Friday, November 27, 2009

NBA Afterthoughts

The National Book Awards evening was as elegant and exciting as always. Authors and publishers can be dressed up and taken places. I'm pleased to say that the children's award provided the most moving moment of the evening: Phillip Hoose escorted Claudette Colvin onto the stage. They were spectacular. Sadly, Melanie Kroupa, the editor and publisher of the book was not at the ceremony, having parted ways with the Macmillan USA group some months ago. Melanie was gratefully and eloquently acknowledged by the author and roundly applauded by her many friends in the audience.

One aspect of the evening was off-putting to me. Numerous speakers felt the need to disparage the advent of ebooks and the assembled movers and shakers vigorously cheered. I understand the impulse, but it seemed to me somewhat hypocritical. Every author, publisher, and agent in that room is trying to figure out how to accommodate the technological revolution that is currently taking place. Putting aside the obvious hypocrisy of the moment, I genuinely don't understand why people get so worked up about another means of presenting literature to an audience. Ironically, the premier sponsor of the event was Barnes & Noble, whose new e-reader, the "nook", is sold out even before its launch at the end of this month. Ebooks are a major new source of revenue, and represent an innovation akin to the development of mass market paperbacks. It is early days, but the growth is phenomenal. This week figures for Random House ebook sales (primarily Kindle) were leaked, revealing year-to-date sales of $22.6 million, an almost 700% increase over last year's $2.9 million. A lot of that was Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol which sold 100,000 ebooks in its first week of sales, but industry-wide growth in ebooks, according to IDPF figures, is up 300% over this time last year. Why aren't authors and publishers celebrating?

What is it about this new platform for reading that has people so fretful? Do they really think that books and ebooks are inherently incompatible and mutually exclusive? The anxiety smacks of hysteria. But, there is nothing new about that. A scholarly friend of mine tells me that one of the Lippincotts opined in the 1890s that the runaway success of the bicycle would spell the end of leisure reading.

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