Reflections On Reading About Borders Closing

You’ve Got Tweets (You’ve Got Mail 2.0)

Starring Tom Hanks and a scantily clad Monica Bellucci as a powerful Amazon Kindle executive.

Tom Hanks’ character, Joe Fox, and his business, Fox & Sons, are sailing through choppy economic waters. In fact they are taking on water faster than they can bail it out. His relationship to Kathleen (Meg Ryan’s character) ended soon after it started when she quickly came to the realization that, like his father, Joe is basically a self-serving capitalist swine. With the advent and gaining popularity of e-publishing Joe finds his imperium of ‘Superstores’ spiraling economically downward and ultimately out of control.  Joe is drinking heavily, living in squalor on his yacht, surrounded by empty vintage wine bottles and discarded plastic sushi boxes. His father, Nelson (played by the irascible Dabney Coleman), has prudently thrown himself from a window of the fiftieth floor of their Manhattan offices in the opening scene. Oh, and his cute dog, Barkly or Berkly, whatever, got nailed by a NYC cab.

Enter Bellucci, featured in a devilishly low-cut see-through blouse, black-leather micro-skirt and stiletto heels. Yeah! Named Carla Funichello (why not?), she appears to be a ditzy femme fatale stalking our man, Joe, via social media. The audience is at first led to believe that she’s interested in his vapid sense of humor, tweeted out across the screen of her iPhone. But as the film evolves we see that she is in fact a vampire, and a damn sexy one at that; what she really wants is to partake of his hemoglobin. Or does she? Because wait, there are more secrets afoot here; Joe is also not who he appears to be! He’s a werewolf! Barkly was his second cousin, twice removed!

Hilarity ensues in this madcap comedy of errors as our two wacky protagonists bite, claw and suck their way through the Upper East Side, humorously ignorant that they are both abominations of nature. Of course the gags all happen through Tweets, although how that will actually transpire I haven’t a clue, since I personally consider Twitter to be a crock, and therefore know next to nothing about it (I do have a Twitter account. Follow me at @sonofincogneato.  Did I say that right? Ha ha ha!) . That said, the whole vampire/werewolf/Twitter bs is just a bunch of hype to get you to read this far. The real story is the disappearance and possible extinction of so-called *brick-and-mortar bookstores* (do you hate that coinage as much as I do?) due to the advent of e-books and internet-book-buying à la Amazon. Ma & Pa shop “The Shop Around the Corner” got eaten by Megastore Fox & Sons, which in turn gets stepped on and squashed by giga-business Amazon. Which brings us up to date.

Now I’m admittedly an oldster, no matter how much of a lad dad I might appear to be. I grew up with paperbacks, libraries and three-dimensional bookstores. But I am no stranger to new technology and although I am rarely in the vanguard, I’m not afraid to travel new roads if they appeal to me. I’ve had a Kindle since last year, and I carry it with me whenever I am forced to use public transportation. But I am also still a frequent user of the public library and haunter of physical book stores. In fact I had planned on visiting the downtown library here in Oslo the day a terrorist blew up the government building complex this past August. Had I timed it right (er, wrong) I could have been walking less than ten meters from where the car bomb was detonated. Sloth and procrastination have once again served me well. The library is still closed (all the windows got blown out) and I feel a hole in my life because of that. Be that as it may, I note that I get a peculiar feeling in my gut at the thought of traditional bookstores and paper books becoming obsolete. It’s accompanied by the bittersweet taste of nostalgia and lost youth, with a tangy hint of future shock thrown into the mix.

My son, who has grown up with Playstation, GameBoy, DVDs and 500 TV channels will probably not feel the same way. What I got off of pages, he gets from flat screens. He is the future, I am the past. To add insult to self-injury; my own writing is scheduled to be coming out in e-book form, although hopefully in a POD paper version later on. Nevertheless, does that make me a traitor to the cause or rather one of those furry little mammals that succeeded the dinosaurs?

Oh, by the way; in the end of the movie, both Carla and Joe end up destitute and broke, their businesses having epically failed. Everyone’s tired of vampires and werewolves and what’s more, people have stopped reading entirely. It’s all just screens, sounds and pictures; printed words are too much work.

So what do you think? Is the Book as we know it on its last legs? Is it time to sell the IKEA shelves? Are we entering the post-paperback age?

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Brian, this made me smile, but it raises some important points – so thank you for that.

    Is the book on its last legs? No. Does it matter? Hell, yes.

    The anecdotal evidence first: I know plenty of people with Kindles, but far more people – compulsive readers all – without. And plenty of my Kindle-owning friends prefer real books when they can get them, and just use the Kindle on the train because of the weight and convenience. I spend more of my life than I probably should in coffee shops, and what do I see there? – people reading paperbacks, not Kindles. The idea that the paper book is dead is a complete myth, cooked up largely by people who, for whatever reason, want it to be true.

    I’m not the only one to think so: here’s Sam Leith in the Guardian about a month ago (http://t.co/3GuTwpA) – and if he seems reactionary, just take a look at some of the comments!

    Why does it matter? For one thing, because of Sam Leith’s point “that a defining characteristic of digital culture is that it divides the attention”. For another, because of the devaluation of writing that is a by-product of e-books – a point articulated in John B. Thompson’s excellent study of the publishing industry, ‘Merchants of Culture’ (see http://wp.me/p1u5Oe-32).

    But the biggest issue is one that was already there in the original movie ‘You’ve Got Mail’ – the commoditisation of the written word. Fox Books sells a commodity – it piles ’em high and sells ’em cheap, with little thought for either the quality or the value of what lies between the covers.

    Professor Thompson offers some fairly scary evidence of commoditisation in mainstream publishing – but it is happening in indie and self-publishing too (see http://wp.me/p1u5Oe-2e), among the very people who have most to gain from the digital boom.

    “Self-publishing [and to a large extent indie publishing] overwhelmingly rewards those with self-promotional skills, not necessarily those with writing skills.” As often as not, indie and self-published e-books succeed not because they’re any good, but because the author/publisher has worked out how to manipulate social media. For anyone who cares about quality and value, for anyone who believes we have a “duty of linguistic care” (see http://wp.me/p16xbS-5p), this has got to be worrying.

    Genuine, heartfelt congratulations, Brian, on Beauregarde’s publication. Pfoxmoor is IMHO one of the good guys, one of the few who are trying to buck the trend.

    Reply

    • Posted by Son of Incogneato on 18/09/2011 at 23:43

      Thanks for all the feedback and links, Ben. I now have a name for what I do all day; wilfing.

      I completely agree with you (and Professor Thompson) about commoditization in the publishing biz. It’s a similar situation with mainstream film and music. The fact that the big publishing houses are being bought up and owned by multi-conglomerates doesn’t help much. Another thing that I find disturbing is that quite a few people are publishing their e-books on Amazon for free. I feel that it’s one thing to use it as a temporary promo strategy, but quite another to publish material that basically is of a quality that people would not be willing to pay for it. But people being people they download the freebie, while some of the better literature just sits there because it costs a couple of pounds/dollars. Professional authors panic and drop their prices just to be in the game. Where is it going to end?

      As for the death of the paperback:
      “According to Association of American Publishers (AAP) sales figures for the first half of 2011, adult paperback is the most popular trade category. However, paperback sales dipped nearly 18 percent and hardcover sales fell 23 percent compared to the same period previous year.” On the other hand, e-book sales are up 160 percent.

      Furthermore: “Amazon.com is now selling more Kindle books than paperback books. Since the beginning of the year, for every 100 paperback books Amazon has sold, the company has sold 115 Kindle books. Additionally, during this same time period the company has sold three times as many Kindle books as hardcover books. This is across Amazon.com’s entire US book business and includes sales of books where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the numbers even higher.”

      Reply

  2. Just realised that my last comment will probably have gone into spam because of all the links. Sorry…

    Reply

  3. This is really excellent. And I’m glad to see Ben here commenting. He’s one of the most intelligent people I know, and knows what he’s talking about (and how to say it so I can comprehend, which is the greater skill.) This is about the development of technology. It’s about click a button and have it now. But it’s also an artist’s rebellion as much as anything. Amazon allowed that, just as MySpace allowed it for musicians, etc. We’re going back to a neo-Arts and Crafts era in many ways, tired of manufactured entertainment, food, media, whatever and all the conglomerates telling us what to like and what is cool. But I don’t presume to predict where it’s all going. I think books are a tradition. I live in, and have always lived in, historical houses, with actual libraries, with actual books (and old ones at that). For me, books are essential. But I also see a movement away from the physical and tangible. I find that both comforting (doesn’t it mean forsaking the worldly?) and disturbing (I’m reminded of a scene from Logan’s Run, where the libraries are all destroyed and forgotten).

    It’s a trend, or a conspiracy of trends. But where it’s going, I don’t think anyone can rightly say. The snow globe has been shaken. The bits are still settling.

    Reply

  4. I do not see the demise of paper, ever. But it may become a commodity that only the well-off can afford as prices spiral out-of-control. Right now eBook readers serve a valuable adjunct to the reading experience. I have three of them, chock-a-block filled with inexpensive and free reads. But I also have walls filled with books and my next order from Amazon is on its way, including a much sought after hardback.

    I suspect the next big thing will be multi-media, ala graphic novels with text, graphics, sound, and video. In fact I witnessed it myself at BEA in May and it was jaw-dropping, must have for my greedy little techno-fingers. In NYC you can’t walk down the street without bumping into someone staring at an iPhone, eReader or iPad every few feet – the devices are ubiquitous. And that is a good thing, is it not? People are still reading – nay, in fact they may be encouraged to read even more. So what if the bulk of what’s out there is trash. That’s always been the case.

    What we are missing are the harbingers of quality – the reviewers, librarians, the fashionistas, the filters who guide readers through the morass to discover authors deserving of a second and third look. Without them the din of Me Me Me from authors screeching their wares threatens to leave us tone deaf to the few who truly deserve our time and attention.

    It’s still early days in a revolution that hasn’t just shifted power … but has completely altered the way the game is played. I for one am eager to see where this all leads.

    Reply

  5. “What we are missing are the harbingers of quality – the reviewers, librarians, the fashionistas, the filters who guide readers through the morass to discover authors deserving of a second and third look. Without them the din of Me Me Me from authors screeching their wares threatens to leave us tone deaf to the few who truly deserve our time and attention.”

    Diane, this is exactly what I was talking about here (and here). Tone deaf – yes, you’re right on the nail.

    Reply

  6. Hi Brian

    I still drive by the house in your book on N Rock Springs in Atlanta at least once a week and I always think about you then.

    My book set in Atlanta that your reviewed, the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg, is now out as a narrative nonfiction (i.e. an agent, who since died, made me put in the real names) for 99 cents on Kindle.

    http://www.amazon.com/Goose-That-Laid-Golden-ebook/dp/B0057ZF1MK

    Cheers, Doug Bremner

    Reply

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