The Evolution of Reading

Today’s guest post is from writer Susan Cushman, a monthly regular here at NO RULES. You can also find Susan over at A Good Blog Is Hard to Find and Pen and Palette.
(Pictured above: Herman King, Doug McLain, Sonny Brewer and Susan Cushman on the square in Oxford, Mississippi.)

It all started over lunch at Ajax on the square in Oxford, Mississippi, on December 3. Sonny Brewer had just given a signing and reading from his anthology, Don’t Quit Your Day Job at Off Square Books. Herman King, Doug McLain and I were thrilled when he agreed to join us for lunch.

The conversation quickly turned to the future of publishing, specifically to the e-book. Sonny talked about this future in terms of the good news and the bad news:

More and more, the dialog will go like this:

“Read any good books lately?”


“Text file, or real book?”

“Well, I read a text file on my Kindle on a trip to DC, and I read one-and-a-half books at home. I’ll finish the book I started as a text file on my stay at the beach next week.”

And that is as it is, and as it shall be—more and more.

Remember car phones? They ain’t ancient history, dear hearts.

Trying to stop this change to our business while trying to preserve what we grew up on has the same chance of success as telling the white man not to go West. (I did not say “this change to reading.”)

The dust cloud of change is not on the horizon any more. We’re breathing it, wiping it from our glasses, brushing it from our shirts. Storefront booksellers, and fewer of them, will sell hardcover first editions. Paperbacks will disappear.

Many authors will go straight to digital format; many will demand a split ticket; advances against royalties will become extinct. Good news and bad news, for sure.

Sonny’s words prompted me to ask a few published authors, an agent, a publishing CEO, and an independent bookseller for their take on the situation. Here’s what I rounded up:

Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson
Hyatt had a great post on his blog on January 11, in which he wrote about Six eBook Trends to Watch in 2011, which include bundled books, social reading, e-book clubs, e-first publishing, free e-readers, and monetization experiments.

He closed the post with these words: “Regardless of how it plays out, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of reading. I can’t imagine a time in history when I would rather be in the publishing business.”

Agent Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management
Here’ what Jeff had to say:

I think it’s a little disingenuous when authors, editors, and readers whine that all this new gadgetry is a huge mistake—that nobody can read on one of those itsy-bitsy screens, that the printed book, with all of those luscious paper pages, is the ‘most perfect’ form that ought to convey their golden prose. 

The reality is that writers, like software designers, are simply providing information, and the new digital innovations may be a way that the writers’ words can reach a much wider audience—people who never picked up a book in their life, or people who thought reading was somehow inferior to video games and movies. The question now is not whether or not there will be books; the question is, rather, what rights to what content should appear in what venue. Should this writer’s work be a print book? A multimedia app? An audio creation? All three? Something new?  It’s a really extraordinary, exciting time to be in this business!

Neil White, author of In the Sanctuary of Outcasts
Neil runs a small publishing business in Taylor, Mississippi. He’s optimistic about the growing options readers have: 

I came to love the fax machine, cable television, CDs, the Internet, e-mail, on-demand movies, satellite radio and the like. I will, at some point, embrace the e-book. But I don’t think it will replace the printed book in my lifetime.

I see e-books as hugely beneficial in replacing bulking, expensive textbooks (and those heavy backpacks). Then, I see it coming in very handy when you need a book now. And, when the price of e-books come down, I imagine readers buying up dozens of e-books at a time (much like music) just in case he or she might want to read it later.

I believe publishers will continue to print hardcover and paperback copies of well-crafted stories. The press runs might be a bit lower (they already are, truth be known), but that makes them a bit more valuable, too. Just like we watch film on the big screen, television, computers, tablets, and even phones, we’ll see our reading public having many options.

Jessica Handler, author of Invisible Sisters
Jessica’s memoir was a Kindle “Mover and Shaker” the summer it came out. Here’s what Jessica has to say:

I can’t argue against anything that promotes reading. I know plenty of people who swear by their e-readers. While e-readers boosted sales for my book and many others, I worry that print books will become collectibles, which returns them to their early, elite form, and can exclude readers across the digital divide, or people like me, for whom books are as companionable as family dogs.

But the act of reading evolves. As readers and writers, we started with markings in clay. We got moveable type. Reading became more accessible as the delivery method got cheaper and more portable. (I admit that I’m partial to the gravitas of monks carefully hand-rendering the written word.)

Paperback books came on the scene as “dime novels” at the end of the nineteenth century—cheap, transportable reading for the average person.

So there’s a circular argument here, which is that e-readers are certainly where popular reading is going.

As for advice to emerging writers, make sure that any book contract includes royalties for sales from new technologies. You want your work to reach as many readers as possible, and you should be compensated for the hard work you’ve done in creating it, because regardless of delivery format, that’s ultimately what we do. We write.

John Evans, owner of Lemuria Books

John, based in Jackson, Mississippi, also has a vision. I sat down with John (and a cold beer) on January 26 to talk shop about the industry, the same night I met Jeanette Walls, who was at Lemuria for a book signing. John’s take on the future?

Psychologically, as a country, we’re becoming more aware of our choices for pleasure—we’re in an early actualized stage of the American psyche—we know our pleasures, our values. But our lives have become so busy that reading for pleasure has migrated out of people’s lifestyles.

But in three or four y
ears, those readers will migrate back—they’ll start choosing a print book over the gizmo.

And what if they don’t?

You don’t want steak every night. Readers will choose which kinds of books to read in print form vs. the e-format.

Is John worried about the future for his bookstore?

It’s an exciting change. I’m here for the physical book. If other stores follow these new trends, it just leaves the print market wide open for me. And not just me—it could open the door for re-birthing the indie bookstore. It’s mass chaos right now, but that’s not bad.

Techno-madness, monetization experiments, digital innovations, mass chaos—all exciting elements of the evolution of reading. Authors and readers: how are you preparing for the future of publishing?

Susan Cushman was co-director of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference (Oxford, Mississippi) and a panelist at the 2009 Southern Women Writers Conference. She lives in Memphis, where she is currently working on a novel and a nonfiction book. Follow Susan on Twitter.

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9 thoughts on “The Evolution of Reading

  1. Susan Cushman

    Thanks for weighing in, Richard. As far as your question about whether the relatively high price of E-Books will benefit writers or publishers, take a look at today’s New York Times’ first ever E-Book Best Sellers list. The TOP 10 Fiction E-Books include 5 from the Print/Hardcover Top 10 and 4 from the Print/Paperback Trade Fiction’s Top 10. For Nonfiction. 7 of the Top 10 Nonfiction E-Books are also in the Top 10 Nonfiction Print/Hardcovers, and 1 is in the Top 10 Print/Paperbacks. Not sure what that says but it’s an interesting statistic.

  2. Richard Gilbert

    This is a great overview of the issues, Susan. Very valuable. Having finally gotten a Kindle myself, I have been blogging quite a bit about what I love and hate.

    Love: The reading experience becomes the same–and I’m reading more.

    Hate: I read as a writer, and one of the first things I do with a physical book is dog-ear its pages at section breaks so I can see them coming and see them go, and consider the author’s structural and dramatic intentions; e-readers destroy this because the book isn’t a physical object any more.

    I also wonder, as a writer and former book publisher, if the relatively high price of e-books will really benefit writers, or even publishers, as much as we’d like, or whether most of it will go to middlemen like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

    Richard Gilbert
    Narrative: Reading, Writing, and Teaching Narrative Nonfiction

  3. Porter Anderson

    Don’t let me fool you, Susan, I covet that collection of signed editions of yours, keep it locked up if I come around! 🙂 I do get your fine "transmedia appreciation," shall we call it? I’m with you completely. There are many books I have and will want in hardcopy. I think my concern is in helping writers grasp what feels like such a sudden dimensional shift gripping the industry, complicating its audience’s tastes and trends. Jane does this valiantly, post after post, conference after conference, and in her teaching. And I know you’re grappling with it, as well, with the articulate weigh-ins of some great folks in your post. I’m simply hoping to hustle-up my own fellow writer-nauts as the digital mother ship revs the big engines, time to go, because so many of us feel we’re later to this party than we’d like to be. I checked, and it was June 2009 when this was in the Times about book signings on Kindles! Oy vey, and thanks again for such a provocative write!

  4. Susan Cushman

    Great to hear from my Mississippi friends, Gabriel and Herman, and always love your words, Darrelyn. Good comments from a children’s librarian’s point of view, Derdre. THANKS EVERYONE!

    And Porter, I really appreciate your taking time to weigh in here with your experienced journalist’s eye and multi-media expertise. I agree with you that we don’t want to see "fine authors who sign books and give readings in a lovely store near Ole Miss stuck under those magnolias"! Which is why I’m a fan of ALL VENUES FOR THE BOOK. Like Darrelyn, I "collect" signed editions, especially from my author friends. But even before I met up with Sonny (not our first meeting) in Oxford for his reading and got him to sign a hardback of "Don’t Quit Your Day Job," I had already read it on my Kindle. Same with Pat Conroy’s "My Reading Life." The Kindle doesn’t REPLACE the print book for me at this point, but if it ever does, you can bet I’ll still be reading my favorite authors. And I think they’ll be ready for it–they already are.

  5. Deirdre Sayre

    As a reader and a writer, I’m old-school–I love the printed page. But as a children’s librarian, I’ve watched this revolution with great interest.
    Recently I bought several e-books (picture books) to use in the library. I show them on the smartboard. My students love them–they are more engaged—they can read along while I am reading.
    It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing issue. The printed book and the e-book are both valid formats. Anything we can do to make reading more user friendly for kids (our next generation of readers) should be explored.
    One advantage of an e-reader is that it is SO portable. After visiting no less than four bookstores on our last family vacation to keep my son supplied with books, have already decided to buy him some sort of e-reader before we travel anywhere else—beats lugging around a bag of books:)! I would be more than willing to purchase e-books through a local bookstore ( and am excited to see the creative ways e-books will be promoted in libraries and bookstores in the next few years.
    Great post, Susan—thanks for the variety of perspectives.

  6. Porter Anderson

    Susan, thanks for this post (and Jane, thanks for presenting it, don’t forget we’re valentines).

    I’m closest to Jeff Kleinman’s good points, farthest from John Evans’ idea that we’ll "migrate back" from the "gizmo," nothing but respect for everybody.

    My own comfort with e-reading comes from proof-of-performance. When I read a book on a Kindle, I’m just as drawn in as with paper-in-hand. I bond with it just as readily. I live in that author’s mind. He lives in my mind. Her impact on me is just as strong, maybe stronger. The Kindle is my preferred e-reader because, as Guy Gonzalez (@glecharles) recently put it well, Amazon has established itself as THE e-tailer. Amazon has the inventory. Just as we writers are learning to build connection with readership before we sell that readership a book, Amazon’s brilliant Jeff Bezos built his stupendous connection with consumers before he sold us the Kindle. And it worked. So come lunchtime? I’ll have whatever Mr. Bezos is having, thank you, and he’ll ship it to me free because I’m an Amazon Prime member. I feel like tipping the man.

    I’m nobody’s spring chicken. And yet, I do think a lot of us are clinging to the Old World fondness for the printed book in a way that’s embarrassingly precious. If traditional books become collectibles, is that really so awful? Mr. Bezos will sell them to you until there ain’t no more, believe me. The format called "vinyl records" is now a collectible. Are we worse off because we have music everywhere, via downloads and Internet and satellite radio? Are you kidding? No. We’re better off. We’re making, hearing, and buying more music. I loved XM Radio’s slogan: "Everything. All the time." That’s Siriusly good, not bad.

    We’ll always love the store in Oxford. Yes, I’ve made the haaj to that mosque and blown the ram’s horn seven times outside the walls of the temple, I’m an authentic fan. And yes, we’ll always have beautiful printed books, maybe even print-on-demand ones that don’t destroy our own industry with returns. Is THAT bad? If you’re still dithering about the glory of Gutenberg, then you don’t grok how much that guy would have loved a Kindle.

    I’m tired of weeping about the Damnable Digital Domination. I’m ready to check out of the group-therapy session. I don’t want fine authors who sign books and give readings in a lovely store near Ole Miss stuck under those magnolias. THAT would be the real tragedy.

    No author left behind! Suit up everybody and get to the launchpad, children. We can have a good cry about it after we reach low-Earth orbit. Not now. Bring your Kleenex. See you on the ether. 😉
    @Porter_Anderson — follow me on Twitter at hashtag #toccon where I’ll be tweeting my brains out, hoping to understand more about the event-horizon doings in publishing at the Tools of Change conference, Feb 15 and 16 ( ). Tweet me now, believe me later.

  7. Darrelyn Saloom

    The reason I missed your post this morning is because I was on the road. I stopped in three quaint Louisiana towns. I visited an old school, an old barn, and an old house in search of antiques. Among the lovely items I stuffed into my car were a few old books with beautiful cardboard covers. So I’m with Herman King on this one. I do have a Kindle but only use it for travel or before I go to an author’s signing and know I’ll buy the hardcover but want to read it first. That means I buy the same book twice, a positive for the book industry.

    Ironically, I recently downloaded Sonny Brewer’s Don’t Quit Your Day Job. I have all Sonny’s books which he signed at the Louisiana Book Festival. I’ve run into him a couple of times at book events, so I figure I’ll see him again. Then I’ll buy Day Job and have him sign it. I enjoyed the essays so much, my next blog post here will be about my favorite day job. But I’ve only begun to write it.

    As far as change, I’m all for what is best for writers.

    Enjoyed the post, Susan. And the picture of you with the guys.

  8. Herman King

    Susan, As an old guy (see photo) I am resistant to the e-book, yet I know the change is near. I think the brick and mortar bookstores will have to evolve and adapt to survive. Square books in Oxford is an icon. Few places in the world have readings like those at Square books. The writers seem to feel a comfort level that opens their hearts and souls. You can’t get that on an e-book or for the most part at the big box stores.

  9. Gabriel Scala

    Great post, Susan. It’s an interesting time for readers and writers alike. I’ve personally shunned the ereader/ebook mostly out of principle but, like others you interviewed, see it as inevitable…and not necessarily a bad thing. I do worry though about the future of print publications and about author pay. We’ve seen many musicians lose loads of money since the advent of music downloading. Of course, I’m just as guilty of it as anyone (maybe even more) and my partner is a musician!

    Thanks for writing about this. 😉


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