Saturday, January 30, 2010

Publishing in the Age of Blah, Blah, Blah

Last Wednesday I made the trek out to Brooklyn to attend indie publisher Melville House’s local author panel. This was the debut of their four-part series “Publishing in the Age of Blah, Blah, Blah” and was hosted by Melville House’s co-founder Dennis Loy Johnson.

Featured writers included, in no particular order:

Lev Grossman, The Magicians

John Wray, Low Boy

Myla Goldberg, Bee Season

Joshua Henkin, Matrimony

Heidi Julavits, The Uses of Enchantment

Joe Meno, Hairstyles of the Damned

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay

Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel

The topic on the table was e-books and what they may or may not mean to the people writing them. Appropriate enough considering earlier that same day Apple gave its much hyped announcement for what Johnson cheekily dubbed the “unfortunately named iPad.”

The turnout was impressive and by the time the event actually started (in true New York style, a good twenty minutes late) it was standing room only. Well, some people chose to plop down on the floor. So I suppose, if you want to get technical, there was also plopping room available.

The first question asked was addressed to both the authors and the audience. How many of us had ever read an e-book? From the author section, two hands raised. In the audience of 50ish, maybe seven. There were sheepish titters of laughter.

Johnson then asked the authors how many of them had also released their books in e-book format. About half raised their hands, a couple knew they definitely hadn’t, and a few of them laughingly confessed that they actually didn’t know.

Nevertheless, the authors had a lot to say about the possible implications e-books might have on their work. Emotions were mixed.

“It’s churlish to be upset about this (e-books)” proclaimed Heidi Julavits, editor of The Believer. But a few moments later she voiced concern over the iPad’s internet capabilities. “It’s like if you’re reading a book like Moby Dick and you’re on the subway, you’re committed to it. It’s the only book you have (with you) so you sort of have to force yourself to push through the tough parts. On the iPad someone might be like ‘this is getting boring, let me check my email real quick.’”

Author Joe Meno half-joked about the potential ramifications for e-book readers’ first dates. Snooping through people’s apartment bookshelf collections while they’re in the other room might become a thing of the past. According to Meno, there’s nothing like seeing the copy of Gravity’s Rainbow dog-eared a quarter of the way through in your date’s apartment. “You can say, ‘I couldn’t finish Gravity’s Rainbow either!’ and that’s when you might start making out!”

A lot of attention was given to the possibility of losing the bookshelf as we know it. Blogger and novelist Lev Grossman said “a part of the booky-ness of books is that… when a book is closed, it lives on in your life.” Grossman described the bookshelf as “a tribute to your brain."

Several additional topics were discussed, including but not limited to:

-how hardcover books might become for book lovers what vinyl records are for music lovers

-how the e-book may limit a person's ability to browse and discover new titels

-how the internet boom has put pressure on authors to also be self-promoters

-the general history of publishing and of the novel, which inevitably led to posthumous shout-outs to Faulkner and Fitzgerald

In other words, a complete nerding out on the part of us in love with books and publishing.

After the panel, follow-up questions from the audience were encouraged. That's when the woman sitting next to me, a Marketing Assistant with Penguin, raised her hand.

"I read a lot of e-books," she confessed. "I love my Kindle and carry it with me everywhere I go. For me, the reading experience isnt' that different. I still watch for how many pages I have left to go and slow down when I near the end. And, when I read a book I love, I buy it in hard copy. So, I guess my questions is, do you think there's a chance that e-book sales can help paperback sales?"

The answer seemed to be a resounding "yes." Host Johnson brought up the exampe of some authors like this one who have elected to offer free e-book downloads and watched their hard copy sales soar as a result.

The discussion wrapped up shortly afterward and we all mingled and drank wine from clear plastic cups. It was, in short, a lovely Wednesday evening.

What I took away from the panel discussion was this: despite what writers, readers and book publishers may think of the e-book, it's here to stay. And, though I too am Team Paper, I'll admit that the e-book has its endearing qualities (among them, for example, the potential to save publishing from a long, slow and agonizing death).

As a tech geek friend of mine so eloquently put it, "Leigh, the iPad is a revolutionary piece of technology that's very likely going to save your job. Embrace it."

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