It doesn’t take genius to spot the irony of reading a solid, ‘dead tree’ (as the author would put it) version of a book saying that the printed book is on its last legs. (It is available in ebook form, but as will become clear, the author isn’t too impressed with those either.)
Jeff Gomez is an industry insider, though one with a bias – he’s responsible for internet marketing for Holtzbrinck, the publisher that includes Henry Holt, Picador, St. Martin’s Press, Farrar Strauss & Giroux and more. He makes a telling argument that there is a generation coming through that has less patience with books, less interest in books themselves as a physical medium.
Where he’s particularly good is at demolishing many of the typical responses of those who defend the printed book. Book lovers often go into paens about the physical joy of using a book: the smell, the feel of the binding and so forth. The fact is, for most people books are semi-disposable paperbacks with no real intrinsic value. He also shoots down the ‘can you read in a bath argument’ so popular with many. Printed books, he points out, don’t like getting wet either. Have you every tried reading in a shower? (A better argument is whether ebooks are any good to read in bed. Without a good book-like reader (is the Kindle the answer?), ereading is hopeless.)
Equally, those who want to shoot down Gomez’s idea point out that ebooks have not done well commercially. It’s true. But we haven’t had the ebook equivalent of the iPod yet and (and this is Gomez’s best point), it’s not either/or. There’s more to reading that the printed book and an Adobe Reader ebook. There are many ways to read electronically. We do it all them time, whether it’s searching in Google or reading a Word document. The current ebooks aren’t a great way to read a novel, but there is plenty of electronic reading going on, and gradually, with the right approaches, it will increasingly marginalize print.
However, there are some real problems with this book. The first is the classic trap of non-fiction. It’s an interesting idea, but there isn’t enough to support a whole book. It’s really a magazine article (or a blog entry!) – and this means that Gomez is forced to repeat the same argument over and over again in subtly different ways to fill what is a pretty slim book. Then there are the parallels Gomez draws in the way he expects print to go. He says, for instance, that we’ve already seen the decline of newspapers thanks to the internet. This really isn’t true. A generation before the ‘download generation’ Gomez keeps referring to, newspapers were already in decline because of TV news. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper, because I can get all the news I need, fresher, from the TV. I read newspapers occasionally for entertainment and in-depth insight – and that role change had already come well before the internet, it’s just that there were plenty of older newspaper subscribers propping them up.
Similarly, he beats to death the parallel between reading and what the iPod and digital downloads have done to music. But these are very different products. More often than not, iPod music is sophisticated Musak. It’s music that’s in the background while you do something else. Reading is a very different exercise. I’m not saying that it has to be from a printed page – couldn’t care less – but it isn’t the same as listening to music.
Finally, he makes the frequent mistake of the enthusiast of assuming that everyone else is too. He says that what the ‘download generation’ want to do is to mash up their own products, to create and interact, not just to consume. Yet this is a picture of a small percentage of the market. It’s telling that he uses examples of experimental writing and music where the reader or listener can change the content. This isn’t mainstream. It’s for the geeks. And books where you fiddle around and jump from place to place and rearrange the story are for literary geeks. Most readers want to pick up something and read it, whether it’s Heat Magazine or a great novel – they don’t want to reshape and mould it. They want some rest and recreation. So a flawed message in a compromised vehicle. But still interesting for the questions it raises.