Authors, not devices, represent the future of books

Online sales of print and electronic books have long been putting pressure on bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and The Bookseller reports that in 2013 net revenues from online sales of print and electronic books exceeded revenues from bricks-and-mortar stores. Print remains a force, with paperbacks remaining in the top-seller spot for the industry's trade category, but e-books in 2013 hit a new record high in terms of units sold. (Read more here.)

One format that is not doing well is the e-reader, and last week Barnes & Noble, which debuted the Nook in 2009, announced that it is spinning off its Nook business. The decline of the e-reader has long been predicted, with IHS having noted back in 2012 that, after a dramatic increase from 2008 to 2010, sales peaked in 2011. At the time, I noted that I preferred running Kindle and Nook apps on my Android phone to lugging along an extra dedicated e-reader device. That remains my preference.

It seems a lot of people agree with me. In a recent article in New York magazine, Kevin Roose writes, “For years, traditional book publishers have hoped that standalone e-readers—Kindles, Nooks, and the like—would be their salvation, replacing paper-and-ink books as the diversion of choice for a new generation of readers. But several new data points suggest that's not happening. In fact, it seems clearer than ever that the future of reading isn't on reading devices at all. It's on your phone.”

It's bad news, Roose writes, that people are reading on devices not expressly built for reading. He acknowledges that, with the demise of the e-reader, consumers like me will have one less device to buy and carry. But phones and tablets, he seems to suggest, are antithetical to reading, because of their incessant push notifications of calendar reminders, e-mails, text messages, and so on—all of which demand your immediate attention and distract you from completing your reading of all seven volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Well, ok. I've not finished all seven volumes either, and I got started years before there were distracting mobile devices, or for that matter even an Internet. But to his credit, Roose has some data, citing a Mashable survey that e-reader users read even more books per year than do readers of paper-and-ink books.

But given that users of e-readers may read more books per year than paper-and-ink book readers, Roose never makes the case that tablet and phone readers will read less. I don't buy the “push notification” distraction theory. I can be comfortably reading a hard-back leather-bound print volume and still be distracted by my phone's constant beeps and buzzes, or even by the plain old telephone, the doorbell, a knock at the door, a passing fire truck's siren, a dog barking, a burglar alarm, or—heaven forbid—an actual person walking into the room and wishing to speak with me (possibly the butler).

I comfortably read all thousand-plus pages of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 on an Android phone, and I expect that if I do finish reading À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, I'll read the final volumes on a phone or tablet as well.

Roose writes, “… there's no getting around the fact that smartphones aren't designed for focused, sustained reading.” But it's not the role of the device—be it a print-and-ink book, an e-reader, a tablet, or a phone—to promote “focused, sustained reading.” That's the role of the author, and I think that today's and tomorrow's authors are and will remain up to the task, regardless of the medium.

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