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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.)

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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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