A couple of months ago, I had the astounding pleasure to hear author James McGrath Morris (Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power; Harper Perennial, 2011; The Rose Man of Sing Sing; Fordham University Press, 2005) speak at St. John’s College, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His personable, humorous, and highly informed presentation included up-to-date information on the current state of publishing. Here are a few of the random tidbits that raised a few readers’ eyebrows:
The largest e-book reading audience (41%) are people ages 30-49. (Didn’t you think it would be a tad younger?)
The Pew Research Center reports that 42% of adults 18+ own a tablet; 32% own an e-reader
(Next he happens to mention the two phone booths downstairs, neither of which have phones in them. Like the e-reader, just another modern inconvenience …)
Here he makes die-hard book holders lament the death of pulp: He says to expect “seismic alterations” in publishing. “Children will never know the smell of a book at the start of school. Phrases like, ‘Flip to page five’ will go the way of ‘dialing’ a phone.” He forlornly says that we will no longer wrap books in festive paper, nor will we glance at someone’s book while on a Southwest flight and say, “Hey, I read that Paulo Coelho book. What do you think of it?” He explains that if you can see the title of your neighbor’s book, well, you’re probably standing too close to them. But it’s still a fun way to strike up a conversation with someone.
And what of our reading experience? Our so-called “books” now hold podcasts, music, and other miscellaneous junk that interrupt the solitude of reading. Reading has become noisy. Even e-books are now enhanced by music, photos, and sound. Are these enhancements, or a dumbing down of our imaginations? Have e-books become movies?
And get this! McGrath explains that when you “underline” something in an e-book, Amazon is watching. They are a sort of “literary NSA,” he says. Your reading experience is no longer private. In fact, he says, “I imagine a novel being written where the NSA changes the endings in e-books, to suit their agenda.”
And consider that thousands of others have downloaded the same book. So, do you even “own” your e-book? He tells of one instance where a particular publisher didn’t own digital rights, so Amazon simply deleted the download from people’s e-readers. Yes, Big Brother is watching.
McGrath says the future of digital reading lies in the Spritz Reader (http://www.spritzinc.com/), an electronic invention that eliminates the pesky full pages that traditional e-readers provide. Instead, you read one word a minute, beginning at 250 words per minute, and can even be lead into literary lightning at a caffeinated speed of 1,000 words per minute, which, Spritz claims, will have you reading a 1,000-page novel in roughly ten hours. Goodbye book, goodbye page, hello word.
McGrath then addresses the growing field of self-publishing, only to say that all the manuscripts that were (thankfully!) rejected by traditional publishers will now be self-published. He says books will be drowned out by the subpar, as we lose our gatekeepers. The A-listers will be the 1 percenters.
The hardcover (the publishers’ bread and butter) is disappearing. Agents are now telling their authors that the $5,000 advance is the new $50,000 advance. Yikes.
On a happy note, audiobooks, says McGrath, are undergoing a huge surge, although, as with e-books, they hijack our imaginations. “We are a slave to the reader’s voice, intonations, and affectations.” But, hey, commuters – rejoice!”
Okay, so McGrath’s lecture was sobering, no doubt. But he was genuine and had a knack for keeping the spirits up of the hundred or so people in the audience, despite his grim news. That takes talent. Thanks, Mr, McGrath. As an independent editor, I embrace all forms of reading, but I do like the sound of pages over batteries. Luddite.