Thursday, March 25, 2010

The E-book is no iTunes

Like most writers, I sense that we will see major changes in the publishing world soon, thanks to the e-book and a variety of portable computing devices on which one can read them. I don’t know whether to quake with trepidation or embrace the possibilities.

Recent Type M threads have discussed the feasibility and merit of e-books, raising many interesting points. One stance many e-book supporters (perhaps the optimists among in the book business) take is to draw a parallel between a version of e-publishing and the music industry, which, thanks to Napster, went through a similar revolution several years ago. However, I have a hard time with this analogy. It seems to me that drawing a parallel between the music industry’s use of the Internet and the potential of the e-book might be dangerous for a couple reasons—one mathematical, the other cultural.

According to a June 2009 Reuters article, iTunes has caused a major industry-wide dilemma for recording artists: the revenue from digital sales is rising too slowly to make up for the loss of CD sales. To compensate, iTunes has raised prices from 69 cents to 99 cents and now to $1.29 per song since it began. So I get nervous when people offer the iTunes business model as an example when discussing the future of the book industry. For one thing, I see the Internet, as it pertains to publishing, as a potentially effective promotional tool (though many will dispute this), rather than a publishing vehicle. The difference between the iTunes model and what we have is simple: theoretically, a recording artist could sell one song—from a CD comprised of 12—a hundred thousand times. That formula simply doesn’t work with novel-length fiction. No one is buying a section or a chapter individually from the whole. Moreover, $9.99 is a hell of a lot more than $1.29—in fact, during a recession, the difference might be exponential.

The second reason why the iTunes business model scares me is that the average American eighth grader knows 50 percent fewer words now than in 1950. I read an article recently claiming that television hasn’t hurt this generation’s ability to read—it is the constant commercial interruptions: children watch enough TV to effectively grasp narrative structure; however, they cannot focus long enough to read a significant novel because they are programmed to focus in 10-minute intervals. If this is true, a four-minute song poses no problems, and the Internet is the mode of choice for most teens and twenty-somethings anyway; therefore, the electronic download is just a happy click away. Yet, if this theory is true, the same cannot be said for novel-length fiction.

Irony of ironies, my wife, just last week, announced she ordered an iPad for my 40th birthday. It will arrive April 3. I can serve as Type M’s official guinea pig for electronic reading, so there will be plenty more to come on this topic.


Dana King said...

I get your first argument, but, in the second, the Internet seems beside the point. If attention spans are affected as you say--I'm not saying they're not--then ALL reading should be affected, not just e-readers. This makes the iTunes/e-reader parallel moot.

Rick Blechta said...

My commentary on iTunes was that it can be used effectively as a delivery model for e-books. I think people buying books enjoy browsing and that can be built into the iTunes-like structure, or possibly we might get new websites that review and promote e-books and future readers might find their choices there, then hit a key go to whatever this website might be and buy their book for downloading. I believe something like that would work very well, and obviously Apple does, too. So like it or not, we're going to get something like that, quite possibly sooner than we realize.

Your second point about attention span is very well taken and goes back years. Pop music was written to fit comfortably on 45s (a precursor of iTunes?), then the broadcast industry discovered that the 3-minute pop format allowed them to squeeze in more commercials as well as keeping listeners from switching to another station (Don't like the current song? Just wait a few minutes.)

Many believe this is genesis of the current fragmented attention span you're talking about, and you're right: it does not bode well for the financial health of novelists.

Call me Candide, but I also have faith that their are still many younger people who enjoy reading. Just take a trip on the subway in the morning. They might have they might have the ear buds for their iPod in, but they also have a book on their lap.

John R. Corrigan (D.A. Keeley) said...

Thanks fot the comments & feedback, Dana and Rick.