DANIEL STACY ON THE RISE OF E- BOOKS
WHEN Amazon’s e- book reading device, the Kindle, was launched in the US last year, chief executive Jeff Bezos said the name referred to ‘‘ a kind of fire’’ he planned to start in the book world.
Bezos’s rhetoric ( with its unfortunate allusion to book burning) doesn’t help the cause of web evangelicals, but it does tell us something about the lukewarm reception the book publishing industry has so far extended to the digital age.
There have been a few signs of progress this year: Faber & Faber’s chief executive Stephen Page admitted recently on The Guardian ’ s website that publishers ‘‘ must provide content that can be searched and browsed, and create extra materials: interviews, podcasts and the like’’. Random House chairwoman Gail Rebuck’s impeccably researched lecture, Publishing in a Digital Age, also expressed optimism about digitisation, while eloquently stating the need to focus on piracy and digital- rights management.
But there has been no watershed moment so far ( although Citigroup analysts expect the Kindle to match the iPod for first- year sales), and as the rest of the world marches on under the banner of the information revolution, the lethargic publishing industry fades into the shadows. Although the book industry continues to grow, the book itself seems to be losing its role and relevance in modern life. The US National Endowment for the Arts last year released a comprehensive report on changing reading habits among Americans. Some of its more disturbing findings: the percentage of 17- yearolds who never read books for pleasure increased from 9 per cent in 1984 to 19 per cent in 2004. Another survey conducted for the National Year of Reading in Britain this year found that four of the top- 10 favourite reading materials for 11 to 14- year- olds are online. Young readers have embraced the instantaneous, efficient feel of modern information consumption.
With books being one of the last forms of information to consistently resist digitisation, this leaves them almost completely disconnected from the world of many young readers. To a certain generation, buying books feels old and slow, because it is old and slow.
If you want convincing, let’s imagine there was no foot- dragging on e- books, and an affordable reader had been launched in Australia to great fanfare, with the full support of the main publishing houses. ( I’m sorry, Dymocks’ $ 900 iRex iLiad doesn’t count). You wake up, like me, on a Saturday morning, and open the Review section of your weekend paper, just as you are doing now. You see something you like, perhaps Nick Harkaway’s debut, The Gone- Away World . It’s just released, and so your local bookshop may or may not have it. You’re not going to bother finding out though, because your coffee is still warm and breakfast is only half eaten.
Pick up your e- book reader and five minutes later you are sipping coffee on the patio, halfway through chapter one, having wirelessly downloaded the entire tome in 60 seconds ( a service already offered by the Kindle in the US).
At the end of chapter two, you might decide you really like this book. You download a package of reviews and biographical information from an online book club. See lovereading. co. uk for a good example: a site already supplying PDF book extracts to members. ‘‘ That’s interesting,’’ you think, ‘‘ he got a £ 300,000 ($ 645,000) advance for his first book.’’
By chapter 12 you’ve become a little tired of reading again, and listen to an author podcast that came with your book, much like the director’s commentary on a DVD. By lunch time you’ve ploughed through half the book and traversed the biography of the author, without having wasted time going to a bookshop or looking at a computer screen ( because the new generation of e- book readers does not have backlit computer screens, but a book- like, eyefriendly appearance created by a technology called E- Ink, which can be read in sunlight).
Then turning another page, you wonder precisely what Harkaway’s inspirations were. Visit Librarything. com, or another of the nascent literary networking sites, and you’ll be linked to the profiles of other readers who enjoyed his debut: you can look through lists of their favourite novels, their friends’ favourite novels, and so on. It’s not hard to see how this information supersedes the suggestions for new reads your local bookshop owner could give you.
Of course, you miss out on the cover art, the paper and print quality, the ability to hand the book on to your friends ( Kindle e- books work on one device only), the ability to stack your books on shelves as a gauche display of social and cultural cachet. In return you’re given instantaneousness, reliability, reduced price and a culturally richer package of information.
And if you think the present generation of e- book readers looks a little unromantic, consider what will happen if Apple creates one. Apple’s whiz designer Jonathan Ives managed to make the intimidating home computer look like a big blob of candy, and the iPod fits neatly and intuitively in one’s pocket like a packet of cigarettes. He can surely make an e- book reader the modern icon it needs to be to reignite interest in literature.
For e- books to take off, we need to develop cheap and portable readers on which to view them, because no one is going to read 100,000 words sitting in front of their computer. Look at Japan, where the introduction of new mobile phone plans offering unlimited data transfer unwittingly ushered in a new culture of mobile phone novels: books sent in text messages. It has become an industry the Nikkei business newspaper recently estimated is worth nearly Y= 20 billion ($ 200 million), and growing by more than 200 per cent a year.
If the Japanese thirst for mobile phone novels says anything, it’s that there is unquestionably demand for a mobile reader that is cheap, wireless and attractive to consumers. So much demand that teenagers are willing to improvise a culture that should already exist.
It shouldn’t take the threat of immolation by Amazon’s boffins to make the publishing industry recognise and celebrate this potential. When they do, we could see a swift ushering in of affordable, functional e- book readers, and the fusty book being reincarnated as something modern, sexy, relevant and vital. But for now, we wait and watch as long- form writing fades from the cultural landscape of the young.