An interesting article posted by Andrew Keen from The Telegraph on 17/09/09
Physical books – those textual products combining paper and words – are slowly but surely being replaced by the ebook, a handheld computer such as Amazon’s Kindle or the new Sony Reader that incorporates hundreds of texts on a single digital device.
Yesterday, for example, on the day that Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster, The Lost Symbol, was released globally by Random House, digital sales of the book on the Kindle were rivalling paper sales on Amazon.com. As The KindleNation blog said yesterday, it’s hard to imagine what could be a 2009 bigger story in the publishing world than the Kindle’s to compete, head-to-head, with the physical book.
Malcolm Gladwell’s much quoted “tipping point” for the e-book has now been reached. Next year, will see seductive new e-book devices including a Plastic Logic device from Barnes & Noble and a $99.99 dual screen e-reader from Asus. Meanwhile, the iPhone, the Palm Pre and every other smartphone is also a de facto e-book able to store hundreds of texts. The end, therefore, is nigh for the standalone book. The single physical text simply won’t be able to survive the growing e-book storm.
The historic dimensions that this dramatic transition from paper to e-book were really brought home to me last week in Brazil. I had the great fortune to be in Rio, speaking – along with writers as diverse as the Israeli novelist David Grossman, the Anglo-American historical novelist Bernard Cornwall and youth cult author Meg Cabot – at the XIV Rio de Janeiro International Book Fair: TV Bienal .
As one of the biggest public celebration of books and writers in Latin America, the Bienal attacts over 500,000 book lovers for ten days of readings and debates. The importance of the Bienal in Rio cultural life is hard to underestimate. For ten days every September, the Rio Book Fair replaces both the Copacabana beach and the Maracana football stadium as the most popular place for Brazilians to hang out.
So what is the impact of the e-book revolution on an event like the Rio Bienal?
While there were few ebooks on display at the Bienal, it was a subject on the minds of most of Brazil’s leading publishers. I spoke, for example, to my own publisher , Christina Zahar, who runs Jorge Zahar , one of Brazil’s most illustrious houses. Zahar sees ebooks as an exciting opportunity to expand her market, reach a new audience and, most importantly, market and sell out-of-print books.
Yet, in spite of Zahar’s optimism, I have to admit a certain foreboding about the impact of the ebook on events like Bienal. Held in a cavernous conference centre on the outskirts of Rio, this is an event that celebrates the physical book. Stall after stall of publisher were stacked with thousands and thousands of actual books – everything from Bernard Cornwall’s Azincourt to Brazilian editions of Herge’s Tintin to my own O Culto Do Amador.
And Brazilian readers loved the tens of thousands of books on sale at the Bienal. One afternoon, I walked around the Bienal, iPhone 3GS in hand, videoing ordinary Brazilians talking about their love of books. One nurse spoke of her appreciation for medical books. Another explained her enthusiasm for Bernard Cornwall’s historical fiction. A third woman told me about her love for the work of teen vampire fiction author Stephenie Meyer.
My most memorable interview, however, was with a young Brazilian women called Lillian queuing to get Bernard Cornwall to sign a copy of Azincourt, a work, she told me, she “loves”. I asked her what she would do without books.
“Without books” Lillian told me, “I would die.”
So what will happen to young women like Lillian when the e-reader replaces the book as the dominant vehicle for the distribution and sale of written texts?
I don’t suppose that the digital book revolution will actually do away with the book business. As Christina Zahar told me, it might actually represent an exciting commercial opportunity for publishers to reach a broader audience with their long tail catalogue. So, fortunately, the digital revolution won’t literally lead to Lillian’s death.
But what the e-reader will do is replace the physical warmth of the paper book with the coldness of the digital version. And remarkably vibrant popular events like the Rio Bienal will lose their sensuousness when everything is being marketed and sold on electronic devices like the Kindle or the Sony Reader.
Like hundreds of other lovers of Bernard Cornwall’s work, Lillian waited patiently in line for hours to get the author to sign a copy of her Azincourt. But would she have waited with such loving dedication for Cornwall to sign a copy of her digital version?
I doubt it. The digital revolution does, of course, represent a more convenient and probably a cheaper way for readers to enjoy their favourite authors. But after spending a memorable few days in Rio both speaking at and wandering around the Bienale, I’m not convinced the ebook represents really meaningful cultural progress for either writers or readers.
The traditional book is the most physical of things, a text to be bent and fingered and written on and imprinted with human signatures. Something to be physically loved. The ebook revolution changes all that. In the new digital age, readers and writers and publishers will increasingly come to reflect their soulless product.
Yes, you can call me a reactionary, but, as a book author, I want my work to be fingered by my readers. I want young women like Lillian to wait in line for me to sign copies of my work. Like a character in a Stephanie Meyer fantasy, the e-book drains the blood from the physical text. No, this cultural revolution can’t be recommended.
What I do recommend, however, is a visit to Rio’s wonderful Biennal. Go soon, however, very soon, before the digital tsunami hits Brazil and begins to suck the blood of readers and writers alike.
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