Monday, October 26, 2009

In The Year 2000

Remember the hilarious bit that Conan O'Brien used to do on his pre-Tonight Show show called "In the year 2000..."? I think he still does it, but unfortunately for Conan, I cheat on Letterman for NO ONE, so I don't know for sure. Anyway, the sketch always featured Conan and a sidekick predicting ridiculous and over-the-top circumstances that will happen in the "space age year," 2000. (A personal favorite: In the year 2000, Ted Kennedy's head will be placed on Mt. Rushmore. Not a statue... his actual head.)

These comically grim predictions weren't so different from those given at a reading/panel I went to on Sunday at The Mysterious Bookshop (which is a really cute bookshop in downtown Manhattan that focuses on mystery and suspense novels). The reading portion of the event was by Vincent McCaffrey, who was promoting his new novel, Hound. The main character of the book is a book-lover of yore who has become highly skeptical of the future of books. Timely indeed.

During the panel discussion, called  "The Future of Bookselling," but could have just as easily been named "Curmudgeony Old People vs. Idealistic Youth," I saw that Vincent, a former bookseller, must have modeled his main character very much after himself. As intelligent as I found him, I must say, I did not agree with hardly anything he said. It was as if the invention of e-books were a personal betrayal, and the thing is, I know that other people probably feel this way too. Still, it's hard not to write someone off as outdated or (at best) sentimental, when he begins a discussion, led by the fabulous Stephanie Anderson of WORD Bookstore, with this question: Will books even exist in the future? - cue La Bamba chanting, in the year 2000... in the year 2000...

Luckily the two younger booksellers, Jessica Stockton, who just opened Greenlight Bookstore, and Christine Onorati, who owns WORD, answered Vincent's question with a resounding YES! As an optimistic youth, I was reassured, but also disgusted that his question was even posed in the first place. What you do you all think? If e-books take over physical books completely (which, by the way, won't be in any our lifetimes anyway), does that make them not books? I still like buying CDs, but if I download all of the same songs off of iTunes, I wouldn't say I haven't bought the album.

The panel continued to discuss independent book-selling. Living in New York, as I imagine in many places on either coast, it's sometimes easy to forget that most people might have access to a Barnes and Noble (physical access, that is), but may not have an independent bookstore. Still, and remember that I'm one of the idealist youth, I'm not convinced that other parts of the country wouldn't support indies, so where are they? One panelist brought up a good point that many people like the idea of independent stores, but their economy simply can't support them, so they end up going to Wal-Mart or B&N. Non-coasters out there, if you exist, please give me your thoughts or let me know what your favorite independent bookstore is.

The older booksellers remained convinced that indies just won't make it in our crazy technological world. Now that B&N has an e-reader, there's no stopping them on all fronts. But, the young remain hopeful and as Jessica from Greenlight noted, booksellers are going to start seeing many different methods of bookselling and publishing. What's important in order to stay relevant is to cater to as many outlets as possible until there is something resembling an industry standard.

In other words, prepare for chaos. Because it's Y2K all over again.

Now, don't get me wrong; I don't expect them to have the answers because it's impossible to know how to deal with something that hasn't happened yet. The important thing is that they are thinking ahead even if they can't actually plan ahead yet.

I don't pretend to know any answers either, but I do know that the end won't be nigh if we just prepare for the change to come. And I can't wait for the day when, after spending countless nights in our bunkers with duct tape and bottled water, awaiting impending disaster, we wake up and realize we're all still alive - and more importantly, so are books.

5 comments:

  1. One of my biggest beefs is this notion that the Kindle or any sort of E-reader is going to somehow devour all types of book and that all print is going to be consumed by this solar-powered omnivore. It's frustrating. Why can't there just be room for BOTH!

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  2. back in the day - the church was all freaked out that the public person would (gasp) have access to a book. Joe Average couldn't even read. Then Gutenberg comes along with his printing press and, well, gosh... people start to read. Not just nobility or the clergy. Right. So reading is good. Does it matter how it's delivered? Must we debate and fight the technological advances? Me? I'm 45. My books are all on shelves and I like it that way. My kid, however, will likely have a different experience. As long as the author is compensated, I'm all for saving trees. Who knows, maybe my grand-kids will sell my books on ebay one day!

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  3. Thanks, Anon. I agree. The "author compensation" part is what still concerns me since wherever there is digital media, there will be piracy. That area is where publishers should focus their efforts.

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  4. Another thought on this comes the New Yorker letters column (September 21):

    "[...] In contrast to what's been done in the case of paper, no one has yet ascertained the future costs of preserving electronic books and newspapers over the long term. Even more significant, what the preserved items will look like is unclear, as data formats, computer platforms, and reading devices ceaselessly morph into their next market-driven incantations. Imagine if the only copy left of "Imagining in Oncology" were the Kindle version, with its garbled tables and lost color coding? Or, a more likely scenario, if several copies of the book existed in different formats, each with a different visual presentation? In each case the authority and usefulness of the cultural and scientific records would be severly impaired."

    Jean-Francois Blanchette, Asst. Prof, Dept of Information Studies UCLA

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  5. This reminds me of something I can't believe I hadn't thought of before. I know I'm an advocate for progress and therefore refuse to get overly sentimental over the rise of e-books. However, I hadn't really thought about what will happen to experimental fiction. Imagine reading "Tristram Shandy" on an e-reader. A book that carefully crafted and precise in how it will look on the page just wouldn't translate.

    Interesting thought... thanks, Maggie.

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