Kicking off this year’s IDPF Digital Book Conference at BEA, author Nicholas Carr, known for his skeptical examinations of the impact of digital technology on our brains, outlined a book industry that is faring well despite early industry apprehension over technology. Despite all this “good news”—his words—about digital publishing in general and e-books specifically, Carr concluded, “The mind we read with is different in a book” and ultimately is in conflict with the growth of technology all around us.
He was followed by a lineup of speakers offering just the opposite viewpoint: enthusiastic presentations on just how the world of traditional books, e-books, and broader technological development are transforming the book industry for the better.
From executives like Scholastic’s Lori Benton, librarian Peter Brantley, and self-publishers like Bella Andre, one speaker after another seemed to diverge or simply ignore this conflict between the mind on books and the mind on books using technology. Indeed, the discussion focused more on how publishers, retailers, and libraries are all using technology in some form to connect more people than ever to books. It was only Carr’s conclusion—“resist the culture of distraction,” as he called the proliferation of smartphones, tablets, and digital reading devices in general—that everyone following him seemed to ignore.
Most famous for books like The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and The Glass Cage: Automation and Us (Norton), Carr led off this year’s conference by noting that even today’s digitally enabled book market doesn’t look that different from the “pre-Kindle market,” before 2009. E-books, he said, are not a replacement for print books but a complement to print, like audiobooks.
Indeed each format, print and digital, has its place: “People want an e-book for a crowded subway train, but want a print book at home, and many want one of each,” he said. Digital reading hasn’t divided along generational lines, he said, noting that the average age of a print reader is 41 and the average age of an e-book reader is 42; he even noted that 75% of students prefer print textbooks.
As it turns out, Carr said, while e-books might very well replace other formats—mass market paperbacks, for instance, due to convenience and price—they haven’t affected hardcover nonfiction very much at all. In fact, they’ve brought new readers to books that may never have bought a book before. Nevertheless, in Carr’s view, while “reading makes us empathetic to other lives,” technology-enabled reading is another part of the “culture of distraction.”
“The bad news is that there’s a conflict between the culture of the book and the culture of the computer,” he says. Reading produces a trance-like state, he said, in which we “disengage from the busy world, transported from society—that’s the power of a book,” and by that he meant a print book. Smartphones, on the other hand, “plunge you deeply into the whirlpool of life, not into reflection,” he said, adding that tech giants like Apple, Amazon, and Google create devices designed to extract fees and revenue. “When someone is engaged in a book, they’re not feeding money into a digital device.” Indeed, he ended his presentation noting that “the dreams of the Jeff Bezoses and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world are not the dreams of readers.”
Peter Brantley, digital librarian and PW columnist, followed Carr and offered a presentation focused principally on the issues raised in the first half of Carr’s presentation. He noted quickly that “the book is not the format, but the expressions within it,” and offered a broad survey of how libraries are using technology of all kinds to bring the culture of the book to more people than ever.
Brantley touched on the pervasiveness of public libraries: “wherever roads cross you see a public library, even in the smallest and most remote town in the U.S.” He noted that libraries are planning “next generation” book festivals while acting as urban data centers. He also offered praise for subscription e-book services, and lamented DRM and the ways it “restricts the sharing and the growth of the book market.”
Former Hachette executive Maja Thomas moderated a high-powered panel of publishing executives, and they too seemed unconcerned about a conflict between reading and a device-enabled future. HarperCollins’s Josh Marwell (as well as others) discussed how digital publishing means that publishers must experiment and “think and act globally,” adding that “sometime in the future, China will be the largest English-speaking country in the world.” Lori Benton noted that teens are reading and “switching between print and digital. They’re reinventing storytelling,” and publishers are “finding out what kids like to read and hitting them with more of what they like.”
The self-publishing panel—featuring celebrity self-publishers Bella Andre, Barbara Freethy, and Hugh Howey—talked about Howey’s Authorearnings.com site, which is mining data on how much money self-publishers (the panelists like to use the term “indie” instead of “self-published”) are making. “A lot of people are making a living, making six figures a month and reading, and writing is healthier than it’s ever been,” said Howey. All the panelists spoke of the growth of POD.
“The digital self-publishing revolution is coming to print eventually,” Andre said, also noting global demand, the importance of backlist, and the need for very successful self-publishers to hire their own CEOs or CFOs at a certain point in their development. They then chimed in on the Amazon/Hachette conflict. Howey noted that publishers who lowered prices report more revenue overall. “There’s no shortage of readers looking for a good price. We can increase the size of the pie by lower prices and selling more rather than fighting to raise prices.”
Goodreads’ Otis Chandler talked about the growth of the platform under Amazon, adding Goodreads to the Kindle platform, and the increase in mobile book recommendations through the Good Reads app and the power of social media “to elevate the success of a good book.” To end the morning session, Kobo’s Michael Tamblyn also invoked the Amazon/Hachette feud, outlining just how Kobo manages to compete with “the ferocious entity whose name we can’t say.”
Tamblyn outlined Kobo’s strategy of working with a variety of publishers and retailers in international markets (Kobo works with more than 17,600 retailers around the world) as “partners, not as a distributor.” How does Kobo manage to compete? Tamblyn said, “Kobo competes with Amazon using the one thing that Amazon doesn’t have: friends.”