg: The Pros of Paper

Talk is everywhere that the book industry is falling apart; author’s are being dropped by their publishers and the literary output of publishers is on the decrease.  To some extent, I have to say good riddance.  If the publishing companies fall apart, it is in many ways their own fault.  Many pass the buck and blame external forces, like the omnipotence of the internet, the free world of the blogosphere, and the popularity of movies and TV.  Those are all factors in the industry’s decline, but the biggest factor has got to be the industry itself.

There are many things the publishing houses could do to stave off entropy and disarray.  For example, put more effort into covering the spread of readers’ ages.  There’s a huge amount of books published for kids, tweens and teens, but after that, there’s a schism in the pattern and publishers jump ahead and provide a huge amount of books aimed at people in their 40s to middle-aged.  Not much is aimed at people 20-30.  Off the top of my head, I’d say Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, David Foster Wallace (dearly missed), Lorrie Moore, and Deborah Eisenberg bridge the gap, but more should join their illustrious company.  So many of my generation feel that books are things you read when you’re assigned to, and I can’t really blame them for not turning to books when they find so few like-minded individuals at book stores.

Also, publishers need to liberate books from their upper-middle-class trappings.  So often, books are looked at as things read only by people with a lot of money and little responsibility.  What fosters this illusion is the industry itself.  For instance, the covers of books so frequently suggest, subconsciously, money.  For instance, having a book cover with a highly photoshopped image suggests that someone with a lot of money hired computer experts to smooth out the image.  When people of a certain income see that, they’re likely to think “too rich for my blood.”  I too judge books by their covers.  Also, publishers need to bring back the mass-market paperback form for literary fiction.  If a book costs 15 or 16 bucks, it’s a commitment.  People don’t want to spend that much for a book they might not even like.  Charging so much is only leaving books to go unread, and loiter on shelves until they are returned to the publishers.

Here though is the rub.  If the book industry collapses (that is, the industry of words on paper, rather than books over airwaves), it will be poor people affected the most.  Sing the praises of the ebook readers if you want, but you’ll have to understand that the paper form has its share of pros.

When you buy a book in physical form, that book has a life.  Paper books can be easily loaned out.  That way, friends who can’t commit to buying a pricey book can borrow yours.  Then, after you’ve loaned out a book a few times and grow tired of it, you can sell it to a used book store.  At the store, the book will be resold for a cheaper price, allowing people of a lower income than yourself to buy it without discomfort or anxiety.  When they tire of the book, they can sell it again, and, as it’s resold so many times, it delapidates more and more; this ensures the price will keep going down, which is good for poorer people.  I’ve bought a lot of books for 75 cents.  Finally, when a book’s life on sales racks ends, it finds its way to a library, where anyone can check it out and pay nothing.  It’s in this fashion that books become accessible to anyone and everyone.

Not so with the ebook.  For the ebook, you buy it for your ebook reader, a device that probably cost you somewhere between 400-1000 dollars.  I doubt you’d loan out anything that expensive.  There’s a way you can share the books you downloaded, but only to other people who have purchased ebook readers.  As for poorer people, they are out of luck.  It does take a certain amount of income to read an ebook.  You have to have, at the very least, a good computer, a connection to the internet, and a credit card.  Unless you want to sit at your computer for hours, you also have to own an ebook reader.  The internet alone will likely cost you 40-80 a month.  Oftentimes, people who can’t afford the internet go to the library to use the computers provided there, but those won’t allow anyone to download a product, meaning an ebook won’t be available at a library.

So we have a predicament, don’t we?  For the sake of people less fortunate, we have to support the book industry that disregards them.  The industry won’t save itself though, as it avoids publishing new authors in favor of mass-producing that which is already popular.*  I almost feel like we have to bail-out the publishers, but not with a clean conscience.

—-Please check out my new self-published book A Rapturous Occasion. It’s a comedy of errors centering around a middle-aged couple who believe the world is ending. To find out more, visit the Amazon product page.

Here's the cover illustration I made for my book A Rapturous Occasion

If you enjoy writing or reading literature, you might enjoy this post on how to title your manuscripts.



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