Inerrant Rampancy

Just another weblog

You Can’t Fight the Future

Anders Monson, somewhat-famous writer of fiction/poetry/non-fiction and author of Other Electricities, Vacationland, and Neck Deep, has some very interesting words about the latest trend of e-books, such as the Amazon Kindle:

“I don’t know anyone (and I know a lot of readers) who has a Kindle. This is a tired debate. The book is a surprisingly enduring technology and has plenty of life in it. Provided, perhaps, that writers/designers/publishers recognize that the book is a technology, an artificial space with certain constraints, and take advantage of what it can do that e-books or whatever cannot. (And long live the e-book too, though I hope we can discard that term. Maybe it’s just something else. Not a book delivered electronically (after all, if text is just content, if it can just be shuttled from form to form, slapped in a new design and sold, well maybe it shouldn’t be a book in the first place, since it’s not really using its bookness in the first place).) One hopes that this will drive the content creators to think about why they want to publish books as opposed to electronic texts. And maybe electronic texts can move forward too without having to feel like they just have to be static whatever. I’m more interested in the novels that are being written to be read on cell phones: now these are writers working within constraint. As are writers who write for the page. But we need to think about this stuff when writing. “

While I’m not terribly certain of the longevity of cell-phone novels (and even less so of the wiki-novel, a format Anders did not mention but which has grown in scale in the last year or so) I agree with his assessment of the potential that lies within the e-book reader. This isn’t replacement technology like the DVD was for the VCR. That’s a fairly popular analogy, as well as the relationship between the mp3 and the CD or the CD and the cassette or the cassette and the 8-track or the 8-track and the LP, but both are wrong.

The DVD did replace the VCR, but that’s because it changed the delivery of the medium in a way that made the content better. Being visual, a large part of films and television relies on an accurate transmission, one that has a high-fidelity to the original image. VCR’s were replaced because DVD’s allowed for a better and cheaper transmission of such high-fidelity data, cramming more and higher-quality media into a smaller space.

This was also a movement that affected mostly the medium – the hardware – and not so much the content – the software. The container changed the content by allowing for the greater dissemination of a higher-quality product, one that had been relegated to large-scale movie theaters, but the only losers in that change were the people who manufactured the VCR cassettes, and they had ample opportunity to move out of that industry and into new manufacturing ventures. The movie industry didn’t go bankrupt and the people writing the movies didn’t go bankrupt – if anything they made more money off of the increased distribution – it was only the people who clung to the dying technology who failed, and they should have known better. Technology is a constantly changing industry and if you think you’re going to be making the same thing forever then you’re going to be out of the game in short order.

Looking at the audio side of the equation we have less of a transition upward in terms of quality – LP’s were already reaching the upper limits of fidelity before 8-tracks came out – and more a transition in portability and distribution. The 8-track, and the cassette, CD, and mp3 that followed, allowed for a greater portability and distribution of popular music, which up until then had been relegated to the home or to radio, and which left little control over content on the part of the user. In a way, the portability transition is also a transition of power, from the hands of the content owners (read: record labels and station mangers) into the hands of both the content listeners and content makers (read: consumers and artists).

That’s what the RIAA and the Studios are all up in arms about; they’ve been cut from the equation by making the production and dissemination of musical (and even visual) content cheaper and easier by an exponential factor. Yes, piracy has come about because of it, but there are more people paying for new artists’ music than ever and those artists are getting 100% of the profits by not using a major label to distribute and market. The only people hurting are, again, those in the industry who thought they could sit on their hands and still rake in cash the old fashioned way, without ever having to adapt their marketing or production strategy.

The noise being made by both the RIAA and the major music labels is the same kind of noise being made by those opposed to e-books like the Kindle and the Sony E-Reader; just the screams of those worried that they won’t be able to make money the way they always thought they would. Oddly enough they are right and wrong about the changes that digital content will bring to the writing world.

Yes, this change will make dissemination and distribution cheaper, but it will have almost no effect on content. Anders Monson says he hopes that people will figure out how to use this new format, but the fact is that text has only so much hermeneutic quality to utilize without delivering on the necessary aspects of a popular book, namely being well-written and meaningful in some way. There’s not going to be much quality improvement from the switch to digital content and whatever adaptations that come with it will have to be initiated on the part of the bookmakers rather than the authors themselves, who may only divide their product into that which works better in short bursts of digital content and that which doesn’t. Here, again, the only people who have to worry are the printers of books, and that’s only if they refuse to adapt and devote some resources to the cheap and easy conversion of print content to digital.

The other side of the coin is that books really aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The only parallel I can think of is the continuing production of LP records, despite their cost and storage requirements. People like having them, enjoy looking at them or showing them off or getting them signed, and aren’t often willing to part with their precious LP collection, even if they have the very same album in digital form. Books work in the same way, providing a tangible link to the text that isn’t provided with a Kindle. You can’t write in a Kindle and record the particular stage of your life alongside your favorite lines (you can take “notes” but it’s not the same as quickly jotting down your thoughts and then flipping through the book later to find what it was you were thinking while reading it), you can’t give a Kindle to someone to borrow and not worry about getting it back (and merely sending them a file on your computer doesn’t have the same connotation as giving someone a book which you have read and written in and which you hope will have the same effect on them as it did you), and you can’t mistreat a Kindle the way you can a book, tossing it in your backpack or using it as a pillow in an airport or spilling coffee on nearly every page as you read at your favorite coffee shop.

There’s a recklessness that we exhibit with our books that you can’t exhibit with an expensive electronic device, a relationship with the heft and size of a book that is not the same as the relationship with a machine. Really, the e-book cannot replace the real book, since the two are so completely different in how they affect our approach to the text.

Anders Monson calls this a “tired debate” and I hope he’s right. Certainly people will fight the e-book and within the publishing industry there will be much talk, but I hope we spend more time, as Anders suggests, figuring out how to integrate the medium into the writing world, rather than arguing over whether it has a right to be there at all. We may worry about it cheapening our line of work, and possibly even cutting into our source of income, but don’t we write in part for the benefit of others? We can be ignorantly selfish and make up reasons why we can’t profit from this and therefore why it is bad, or we can seize the new medium and wring some dollars from it while understanding that if it means that more people get the written word, then it can’t be all that bad.


December 4, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. I enjoy. Well done, Joe, is this where most of your writing ends up? I’ve always liked your posts, even going back to the original ogad page on that fucking xanga website where I wrote really crappy song lyrics (although I still remember you commenting on one of them. It boosted my ego for a solid few hours, and spurred a relapse into crappy song-writing). Can I subscribe to this thing so I see any updates?

    Also, I’m thinking of getting back into some writing myself. Does it cost money to get on this thing?

    Last but not least, what you doing with your life? And how is that going?

    Comment by Burke | December 12, 2008 | Reply

    • Hey Mike!
      You can subscribe (the icon to click will be in the address bar and is an orange cube with white lines in it) and I hope you do. I’ll be writing for another blog (called Sex Appeal) with others in the new year, so keep an eye out for that as well. WordPress (this thing) is free unless you want to do major css coding (you don’t) so I recommend it. Blogspot is another good one. I’ll have to fill you in on my life another time as I’m currently late to a meeting for a lit journal I’m working for (gratis, so it’s not really “work” but oh well). I’ll send you an e-mail and we can get together over the holidays when I’m back in the Chi (Dec. 16th – Jan. 5th). Good to hear from you. Later!


      Comment by josephpierandozzi | December 12, 2008 | Reply

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