Unless you’ve been living on a small deserted island somewhere in the Pacific, you’ve seen a tremendous change in the publishing industry over the last few years. I’ve found myself in many conversations around books, bookstores, the big chains, the online retailers, and the medium itself. Before we used to beat each other up over being Republican or Democrat, Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Now we can add analogue vs digital. But why all the fuss? Why is the shift from books made from paper to books made from electrons such an emotional minefield?
Change is hard. Whether you want the change to happen — e.g., getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, buying a car, quitting a habit or starting one — or you’re faced with a change you’d rather avoid (please see the above list for examples), as human beings, we find change uncomfortable. I used to facilitate management training workshops in a past life. To give the participants the visceral experience of change, all I had to do was have them change seats. After much eye rolling, moaning and grief, the group would gradually shift to new seats in the room with varying levels of frustration over this “pointless exercise.” Then we’d spend the next hour talking about their reaction to change and how they see those same behaviors play out in the real world. So if changing seats presents a challenge, shifting the technology and behavior of readers offers a huge challenge.
However, I think the angst to the shift in reading technology goes deeper. If you think about how other forms of information have changed over the last century, many of them have happened at a gradual, steady pace. Music, for example, went from live performance to piano rolls to recordings on acetate and then vinyl disks, to magnetic tape to compact disks and then to an online digital format. And the handoffs between each technology allowed for a few years of overlap to let the stragglers catch up. Yes, there are folks out there who love their vinyl, but the majority of recorded music listeners have shifted quickly to a digital format.
Unlike the evolution of recorded music, with books we have the Gutenberg Bible in the 15th century and the refinement of a technology for printing words on paper and binding them together that has lasted for well over 500 years. Then it what felt like a flash in time, the eBook emerged. We didn’t have transitional technologies as we did in the music industry evolving over a one hundred year period. We had books for over 500 years and then at the beginning of the 21st century, boom — digital books.
Much ink (or should I say many electrons) have been spilled over what this sudden transition to digital means to the publishing industry. I’m sympathetic with publishers, agents, bookstores, libraries and all the other components of the analogue book business. I have wonderful memories of roaming the local library with my Dad as a kid, the musty smell of a bookstore stacked with tomes filled with adventure. Heck, I even love fountain pens. But obviously, whether we like it or not, the business will shift to meet the demand of the market. And the market is you and me. I have to admit that 90% of my reading in the last three years has been all digital. I have reference works and novels on my iPhone, essentially in my pocket to read at any moment. And because those books are on my phone I am able to read more, anytime, anyplace.
I don’t think the analogue book will be disappearing immediately. And I think there will always be a place for some form of analogue book. But the tide has turned. The generations growing up into reading today will not have my memories of stacks of books on shelves, the musty smell of an old paper book, leaning back in a chair to look over the titles of books that have been read or those frustrating moments when you accidentally drop a book losing your place. The up and coming consumers of books have digital memories of books shared through social media, instantly looking up words while they read, searching large texts with ease and having access to virtually any book at any time instantly.
So if you find yourself uncomfortable, maybe even a bit sad at this evolution in your lifetime, give yourself some time to grieve and then pick up that smartphone or pad and begin a new journey in reading.