If you’ve ever attended one of my smaller speaking engagements, you know that I like to leave time for questions and answers. It’s a great opportunity to get to know readers and hear what's on their minds.
I've been asked everything from what books are coming next, to which city is my favorite, to what kind of hair gel I prefer.
But no matter the opening questions, the discussion almost always ends up on the single hottest topic in publishing: What's your take on e-readers?
I've gotten pretty good at tossing the point back to them like a boomerang. “The question really is: What do you think of e-readers?”
I like to run an informal poll of everyone in the room by asking how many own one. At the very least, how many run a reading application on their iPad, Droid or desktop, and how many would never dream of reading a book written in e-ink?
There isn’t much middle ground and the debates can become quite entertaining.
On one side you have the purists, those who think books are meant to be read on real paper made from real trees cut down by big burly men with beards. They speak of the smell of the book and the texture of delicately embossed covers.
On the other side you have early adopting gadget-a-holics. They're the folks who don't mind sacrificing a little bit of the romance of holding and smelling a book for the convenience of not hauling it around to the beach, airport or doctor’s office.
I’ll be honest. I chickened out the first few times I threw the question back to the group. It’s been clear for years that the digital wave was going to wash over the publishing industry, but nobody — especially authors — knew exactly what that was going to mean. I didn’t — still don’t — have an inside track or special wisdom. While I’m not above sharing a half-baked opinion, my thoughts were barely a collection of raw ingredients.
Over the past year or so, though, the move toward e-books and away from traditional print publishing has accelerated. The same transformation that hit the music and video entertainment industry is doing its thing with books.
We know the questions, but the answers are still being written. How much are books like albums? Can we compare a movie watched online to a book read on a Kindle? Are books going the way of albums and videotapes?
It seems to me there is one fundamental difference between books and other media. Music enters the mind through the ears. Video comes in through the eyeballs. The transfer is direct and absolute. You hear exactly what the musician intended; see what the director organized. As technology makes the sound and picture closer to what the artist created, we get closer to the ideal experience. More technology generally equals better art.
Books are different. Books are magical.
A writer sees a story in his head and tries his best to capture it in words. Then he massages it and adds color and theme and emotion. When I write, “Jack sank so far down into the ancient sofa that he was afraid he might never get out,” I see a sofa. You see a different sofa. Mine smells like my grandmother’s house.
What does yours smell like?
See? Magic. A book is an imperfect interface between the builder of a world and the person who volunteers to live there for a while.
So, what does that have to do with the digital revolution?
When you read, you surrender hours of your time to absorb a story. Once in your head, it is yours. It's similar to others, in general, but it's completely unique in detail. What you end up with doesn't depend one kilobyte on whether you read from an iPad, a Kindle, a Nook, a beautifully bound leather book or a dog-eared paperback. Technology doesn't really improve the product at all.
Isn't that the biggest difference? Technology has a lot to offer writers and readers that make creating and consuming more efficient. But the special collaboration it takes to create a story in a head hasn’t changed in thousands of years and isn’t likely to any time soon.
So, go ahead and buy your e-reader. Or not. Enjoy being able to carry hundreds of pounds of books in your purse or pocket. Or, lament the death of the neighborhood bookstore and hoard printed copies of your favorite Jason Wright books. I know a guy who could help with that.
Whatever you do, just keep reading. Keep supporting your favorite authors no matter whether the words are printed or pixels. If you do, we writers will keep seeing stories. And, hopefully, we'll help you see them, too.
Finally, if you ask me what side of the debate I'm on, be prepared for the boomerang.
"So, what do you think of e-readers?"