You can hardly scan the headlines these days without seeing some reference to Apple's announcement of its soon-to-come iPad and online iBook store. That is if you could tear yourself away from the many articles and discussions about Google, Amazon, the Kindle, and the future of e-book pricing.
Does anyone really know what all these developments portend for the future of book publishing?
I don’t have much in the way of answers, but recently I had an experience that might begin to shed some glimmer of light on the subject. More than just the future of publishing may be at stake. It's the future of reading.
I made this discovery while sitting on an abnormally cold Florida beach wrapped in an abnormal number of towels and sweatshirts the first week in January enjoying a great book—Dennis Lehane's The Given Day. Reading The Given Day last month amounted to a Rubicon moment for me. Not because the novel is such a powerful story (though it is) but because of the means of my reading it. I had purchased the book as an e-book file downloaded from the Amazon Kindle store, magically transformed into pixilated words and read via The Amazon Kindle Store Apple “app” on the three and half inch screen of my wife's touch iPod.
Impossible, I would have said just a few short weeks ago.
No way would you ever find me reading an entire book, let alone Lehane’s latest (that weighs in at 700 pages in paperback) on some puny little piece of plastic and glass no matter how sophisticated and easy to use Steve Jobs and his disciples have managed to make it. I’m an old school English Major book guy after all, who in his fifty odd years has probably read a couple of thousand books, all of them, in one way or another, professionally and sometimes even beautifully laid out and printed with quality ink on fine paper with attractive covers. Yet there I was freezing at the beach in Florida reading and actually enjoying an entire e-novel.
Here’s how it happened.
On the flight down to Florida from Virginia, the first few pages of reading on the iPod screen were painful. The screen only held a portion of each page of the novel with no page numbers in sight, it was sometimes difficult to orient myself within the novel—was I still at the beginning? Had I missed or skipped a chapter or page? I almost gave up and decided to stop by a good old brick-and-mortar bookstore and pick up a hard copy of the novel. I was doing this for pleasure after all. Who needed the aggravation? But I chose to persevere, and along about the beginning of Chapter Two something magical happened. The iPod disappeared.
Not physically, of course. But I had become so drawn in to Lehane’s story, so seduced by the power of his words that the physical means of reading them ceased to matter anymore. In other words, the small iPod screen with its touch-flash turning of pages, once I became accustomed to it, lost all significance in comparison to the story.
I’m sure I’m far from the first to have had this experience. Conversely, others may not find their attempts at reading e-books so ultimately enjoyable. But for a reader like me, learning to enjoy reading a novel on a screen was a revolutionary development. And I’m only one reader. If it can happen to me, could it also happen in fairly short order to millions of others?
I’m now actually looking forward to getting my hands on an iPad. Does this mean I plan to stop buying printed novels? Of course not. But now I have another option, another viable means of enjoying fiction. I’ve also thought long and hard about my reading of The Given Day. Was it just the fact I was reading Lehane that sold me on the new reading medium or might it just as well have been any other quality book on the market today? In an e-book marketplace do certain types of books inherently have an advantage over others?
I’ll leave the detailed prognostications and hand-wringing about such questions as well as other issues such as rights, royalties, and piracy to others far more qualified than I to assess.
It’s reading after all and not publishing that is the true life blood of writers. Reading in all its beauty, all its glory, and all its madness. Maybe there is only one question we should really be asking ourselves. Where will reading take us next?
All I know is that as far as I’m concerned we writers now have another vital tool to help get our stories into the hands of readers. And from where I sit that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing.
Andy Straka is the author of the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Agatha Award-nominated Frank Pavlicek novels. A licensed falconer and co-founder of thepopular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is also the author of Record Of Wrongs, which Mystery Scene magazine calls "a first-rate thriller." The latest book in the Pavlicek series is titled Kitty Hitter (ISBN 1594148120 Cengage/Five Star $25.95).