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Ebooks, Pragmatism, and User Generated Hysteria

I'm a really big fan of my Kindle. I've actually procrastinated about reading many books that I've highly anticipated reading because they're still dead tree edition only or priced exactly the same in either paper or electronic edition. The upside is that I'm also reading a huge number of classic books in free editions in quite the same way that I'm accustomed to from back in the PDA days. I don't miss those days much but I did really dig being able to carry around my entire reading list in a searchable format where I could very quickly and easily dig out precise quotations when necessary and didn't destroy my spinal column in the process. Unlike the old and rather pricey PDAs, I seldom need to charge my Kindle (as long as I remember to disable wireless connectivity when I'm finished downloading new material) and hardly even think of it as a distinct electronic device anymore. Now it's just a white plastic slab that words come out of. I probably do more actual reading now than I've ever done before if only because I'm spending much less of the time my attention will allow tracking down the books I'm reading, figuring out what page I left off reading on after losing yet another fucking bookmark, and figuring out what the hell I did with the sheet of paper I typically keep in books with my notes because I hate re-reading marked up books.

I've been mulling over, coming back to, and re-reading this article in Prospect Magazine today because it actually engages authors who do not necessarily have religious attachments to the format their material inhabits as long as their skills still pay the bills. It's generally an engaging read especially Don DeLillo's extracted bits at the end -- they're taken from a speech but I wouldn't have seen them otherwise.

One thing that seems fairly consistent about the larger criticism of explosive electronic book growth is the loss of publishing intermediaries as ad hoc quality control. Part of me understands this immediately when I look at listings in Amazon's Kindle store where huge numbers of titles are just there in every category and indistinguishable when one has not yet been reviewed by either an Amazon customer or lifted from another publication or website. You could conceivably buy a book based entirely on its title without knowing any information about it other than title, author, and price. There isn't a spine with a publishing house mark to separate those who have braved the manuscript hawking from the great unwashed who simply wrote and published. This is understandably upsetting to those who rely greatly on the merits of manuscript pimping and press releases/review copies to validate their output.

I'm thinking that what scares publishers and traditional authors more than anything else isn't a great flood of amateurs flooding the already submerged marketplace but the idea of actually having the marketplace opened up for anyone and being forced to adapt their own models for that changed environment. I mean, face it, best selling books are largely utter shit -- well handled genre fiction that might as well be delivered via trough. The operative difference here is that the branded slop has been vetted by an external organization that thinks the book will make money. This is a reductionist way of looking at it and taken mainly because I think its funny but the reverse is most certainly true. The traditional publishing industry and its constituency would like to reduce the tension to the published and unpublished, retain the hardcover price, and forget the whole thing ever happened.

It seems like the folks who are reacting to the rise of the ebook format are doing so preemptively. Has this made some radical change in the way the book industry functions? Did this suddenly make Americans seek Tom Clancy and John Grisham instead of writing by people capable of not pooping out link after link of a chain of formulaic and episodic bullshit. I don't think so anymore than the 80's power combo of frat boy comedy and slasher flicks destroyed film production. One segment ate up a huge amount of expendable cash and the intensely ADHD generic public interest. That generalized interest doesn't radically change even in response to genuinely cool things but like a teenager in the 80s listens to the same cassingle of the same overplayed radio hit that composes their entire esthetic palate until they've burned out their sensitivity to it entirely puts it down and moves tepidly onto something else to overuse. The seemingly inevitable response from the powers that film was to either imitate (which typically and quickly sates the public desire for more of the same posthaste please) or adapts by miraculously whipping up another bland but at least novel new flavor of the month to seduce the generic public attention away from the twisted wreckage of what was the height of cool mere days ago. If you buy my line of thinking (and good on you if you don't) then there is a sort of symbiosis between the easily entertained and the hardly entertaining that is necessary for bestseller lists to even exist.

I think DeLillo's quoted questions at the end of the article are spot on. I hope I'm understanding his hints correctly but it seems like a shrug towards the medium more than anything else. He doesn't seem to fear or resent it as many of the others quoted do but (kinda have to remember here that Don is like 10000 years old) is simply waiting around to see what happens because what he really does isn't completely married to the format either. I think that is one of the reasons that I will read and (sometimes grudgingly) respect the stuff DeLillo creates. He takes some risks and even the worst of them and the least likely to make a room full of people absently high five one another is still light years ahead of teenage vampire Mormon love stories. At the same time, he used a novella (Pafko at the Wall) as the introduction to his best (in my not-so-humble opinion) novels and then later republished it as a separate book, as hardcover even. The motherfucker adapts and you should imitate that willingness to keep writing and adapt more than you should concentrate on aping the style and structure of White Noise (his worst, in my fervently disagreed with opinion) when sitting down at the keyboard all clueless and scared.

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