Half-Booked Thoughts on the Future of the Printed Word

For months I’ve been following, with rapt interest, the heated debate about eBooks, and what they portent for the 500-year-old medium of the printed book (a.k.a. pBook). I’d like to think it’s my journalism training (which taught me that the truth is in the middle), or perhaps I’m just a wishy-washy fence-sitter, but I have yet to make up my mind on where this is all heading.

I realize “I don’t know” isn’t very attention-grabbing, or authoritative as an editorial position. It doesn’t get you cited or re-tweeted. So be it. Maybe it’s my lifelong love of printed books that has me hedging my bets, but I’m just not ready yet to start yelling “the book is dead” as so many others are doing, even as I write. Of course, they will just say I’m a relic and as obtuse as the man with the dead parrot in the Monty Python skit, and the writing is already on the wall (even if it soon won’t be on the page). The next generation, I’m told, will not share my archaic conditioned response to the printed word, making it as good as gone by the time the day comes that the neighbors notice the odd smell and break in to pry the paperback from my cold, dead hands.

The latest uproar arose over the announcement from the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary that they will no longer be producing a printed edition of their product. The Twittersphere went manic with yet more funeral notices for the pBook triggered by this pronouncement. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that it’s only the full, unabridged 20-volume printed version that was actually marked for extinction (maybe). Other one-volume condensed printed versions will still be produced because that’s where the OED evidently makes the bulk of its revenue … not from the CD-ROMs or £234 per year online subscriptions.

So, waters muddied again, I ask myself once more whether printed books will soon disappear altogether, as so many other forms of media have in my working lifetime.  And, again, I can state, with unequivocal authority, that I don’t know. Yes, clearly we’re at a bookmarkable point in the evolution of eBooks (which have, by the way, been around for a while). The discount-priced Kindle and the oh-so-cool iPad are certainly catching on, and admittedly comprise a growing part of the book-reading universe. No doubt there will be plenty sold in the coming holiday season, again sending up a very vocal funeral dirge for the printed word.

And yet, printed books also continue to be cranked out in record amounts, and despite much-hyped news about changing softcopy-to-hardcopy sales ratios, eBooks still appear to hold less than 5% of the market – and that doesn’t include the unrecorded continuing re-sale of second-hand books (even if the local bookstores that offer them are decidedly on the decline.)

And so the debate rages on, with me sitting in the middle, almost wishing I could be convinced one way or another. People with eReaders are reading more books, goes one report. People with eReaders are hoarding books, but not necessarily reading them more, says another.  eReaders are more ecologically friendly, even after manufacturing, then those printed on the corpses of dead trees, claims one source. Printed books, especially those on recycled stock, are far less harmful to the environment than the plastic, toxin-filled electronic devices that end up festering in landfills, someone counters. Sigh.

So, eReader in one hand and trade paperback in the other, I return to my book-strewn studio to ponder and blog. I’m surrounded by reference texts I’ve diligently amassed over the years and now seldom use because the web is handier and more robust, and because a grassroots do-it-yourself encyclopedia has kicked Britannica’s butt. Still, if the power goes out, I’ll be able to read those relics (by candlelight) long after batteries die. And, if things go really bad, I’ll be able to burn them in the fireplace for warmth. Somehow I doubt a Kindle is any good as kindling.

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Phasmatian Indignation

I want you all to know I have nothing against the Phasmatian religion. If you read their Sacred Text, you’ll see that it is an inspiring credo that would go a long way towards bettering  both the individual, and the human collective. 

Phasmatian indignation for Dan Dowhal, author of skyfisherOf course, if you’ve ever red … oops, sorry, Freudian slip … if you’ve ever read the original Soviet constitution, that would make you weep too with its poetic vision of a just Utopian society. The problem is when a corrupt clique of ruthless dictators hijack the movement, and warp it to their own evil ways. And that was the fictional point I was making with skyfisher.

So to those Phasmatians who have been harassing me, and spitting on me, and threatening me (and to that priestess who is now giving me the cold shoulder) I emphasize that I have nothing against Phasmatians. Spiritually and ethically I consider myself a Phasmatian too (among other things). I do not deserve the indignation the Phasmatian nation has been showering upon me.

Remember, when you lose your perspective and your sense of humour, you are only a streetcar ride away from fanaticism.

3 … 2 … 1 … Liftoff!

Tonight’s a big night for me, as skyfisher has its official book launch party. As a first-time author, it’s all weird and wonderful, but it did get me wondering. What is the proper technique for launching a book anyway? The internet was no help. Conventional wisdom has it that books should now be launched online. I’m not sure I agree with that. I love the virtual world, but a flight simulator will not get you to Florida.

skyfisher launches today.Still, I figured I was equipped with the fundamental skills necessary to launch a book. I’ve had basic flight training. I studied engineering. Admittedly I was rejected by the Canadian Astronaut program – apparently not having two doctorates plus a jet pilot rating is considered a liability – but despite that, I have accumulated some understanding of propulsion technology. And, of course, I do have practical hands on experience with flying discs.

The aerodynamics of the book had me a little puzzled at first. You’d almost think that a book could just turn over and flap away on its own, like a bird, but apparently that’s only true of Harry Potter books.

It seems to me that the payload-to-thrust ratio is what’s key here. Make a book too light, too full of fluff and pap, and it’ll just waft away on the first stiff breeze. Make a book too heavy– weigh it down with an overabundance of ponderous philosophy and pedantic self-indulgent prose – and it’ll take a Saturn rocket to get it off the ground. So, I believe it’s all about finding the proper balance of readability and profundity.

It did seem to me that, just as a human cannot fly without mechanical assistance, so a book cannot take off on its own. Among other things, it needs to be properly packaged, in order to eliminates drag and resistance. And finally, if you’re going to put a book out there, it takes all the strength and faith – call it a wing and a prayer – the author can offer.

Incoming!

The Bookworm Has Turned

According to an article in the New York Times, the advent of eBooks is helping to liberate bookworms from the stigma they’ve traditionally faced.  Apparently,  it used to be that when you saw someone sitting alone in the corner, reading a book, you subconsciously labeled him/her as a social misfit with no friends.  Now, according to the researchers, if you see a person alone reading on an iPad or Kindle, you assume s/he is online and simultaneously sharing each literary epiphany with a gaggle of Facebook friends.

Many of my favorite vacations have been taken with just me and a suitcase full of books, so I find it interesting that all those years people have apparently been looking down their noses at me, or feeling sorry for me. Poor outcast me, lazily swinging and reading alone in my hammock, or sitting at a table for one in a restaurant immersed in a page turner. Who knew?

Personally, I’ve always respected, or at least felt a kinship to those sitting alone and reading a book, and would surreptitiously try to get a measure of the person by glimpsing the cover of the book they were reading. But, there’s the rub of this whole eBook revolution. The bookworm’s status has just been raised not by what they’re reading, but by what they’re reading on. Show up at Starbucks with a shiny new iPad and all you have to do is sit there in a corner, soaking up the admiration of your fellows, and it doesn’t matter if you have porn, trash … or for that matter, nothing at all on the device. Holy McLuhan, Batman! The medium is kicking the the crap out of the message.

On the Air

In a typical case of the shoemaker’s kids, I’ve been setting up and administering blogs for years … just not my own.

Nevertheless, Skyfisher by Dan Dowhal cover imagewith the launch of my debut novel skyfisher as an exclusive on Apple’s iBookstore this week, the time has come. And the fact is, I do have a lot to say … about writing, the publishing business, the digital realm, and the tipping point we seem to be at with respect to eBooks. And I will endeavor to do so on a regular basis. So, I look forward to unravelling this thread, gazing at my navel a bit, and speaking my mind.

I also have shitloads to say about those damned Phasmatians who have been harassing me and generally making my life miserable. The tone of their rhetoric has turned decidedly uglier of late, and I’m starting to think, in the words of my hero, Bugs Bunny, “that this means war.”

May the blessings of The Universal Spirit shine on you, and may the Force be with you.