My aversion to e-books is inherent. I am a traditionalist when it comes to books. I don’t want to involve cords and outlets and I certainly don’t want to live in fear of spilling coffee on what I’m reading; it would never work out between us. It’s not for lack of trying, though. When I interned at the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, I needed my iPad to access and read galleys for work and the agents I worked with similarly relied on their various Nooks and Kindles. My internship taught me a lot about the role e-books are currently playing. In a way, e-books – and by extension, self-publishing and the presence of Amazon – add opportunities for books and authors to reach readers. Some professionals within publishing think this is an exciting, revolutionary time to be in the business. At the same time, we cannot deny how our present digital age is changing the culture of reading. Even if we are reading more, we are visiting our local libraries and bookstores less, causing problems for both of these vital cultural institutions. There are also those in publishing that are in a panic, not to mention an agent I worked with who advised me to get out while I still can. My aversion to e-books, then, has extended beyond the personal. The way I see it, e-books pose a threat to the value we place on books and reading.
I really began to hate the idea of e-books and self-publishing when I read Andrew Rice’s “The 99¢ Best-Seller.” The Time article details the triumph and ease of self-publishing. Rice highlights a few authors, nearly all of whom were at one point rejected by the Big 6 publishers of New York. Ever since turning to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, these authors have found success in one form or another, most of them rejoicing over a certain level of monetary gain. To initially attract readers, authors price books at 99¢, or even for free. With Amazon’s system, authors keep 70% of sales. Self-publishing has clearly been lucrative for some authors, the most well-known success story undeniably being E.L. James with her Fifty Shades trilogy. Many authors whom Rice spoke with, though, rallied around ardent self-publishing advocate, Joe Konrath. A self-proclaimed best-selling author, Konrath has a blog dedicated to helping out authors new to self-publishing. He delights in his belief that “Amazon is going to destroy the Big 6,” particularly because he thinks books currently cost too much for the amount of entertainment they provide. I have come to see Konrath as my archenemy. I love a bargain as much as anyone, but I also believe that we should be willing to invest in the things that matter, and for me, that happens to be books. Pricing a book at 99¢ is essentially saying this is how little I think a book is worth.
There is also an issue of quantity over quality. Many of the authors cited in Rice’s article believe self-publishing to be democratic: anyone can publish anything and readers can read anything for just a few dollars. But more is not always better. George Packer takes a similar stance in his article “Cheap Words,” a critique on profit-driven Amazon. He explains how the Kindle Singles program publishes as many as three to four works per week. Packer argues how this creates a digital market “awash with millions of barely edited titles, most of it dreck, while readers are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich.” Though he spends most of the article portraying Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as the Dark Lord summoning Death Eaters to his lair in Seattle, Packer broaches threatening implications of publishing too many low-quality books at low costs.
In another sense, the value, or lack thereof, we place on books and reading is evident in the current state of libraries. When budgets get tight, libraries are one of the first places to suffer.
In his speech to the Reading Agency last year, author Neil Gaiman advocated for libraries and how necessary they are. In an increasingly digital age, information is more readily available and exists in endless abundance; for this reason, he says, libraries are more relevant than ever. Gaiman also shares my preference for an actual book. “I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens,” he argues. “Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books.” Gaiman doesn’t say we should avoid e-books entirely; rather, just because access to them is simple and convenient, we should not neglect libraries.
Independent bookstores face a similar fate. The situation is so dire, that author James Patterson, who has notably called for a bailout of the publishing industry, has recently pledged to donate $1 million to independent bookstores. Actions such as this are necessary. I discovered most of my favorite books growing up at the suggestion of my local booksellers, who knew my tastes better than I did. Online communities – my personal favorite being Goodreads – can similarly provide suggestions and a platform for discussion. But nothing, especially for younger readers, can beat in-person relationships and conversations between a reader and a bookseller—or a reader and a librarian.
My fear of e-books is thus connected to a fear that as a society, we are choosing to place less monetary and quality value on books and reading. We are choosing to pay 99¢ for books, choosing not to invest in libraries, and choosing to buy books on Amazon or our e-readers rather than at our local bookstores. The music industry suffered this fate recently; we cannot let it happen to books. If we want to maintain quality literature and build a strong literary culture, we must all make a commitment to invest in reading.