The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Paul New­man

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