Cory Doctorow once wrote that “the book is a ‘practice’ — a collection of social and economic and artistic activities — and not an ‘object.'” In the essay “Ebooks: Neither E, Nor Books,” Doctorow’s point is that writers should embrace ebooks into the practice of authorship and not get hung up about the notion of the book as an object. That hangup, however, has been in the air a lot in recent years. Ebooks seem to be the focal point of this argument. Are ebooks the death of the book, the death of writing and publishing? A lot of big names have come down on the “yes” side of that question. John Updike’s now famous diatribe at Book Expo American a few years ago cast the electronic book as the enemy of the practice of writing (and book selling).
Now T. J. Stiles, winner of the National Book Award for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt , makes a similar accusation. When receiving the award, Stiles thanked a host of people involved in the production of his book. “The advent of the e-book,” he said, “is fooling people into thinking that none of these people are necessary anymore…” (from the NY Times).
I would concede that the ebook is changing many aspects of publishing practice (or at least has the potential to). It is possible that writing and books as we now know them may one day be a thing of the past. I think, however, that both Updike and Stiles are confusing the book as a print object with the social, economic, and artistic activities of authorship. No one I’ve spoken with is “fooled” into thinking that ebooks spring to life without authors, editors, and publishers. I see no reason why writers cannot write, editors edit, and publisher publish in ebook format.
In fact, I think the greatest objection to ebooks as we see them now is their potential impact on the economic aspects of publishing. Many factors contribute to the fear of ebooks within the publishing market. Amazon subsidizes the cost of ebooks by underselling the competition, which diminishes the profits that publishers and writers might realize. Digital content is easily copied and transmitted across the Internet, making publishers fear an age of piracy like that experienced in the music industry. And Google is digitizing “all the world’s knowledge,” and seemingly cutting authors and publishers out of the action. None of those activities, however, are intrinsic to the nature of ebooks. Those who fear and castigate the ebook as object have aimed their emotion in the wrong direction.
Writing has never been a very profitable enterprise for very many people. Only a tiny minority have ever attained best-seller status, but our current online technology has already demonstrated its ability to empower many more people to speak, write, and perform. Some from this expanded speaker-base will make a good living at their craft. Most won’t. Some will exert real cultural impact and influence. Most won’t. If this networked and digital commerce has the effect of diminishing the profits of a few blockbusters, I won’t really feel that bad. There will still be lots of people around who want to tell stories and create art, even if it is in the form of an ebook.