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Brave New World... Or Not?

By Moira Allen

It seems one can't open a writing publication, print or electronic,

without finding a headline proclaiming that "the way we read is

changing."  The gist of most of these articles is that print books

are rapidly headed the way of the dinosaur, and that soon (the

definition of "soon" not always being crystal clear), we'll all be

clutching some form of e-reader, downloading texts, and explaining

to our grandchildren just what "paper" was.

 

An article in the May issue of "The Writer" sums up this prediction

nicely.  It quotes from another article, by Michael Todd of

"Miller-McCune," who shares his view of the future of reading.  In

Todd's brave new world, he walks down the street "with an

electronic device that fits in my pocket... As I walk, I pass a

handful of newspaper stands.  There aren't actual papers in them,

but electronic bulletin boards.  I like a couple of headlines...

and so I press a button..." whereupon his device "uploads the day's

content... while subtracting a very minimal amount from either my

bank account or a media escrow account... If I go to a bookstore,

it's the same procedure.  There will probably be a few proper books

for me to examine, but it's button-pushing time when I want

something."

 

OK, so far, nothing really thought-provoking here.  I mean, we've

heard it all before, and we're going to hear it again -- and one

day it may even be true.  But then, a few days after reading this,

I received an e-mail from my friend "John" in Nigeria.

 

John and I were brought together in the first place over the

subject of books.  John wanted them, but couldn't get them.  He

couldn't set up an account on Amazon and have books shipped

directly, so  I agreed to act as his intermediary.  (You can read

his account of what it's like to actually try to pick up a package

delivered from overseas to Nigeria at

http://www.writing-world.com/coffee/coffee21.shtml)  Since then

we've maintained a correspondence.

 

In his most recent e-mail, John was explaining why I was getting a

fairly long e-mail a section at a time.  It was, he said, because

he had to compose it in segments on his cell phone.  "I'll only get

a home internet when I'm able to have... a fairly used laptop or

notebook. So I read with the phone on charge because you never know

when you'll see electricity. For example, we are just coming out of

almost a day of outage and I've just rushed to put the phone on

charge while I compose this email. Isn't it interesting to complete

a novel under such condition? But I bet you, Moira, you would write

better and faster here when you remember the bulb glowing above you

won't shine the next minute."

 

I couldn't get that image out of my head.  Somehow, I don't see

John strolling along with his pocket-size electronic device,

pushing a few buttons to download today's news or tomorrow's

bestseller at the book or news kiosk of the future -- not anytime

soon, anyway!  Michael Todd and John of Nigeria write of two very

different worlds.  Michael's is a rosy projection of the future;

John's is a not-so-rosy picture of a world that is all too real,

for too many people, right here and now.

 

What bothers me about Michael's "vision" is that it's not simply a

vision of how the reading world will change.  It's a vision of how

the world will change for people who can AFFORD it.  Michael's

vision is of a future for the affluent.  He describes his pocket

device as being inexpensive enough that he won't be devastated if

he loses it, but costly enough that he's "careful with it" -- and

he adds, "think iPod."

 

One doesn't have to travel all the way to Nigeria to find people

who can't afford to own an iPod, iPad, Tablet, Kindle, SmartPhone,

SmarterPhone, BlazingGeniusPhone, or whatever the latest gadget

happens to be.  Nor does one have to travel to Nigeria to find

people who can't afford the cost of a home Internet connection --

who, if they go online at all, must do so at a public library or an

Internet café.

 

Yet, increasingly, the world seems determined to leave such people

behind, no matter where they live.  More and more companies insist

that one transact business with them via their website, rather than

on the phone or in person -- and impose extra fees on people who

insist on speaking to an actual human representative.  Such tactics

impose extra hardships on the people who can least afford them.

 

Now imagine a world -- Michael's world -- where there are, in fact,

few of what he (rather oddly, I think) refers to as "proper" books.

At least today, if John in Nigeria wants a book, I can buy one and

mail it to him.  But as publishers and distributors (like Amazon)

place tighter and tighter restrictions on how e-books can be

purchased, viewed, and most of all, SHARED, there is a growing

danger that more and more people will, in fact, be cut off from the

growing flow of information.  John, for example, says that he can't

even use the free Kindle reader that Amazon provides -- which means

that he has no means of accessing books that are available only on

Kindle.  And if you have to sit at a library computer or take your

laptop to an Internet café just to read a novel, how many novels

will you actually read?

 

There was a day when books were so rare and precious that only the

very wealthiest could afford them.  To highlight their value, they

were bound in fine leather and their covers often embellished with

gold and jewels.  The printing press changed that -- forever, we

fondly imagined.  But I am beginning to fear that part of the

driving force behind this brave new electronic world of the future

is a desire to shift information back into that elite sphere.

Publishers aren't creating e-books out of a warm, humanitarian

desire to share knowledge and entertainment with the world.

They're doing it because there's a PROFIT to be made.

 

For example, a few months ago, my book "Starting Your Career as a

Freelance Writer" was available on Kindle for $9.99.  Today, it's

selling for $13.83 -- that's just $2.64 LESS than the print

version, for an edition that requires no printing or shipping

costs!  Now, it may prove that I, as the author, will get a higher

royalty out of this (not having seen a royalty statement in months,

I don't know) -- but you can bet that the real profits are going

somewhere else.  More to the point, I can't help but fear that such

a price increase will simply discourage people from reading my book

and benefiting from it.

 

And there's the question that I think pundits like Michael Todd are

overlooking as they visualize this future filled with handy

electronic devices: Who benefits?  Is it the authors?  The readers?

Or is it the publishers -- and those who MAKE the devices in the

first place?

 

The articles that I keep reading about "how reading is changing"

seem to assume that this change is a consumer-driven choice.  We

are reading on devices because we LIKE devices -- and print books

are going to vanish because we, the enlightened public, have

decided that we don't want them anymore.  But here's a not-so-rosy

vision: Imagine a future in which publishers decide to issue

information ONLY in electronic format, thereby REQUIRING consumers

to purchase expensive devices if they want to keep up with the news

or with their field of expertise, or just read the latest

bestseller.  Imagine a future where, if you can't afford a device,

you can't read -- and if your power goes out, you're out of luck.

 

The printing press was the great leveler in the information field.

It took books -- information -- out of the hands of the rich and

the elite, and redistributed it to the world at large.  Today,

thanks to the printing press, even if John in Nigeria has to read

by candlelight, he can still read a book.  So can a child in Inner

City USA, so can my 89-year-old mother-in-law, so can you, and so

can I.  And while I do enjoy my Kindle and I am delighted when

people buy electronic versions of my books, I don't look forward to

a future where the person who controls my device can control what I

can, and can't, read.  Let's make sure that as we rush toward

Michael's future, we don't leave John's in the dust!

 

-- Moira Allen, Editor

 

 

Copyright 2012 Moira Allen

 


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