Digital Dilemma



The fate of books as we know them has been in the news lately, especially in The New York Times, which has a vested interest in their future for obvious reasons (the health of its book review, of course, and by extension, the pages of ads that fill it).

The newspaper has rightly dedicated considerable space to the issue. First, came a lengthy, truly trail-blazing cover story in The New York Times Magazine called "Scan This Book!" by Kevin Kelly, the gist of which is that, no matter the opposition, "the world's texts are being electronically copied, digitized, searched and linked," meaning that everything we know about books is about to change.

Several weeks after, the "Arts" section of the June 5 issue printed a piece called "Digital Publishing Scrambles the Rules." Written by Motoko Rich, the article considers, like Kelly's before it, what books will look like in the future. This is, Rich noted, "one of the hottest debates in the book world right now, as publishers, editors and writers grapple with the Web's ability to connect readers and writers more quickly and intimately, new technologies that make it easier to search books electronically and the advent of digital devices that promise to do for books what the iPod has done for music: making them easily downloadable and completely portable."

Writers haven't been too happy about the implications of these new technologies. For example, at the recent BookExpo in Washington, John Updike "decried" what he described as "a digital future composed of free downloads of books and the mixing and matching of 'snippets' of text." For the veteran writer, this added up to a "grisly scenario."

According to Rich, hovering above the discussion "is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry, where digitilization has started to displace the traditional artistic and economic model of the record album with 99-cent song downloads and personalized playlists. Total album sales are down 19 percent since 2001, while CD sales have dropped 16 percent during the same period, according to Nielson BookScan. Sales of single digital music tracks have jumped more than 1,700 percent in just two years."

What writers think about all this change has much to do with where they're sitting at present. People with traditional ideas about books see chaos in the wings; those with a more fluid sense of what a book is, or might be, envision only unlimited possibilities.

Novelist Vikram Chandra, for example, a former computer programmer who reads e-books on his pocket personal computer, suggests that there's little point to resisting the technology: "I think circling the wagons and defending the fortress metaphors are a little misplaced. The barbarians at the gate are usually willing to negotiate a little … "

These are but the first volleys in a battle that will stretch into the future. Surely, many more opinions will be sounded before these matters are settled definitively. u


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