Magazine article World Literature Today

Reading through a Glass Darkly: The E-Book Revolution

Magazine article World Literature Today

Reading through a Glass Darkly: The E-Book Revolution

Article excerpt

A few weeks ago, Jeremiah Healy, a former president of the International Association of Crime Writers and the author of some twenty novels, announced the republication of most of his John Francis Cuddy detective series in an e-book format. The nine novels were long out of print, appearing originally from 1984 to 1999. "And, yes," his announcement continued, "I've been dragged kicking and screaming into the cyber-era. While I may not show up on Facebook and Twitter just yet, I'm doing my best, so please be patient with me."

O brave new world! Authors, who all felt dismay and reverence for the various traditions of the book, from the codex format to the sine qua nons of the genres, can only stare like Keats's Cortez "with wild surmise" upon the vast reality that lies before us. Some writers initially ignored it, thinking the e-book would fade like 1950s 3-D. Some embraced it with more enthusiasm than sense, seeing a utopia that would finally elevate them to the stature they truly deserved. Almost everyone was wrong in some way about what it all meant and where it was going. Revolutions begin in a whirlwind of giddy drink and dance, but in the morning the apartment is littered with broken bottles and the carpet is ruined forever. All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned.

Consider a recent news story. In April 2012 the US Department of Justice filed a Sherman antitrust lawsuit against Apple and five of the largest publishers.1 The iPad had proven itself an excellent electronic reader, and Apple was selling books for download just as it sold music for its iPod. Over meetings in exclusive Manhattan restaurants, the publishers agreed with Apple to set the price of a new e-book at between $12.99 and $14.99 a copy. Apple would receive 30 percent of the price. Much cheaper than a paper copy, the price was nonetheless higher than what Amazon had fixed-without the publishers' consent-as its standard price, $9.99 for new releases and best-selling books. Steve Jobs was quoted as having said, "The customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway." Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster reached a settlement with the government, whereas Holtzbrinck, Penguin, and Apple, as of this writing, are fighting the suit.

Hooray for the Justice Department, correct? Not so fast! Almost immediately, in an open letter, Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild and author of Presumed Innocent, criticized the Justice Department for bringing the case, saying that it was "killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition."2 Sure, Amazon was bringing down book prices. It was so dominant it was using the "Wal-Mart method," dictating prices to its suppliers. The publishers-who found the books, contracted the books, and edited the books-would have no say in the pricing. Not only that, but Amazon had begun contracting directly with authors, as if it intended to eliminate publishers altogether. Publishers were terrified. America's second largest retail chain, Borders, had gone belly up, at least partly because of Amazon's domination. The only competitive leverage the publishers saw was banding together with Apple to resist the juggernaut.

But other nonbusiness issues were raised as well. Penguin cited the need for "an open and competitive market."3 Turow stated that the ultimate domination by Amazon "would be tragic for all of us who value books, and the culture they support."4 If one company is in control of what is published, what happens to the cultural conversation? Will the variety of content be limited even if the number of books increases? And what about length of books? If all prices are the same, what reason is there to support the writing of multivolume histories or epic novels that take years to complete? Two hundred pages and six months: $9.99. Eight hundred pages and ten years: $9.99. The situation is analogous to that in investigative reporting, so important to democracy but suffering, as many news organizations can no longer afford it. …

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