Digital Is Comin’ At Us!

The future of books rests, it seems, with the new digital realm. Blog posts pop up everywhere lately, as do, ironically, a rising tide of newspaper articles on digital publishing. The latest addition to the digital reader marketplace appeared a week or so ago from Apple with its iPad. It joins Amazon’s Kindle and Sony’s Reader, and a couple more soon to come down the chute. What does this quickly proliferating lineup of electronic readers mean to readers, writers, and publishing in general?
A recent op-ed in the LA Times (Apple’s tablet and the future of literature – 24 Jan 2010) deems these – for all their inventiveness – rather primitive. I agree.
At first blush, the iPad seems little more than a version of the iPod Touch too large for the pocket. It’s innovation, however, is a new take on the digital bookstore that Amazon made famous. From what I’ve seen of the iBook, and Apple’s new digital reading form, it will simulate a bookstore much better than Amazon’s and even allows you to simulate turning paper pages.
Still, it’s primitive. I want a digital reader you can open, like a book, read like a book – in a book’s size – turn pages like a book, underline, bookmark, and highlight like a book. In other words, something like a combination of the iPad and Kindle – only more book-like. As with radios, TVs, cell phones, stereos and other devices, electronic readers will only get smarter, more flexible, and more accessible.

Already, school systems are requiring the use of digital textbooks. Newspapers and magazines – already in the process of converting from paper to digital – will go completely digital, and maybe save one of the bastions of democratic life, the free press. Sadly, while we can still access books and mags for free, we’ll soon have to pay for them. But the price will be (hopefully) much less that the print versions.
What will digital mean for writers? The conventional wisdom says: smaller (read: less voluminous) books. Are you listening, novella writers? Short story writers? And you, the nearly extinct essayists?
I suspect this trend will be short-lived, though. Would you ask Don DeLillo or Joyce Carol Oates or Orhan Pamuk to write thirty thousand-word books? Hardly.
I also suspect – and call me Pollyanna if you will – that digital will open up a constricted publishing industry in much the same was that FM radio did for that medium in the ‘seventies, or that satellite radio is beginning to do now.
For those who read this from within these United States, be advised that the U.S.’s freedom of the press rating of something like thirtieth in the world – thanks to corporate, multinational ownership of communications media in the country – can only improve.
Factor in broader vistas for the world’s reading public, more publishing freedom for writers, and you have something we can look forward to in the twenty-first century.

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