At the Public Library AssociationSpring Symposium in Chicago, March 2, 2001
Libraries have always been an important part of my life. My memory is vivid with wonderful images of walking through lines of pushcarts in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to the lovely children’s library on Stone Avenue where I spent hours and hours searching out books to bring back to my home.
The library was housed in a beautiful vine covered building and must have set an example for that era and that place where poor first generation Americans like myself sought out the intellectual oxygen of books to expand and enhance our minds.
In those years a library card was a badge of pride and honor and the sheer quantity of the librarian’s rubber stamped notations proof positive of one’s zealous pursuit of the written word. Such zeal has never left me.
I live in a world of books and stories. I write them, read them, love and worship them. And I collect them. Moreover, the librarian, always a figure of awesome respect, admiration and at times fear (to raise one’s voice in a library was a crime as serious as theft) has always been an inspiration in the never ending battle for greater literacy.
That said, I’m afraid that it is with both excitement and sadness that I confront the revolutionary changes in the way books are delivered and marketed and the realities of what it means to me as an author, to you as librarians, to publishers and, of course, to readers.
To me as an author it means extending the longevity of my work, gathering and controlling their future and my destiny. No longer will I have to confront that ominous sentence: Your books are going out-of-print. No longer will I have to confront shelves of books in more than thirty languages languishing in my bookcases or circulating in limited numbers through bookstores specializing in second hand books.
Thank God for libraries. There my books, not all, but most, stand proudly on the shelves, some badly beaten up, many repaired, but, at least, kept alive by the most wonderful, efficient and compassionate system every devised for the benefit of an enlightened citizenry.
First for the exciting part of this transforming revolution. At last technology has provided the author with the ways and means of controlling and directing his own delivery system, not only through the various e-book venues, and there are many, but in a print on demand format that allows a paper book to be printed almost instantly and delivered to the reader seamlessly through bookstores of both the internet variety and the bricks and mortar kind.
In short, those of my books that have been out of print are now back in print, back in print everywhere in the world and soon back in print in every language in which my books have been translated.
All 23 of my back listed books have a new life and my new novel Mourning Gloryto be published this summer will no longer be an orphan sent out for adoption without his siblings, but a pied piper leading others to read those books that were in the last few years either unavailable or hard to get.
Thankfully, my agent never gave away my e-rights, and I have harvested all my rights in every language, a harvest that makes me, for the first time in my writing career, master of my publishing domain.
Many authors have tried to take their destiny into their own hands. Some have been extraordinarily successful. Did you know that Charles Dickens, that great genius and wily businessman actually owned the periodical in which his books were serialized? And, of course, there was Mark Twain, who got into financial trouble publishing his own and other’s works, although it probably aided both his career and perhaps his immortality. Mary Roberts Rhinehart was another and the list goes on and on.
I truly believe that the path I have chosen is the wave of the future. I may be early but at the very least I will have the infrastructure in place and I will be linked to every website in cyberspace that sells books and be able to shelve paper books, my entire output, in bookstores and libraries.
More importantly, aside from availability and the resultant mastery over distribution that I will gain from this project, I will have the ability to harvest my readers, create a community, establish a dialogue with every one of them through chat rooms, newsletters and methods yet to be divined.
Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have established a dialogue say with a Hemingway, a Proust, a Joyce, and fantasizing beyond logic, Shakespeare of Tolstoy. Isn’t the power of imagination and the richness of fantasy wonderful?
None of this means that paper books will disappear or phase out in the near future and please note that my new novel will be published by a traditional publisher, although its promotion will give me a rare opportunity to promote my back list as well.
Thus, I embrace this new technology. The risks at the moment might outweigh the possibilities of near term gain. I say so what. My books are now out there for everyone, everywhere in the world. Isn’t that why I became a writer in the first place, to tell my stories, to engage others in my view of life, my fantasies, to share the inventions of my characters? And there is great satisfaction for me to the pioneer, to show other authors the way. I’m proud and satisfied to wield the machete in the uncharted jungle.
Now the sad part. The very word author has been transformed. We are now referred to as providers of content, a definition that makes me ill.
As a true lover of the paper book, I detest the idea. I probably hate it as much as those who hated to give up their horse to the automobile, or replace the psychic comforts of the fireplace to central heating, or saying farewell to the comfort of trading at the corner grocery store where one knew the vender like a favorite uncle or of bidding goodbye to grandma and grandpa who today leave the family circle for some senior complex far from home.
I love the book the way it is. I love the feel of it, the smell of it, the heft of it. But I’m afraid the handwriting is on the wall. The era of the paper book is drawing to a close.
Death will be slow. The book as we now know it will linger on, then, in my humble opinion, it will slowly sink into the mists of time. It is inevitable. As they say the king is dead, long live the king. Agree with this assessment or disagree. It won’t matter. Look to children and your grandchildren and their computer skills. And project these skills on the yet unborn.
So much for how the new technology affects authors.
Now let it us look at what this means to libraries. As Chairman of the Board of Trustees of my library in Jackson Hole, probably one of the best in the west I was particularly sensitive to the problems of collection, of the complicated process of putting books on the shelves for circulation.
In my view the whole process of buying library collections and shelving books is in for dramatic changes. As the ergonomics of electronic books changes, as new devices become available for electronic readers at lower and lower prices, the day of the paper book as I’ve already pointed out, no matter how much we rail against it and hate the idea, the days of the paper book are numbered as a mass market phenomena.
These numbered days may add up to many years, but they do have a finite number. Maybe ten, maybe twenty years or more, but it is coming and probably faster than we think.
What is happening all around us is a revolution in the delivery system of all means of communication. And after all, what is a library if not a communication delivery system for information, learning, knowledge and wisdom through books and what are books but text, configurations of type and illustrations.
The new technologies have already transformed the delivery of music, which will never be the same again. It is in the process of completely revamping the way in which movies are delivered in theaters and through all kinds of electronic devices.
Did you know, for example, that most of the big movie chains are in or heading toward bankruptcy. In their case it is because they have over screened the country and failed to understand the speed of obsolescence.
But, those who are picking up these chains in bankruptcy for a song are betting that movies will soon be delivered via satellite with perfect even better clarity than film which means no more bicycling around of big reels from one theater to another and with the new technology in the making of films the studios themselves may be heading for oblivion.
I do not have to tell anyone here how much these technologies are transforming libraries. The ambience and environment of the library as an edifice, as space, has become a kind of town hall, a meeting place, some might say a place of refuge for those who value the intellect over the mass market pap and dumbed down mind fare being served up elsewhere.
What will the library of the future look like? It will always be a gathering place for children and adults of all ages. It will always be the prime supplier of content, of books delivered in whatever form. In my opinion it will be more central than ever, the community gathering place for those hungry for knowledge, for the oxygen provided by books, a place to touch people of like interests. The way in which books are circulated will certainly change.
They might circulate by download to various devices, which will become more reader friendly and less expensive as time goes on. Libraries will probably lend these devices as they lend books and load them with content. Computers will be available in libraries for browsing and perhaps, instead of thumbing through, clicking through.
For those who will never be weaned away from paper books, I envision that libraries may adopt the Print on Demand technology which will spit out a printed book in the time it takes to read the flap copy. These devices, as they come down in price, may actually be part of the arsenal of circulation and be housed in the library building itself.
I can’t foresee the future, but in my opinion, the paper book might eventually become an artifact by the end of this century if not earlier and the older paper book an expensive antique. I don’t believe it will disappear in my lifetime, but you can bet that your grandchildren will be getting their stories and information almost always through this new technology.
I know there will be disagreement here. I’m just speculating. But stories were always part of the life of mankind, told around campfires, then written on papyrus, then hand written on paper, then moveable type.
When I was a newspaperman early on I can remember huge banks of linotype machines belting out text line by line impressed in metal. Just a memory now.
In terms of the publishing business, those folks are in for a radical change. They’ve been a little slow to glimpse the possibilities inherent in the technology of e-books, print on demand and the future of the bookstore itself. They will need resilience and imagination to survive. To this end they are no longer letting the e-book slip through their hands and are now insisting that their authors provide them with e-book rights, something they should have done years ago.
At this moment the major publishers of which there are only a handful, most of them controlled by foreign nationals, are playing catch-up. They still have a monopoly on distribution and promotion but it will probably erode as others, like authors and small publishers jump into the fray.
Indeed, it may be that the mass-market business model for books has seen its death knell and the celebrity author created by the major publishers may slowly dissolve as the book business becomes more and more fractionalized and the publishers slowly lose control of their monopoly.
They will, of course, take a contrary position, believing that only they have the expertise to screen for popularity and determine what books readers will read. Only the future will tell how they will fare.
Which brings me to the reader. When we talk of books we are in effect referring to a one-on-one communication system. The author talks to the reader. His or her words produce a mysterious effect. The reader responds in his own way by imagining what the author is conveying. Depending on the skill of the author, the words stir our emotions and our intellect, trigger our imagination, teach us, stimulate ideas, give us pleasure by reflection and show us how others think and live their lives offer comparisons and examples for the living of our own lives.
The issue becomes this: Does it matter how these words, this text is conveyed? It is not the paper itself that communicates, it is the words. Does how these words are delivered to the reader really matter? Forget nostalgia, forget habit, and forget the emotional commitment to the form of the book and its appeal to the senses as an object.
Is it not the content, the juxtaposition of words, the images they create, the stories they tell, the truth of the matter? Homer had no paper book. And those that believe in religious myths will recall how Moses wrote down the Ten Commandments. Ponder this and then conclude whether there is a future for the electronic book.
But I cannot leave the stage without paying tribute to the librarian, an often-maligned figure in the popular culture. Forgive my unabashed ingratiation. How does one pay a compliment without appearing insincere and self-serving?
To me a librarian is as noble a profession as there is on the face of the earth. Imagine, choosing to live your lives among books, among knowledge and wisdom and working hard for far far less than you are worth so that others may enjoy the wonders of the printed word and its effect on the human imagination. Believe me, I understand the psychic joys of your chosen profession and I salute you with respect, awe and love.