Thursday, March 19, 2009

On E-Books, Attention Spans, Belle Lettres and Short Fiction

I've been doing a lot of thinking these past few weeks, and a lot of reading about, e-books, digital platforms and delivery, and what all of this means for Biblioasis, our authors, and for publishing in general. I feel a blog post in the works, though it will have to wait: BPDIP's Business Plan has robbed me of my willingness to sit for more than another two minutes in this chair. I need a break:p there's a hockey net in the driveway and a six year old intent on leaving a few more circular bruises on my being as he aims to be master of the top corner. So I'll take the easy way out here, and link to just two of the articles on the subject I've read this afternoon. The first, Resisting the Kindle, is by Sven Birkerts, and appeared in The Atlantic Monthly a couple of weeks ago. The second, from The Institute for the Future of the book, is called Will the Real IPod for Reading Stand Up Now Please?, takes a different view on the question, though by no means the most prevalent I've come across.

What is the mp3 of the literary world? Belle lettres, he says. Perhaps as well, I would add, short stories. Could their time have finally come?

Here's an excerpt:

I read books, read blogs, I twitter compulsively. I use these different formats for different kinds of experience. I see no contradiction: what I'm getting at here is that the e-reader is being treated as though it is a viable vehicle for long-form writing, in a way that ignores the essential fact that long-form writing and reading is rooted in paper, and book manufacturing.

So, back to the 'iPod for reading' metaphor. Its proponents generally don't dig deeper than 'here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of music'. The implication is that we can hop blithely from that to 'here is a small square device for storing and consuming lots of text'. Regardless of stirring promises of e-books containing audio, video, fancy schmancy links and so on, the common understanding - and, indeed, the hope of the publishing industry - remains that this is a digital device for reading long-form texts. But this ignores the effect that iPods - or, more generally, mp3s - are having on how music is distributed. Once sold as albums, whether on LPs or CDs, music is increasingly sold by the micro-unit - a single song. A unit of content typically around 3 or 4 minutes long rather than 60-75 minutes.

It makes economic sense to sell LPs or CDs at a runtime of 60-odd minutes. It makes economic sense to sell books of around 80,000 words. But music for iPods can be sold song by song. So, extrapolating from this to an iPod for reading, what is the written equivalent of a single song? In a word (or 300), belles lettres.

Now: driveway hockey.

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