Thoughts on the “Why Books?” Conference at Radcliffe

Why Books Crowd

On January 1, 2010, I got an early start on my new year’s resolutions by publishing my novel, The Veiled Mirror, as an ebook on smashwords.com. I was keenly aware of a stigma associated with self-publishing, and that Smashwords is essentially a DRM-free environment, but I decided it was time to join the ebook revolution. The novel was the main focus of my master’s degree, reviewed by my peers as well as faculty, and many literary agents had lovely things to say about it as I began shopping it out in 2005. But in today’s publishing world, the industry is less likely to welcome new authors, and cut-backs mean that there is less overall: editing services, publicity, advances, and so on. More than one author acquaintance told me their publishers told them to maintain their own Facebook and Twitter pages, and were provided with little in terms of official publicity. I was reading more and more about small press publishers opting to upload their books to print-on-demand services such as CreateSpace to save costs, and it has the added benefit of never “going out of print.” Established and well-known authors were breaking away from their traditional publishing houses and going independent. So I decided to be an early adopter to a major cultural shift. I’m a professional editor who has been working in production editing for more than 15 years. I have the skills, so why not?

Shortly after uploading my novel to Smashwords, I decided to research a print-on-demand option, and began to work on getting a cover designed. My approach to marketing was slow, but the ebook was taking on a life of its own. People I didn’t know were buying it, and I developed a broader approach to marketing to launch in conjunction with the release of the paperback. In my day job at Harvard, using social media is a hot topic, so I compiled that knowledge into my plans.

Then came the Why Books? conference, organized by Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. I heard about it months before registration even opened, and had the listing for it posted by my desk at work. Since it applied to me both professionally and personally, there was no way I was going to miss this. Although I had high hopes for the event, I was concerned that there was going to be a dismissive attitude toward ebooks, that they may even be maligned outright. What I found was an enthusiastic and welcoming attitude, and I was surrounded by hundreds of curious people with the same thoughts in mind. The attendance exceeded all expectations, they had to arrange for an overflow room where the event was telecast. A hashtag was created for Twitter (#whybooks) and the conversation went viral and was fascinating to follow. It was one of those experiences that made me so grateful for the job I have, and that so many of Harvard’s resources are there for me to explore.

In this two-day event, ebooks and digital options were the biggest topic. The conference began on Thursday, October 28, with two site visits. Participants could choose to view rare manuscripts at Houghton Library, tour the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, and many other options. My first session was “Challenges and Opportunities in the Emerging eBook Age,” where an overview of the history of ebooks was given. I was surprised to see how early it began. In 1968, the Dynabook was on the market, looking not entirely unlike the e-readers and laptops we see today. In 1971, Project Gutenberg began, ensuring works in the public domain would be preserved digitally.

What struck me most was that although our technology has evolved, our attitude toward new technology hasn’t. Fear of supersession comes in waves over the centuries. An Egyptian pharaoh feared that writing would cause people to be less intelligent, because they would think less if they read. A treatise on public health published in Germany in 1795 stated that reading caused a myriad of health problems, including gout, depression, and asthma. In our own age, it was feared television would destroy radio and movies, and that VHS tapes would bring the movie industry crashing down. And it accelerates. I’ve owned some albums on eight-track, vinyl, cassette, CD, and mp3 format. Devices come and go so quickly, some die out soon after their grand release. Google Wave disappeared before I had a chance to even try it out. But society has accepted many of these new platforms, and in a neo-darwinistic world of technology, we live in an Incunabular Age where we seek stability in these platforms, and the winners will emerge with time. A major concern is the ability to keep the data, and books have come to be considered as such. Will today’s e-reader one day be like my old computer disks, unreadable and lost forever as new computers don’t even have the ability to decipher them? In Harvard’s 70-plus libraries, it’s a constant issue, and many archivists seek to preserve everything they can.

Throughout the conference, a common sidenote was that mass market paperbacks were most at risk when considering what people want on their e-readers. As of August 2010, 9 percent of trade book sales were ebooks, with 1 to 3 percent for scholarly books. While the market is still relatively small, it’s growing at an exponential pace, and every publisher is faced with adapting to the demand. As someone who works in a publishing office, I’m all to familiar with paper shortages at paper mills, reduced staff at printing companies, and ever more cut-backs as even the most successful traditionalists try to survive. The format of a book is changing. Indexes and page numbers are irrelevant, but richer opportunities lie in expanding the table of contents. An e-reader can engage you on many levels: they can include plot summaries, spoilers (to alleviate the need to flip to the back of the book to cheat, if you’re trying to decide whether finishing it is worth it), you can read customer reviews, join discussion forums, bookmark favorite passages and make notes, listen to podcasts about the book, and do keyword searches. They are immensely helpful in terms of accessibility, giving people with poor (or no) eyesight and learning disabilities new ways to enjoy literature. It has redefined what a book is, and how an author needs to approach it, and how, in turn, the industry produces it. We are reading the books, and the AI is reading us as we read the books. It has become an effort in data-mining, which enriches research and provides ample opportunity for scholarly collaboration on massive projects that would have been prohibitively expensive in the traditional industry. Yet, many players in the industry are slow to accept this media shift, and the market is starting to be driven by the people, both authors and readers alike. A key takeaway was that format considerations must meet cultural expectations. And who knows where we will be in ten years’ time?

El príncipe don Carlos de Viana, 1881

El príncipe don Carlos de Viana, 1881

—“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Attributed to Cicero (106–43 BC)

One of the statements that resonated with me most at the event was “A book collection is an itinerary of one’s life.” Evidently, it was striking to others as well, because after I tweeted that quote, it was retweeted several times. As convenient as an e-reader is, with its ability to hold thousands of novels, it’s considered more of a travel accessory to many people. But a personal book collection is meaningful on many levels. It’s how you learn about people: as one panelist said, “How can you tell who people are if you can’t see their bookshelves?”

A Harvard alumnus who wrote into the Class Report for his 20th Reunion last year discussed the same thing: “My life was always enhanced by interesting books, so as I contemplate the time since college and look to unearth the twists and turns of the path I traveled, I find it helpful to walk into my den and scan the spines of the books in my tall bookcase.  These shelves that line an entire wall reveal parts of my past much the same way the layers of an archaeological site offer glimpses of the tools, customs, and wares of a forgotten culture. You are welcome, if interested, to peruse the shelves as I guide you through some of the major strata.” He went on to discuss the phases of his life, represented by the books he bought over the years, from what he bought while traveling after graduate school, to the lower shelves, now occupied by the books for the children. He ended his essay with the following observation: The final object on the shelf is an e-reader currently loaded with many dozens of novels. This slim electronic device can now hold many times more books than my entire bookcase. The e-book is a convenient and valuable device, but unfortunately, it won’t leave such a readily available physical timeline where I will be able to track my changing interests over time at one easy glance, a small personal casualty of progress. Perhaps our generation might be one of the last to own a large number of printed books, a medium likely to follow in the footsteps of the records and CDs of our youth. As songwriter James Hetfield of Metallica noted, “You know it’s sad but true. . .”

One of the panelists at the conference ruminated on the pros and cons of books vs. ebooks. She said the pleasure of books is sensory-based: the smell and feel of the paper, and the pleasure of perusing the stacks at a library or the aisles of bookstores, is something that many people don’t want to lose. And what of having an author sign a beloved book? A collective gasp went through the audience as the question was raised. It was clear that there is room for both to exist. Robert Darnton, Director of Harvard University Library, affirmed this as he addressed the crowd. “New electronic media and old forms of research belong together.” His vision was for a national digital library to be made available for free, worldwide. A new kind of Library of Alexandria, where anyone could access works in the public domain. An example he used was Herman Melville’s own copy of Emerson’s essays, where Melville had written his thoughts in the margins of the book. With this scanned into a database, people could enjoy the essays along with Meville’s commentary. Professor Darnton ended his talk with a paradox that rings true as the technology evolves and many people retain their love for the traditional book: “Ebook readers will be preferable to books, but books will be preferable to ebooks.”

And to illustrate this point, he showed the following cartoon:

I will always be one of those people who wants the best of both worlds. I value technology and always seek to explore what is new, be it my smart phone, on which I have three e-reader programs (Aldiko, Kindle, and Nook), or my computer, where I store dozens of scanned books in the public domain—but I will never lose my love for savoring the feel of an actual book. On that beautiful fall day in Radcliffe Yard, it was one of the most important messages I took away with me. It isn’t competition for survival, it’s a need to find a way for both forms to collaborate and co-exist.

Radcliffe Yard

Originally published on Nov. 14, 2010

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