It’s the 21st Century, Like it or Not

As I said yesterday, it was fun and enlightening to read your answers to Friday’s questions. One thing surprised me: the number of people who are still thumbs-down on Kindle.

Now admittedly, it’s not for everyone. But it is a legitimate and valuable tool for people who read a lot.

To all of you who say things like, “I love the feel of a book in my hands,” or “I love the smell of the paper” or “I love collecting books on my shelf,” I get it. I’m one of those people with books in every room, spilling over the shelves, tabletops, nightstands and sitting in stacks on floors. That’s not going to change just because I have a Kindle.

As a kid, I spent my summers at the library, deep in the stacks, reading my way through the teen fiction section. By middle school I’d read The Bounty Trilogy, everything by Hermon Wouk and Irving Stone, along with little 400-page books like Sybil, and 1000+ page books like Gone with the Wind (that’s all I remember about my 8th grade year). In high school I worked my way through the popular authors of the day like Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon, James Michener, James Clavell, Colleen McCullough, Irwin Shaw, even Jacqueline Susann. (Had to hide those from my mom.) I was a bookworm and preferred reading over Monopoly, The Brady Bunch or roller skating.

Can you say total nerd??? Lucky me, now I get to spend my life in the business of books… a career choice made more for love than money.

So now that I’ve demonstrated my credentials as One Who Truly Loves Books, let me say this: The book isn’t primarily about its format or method of delivery. It’s mostly about the story. The words. The content. It always has been, and always will be. (This obviously doesn’t apply to art books and cookbooks and other specialty books.)

Yesterday, Timothy Fish said this in his response to Friday’s questions: Technology will come and go, but storytelling will always be around in some form or another. Yes! Exactly.

I understand bookmaking as an art form. I love looking at a beautiful book, holding it in my hands, feeling the texture of the paper, seeing an evocative cover, marveling at creative interior design.

But when it comes down to it, for books meant to be read as opposed to looked at or written in, electronic delivery is convenient, fast, portable… and the way of the future. Once you start reading books on an electronic reader, you realize it’s the content that matters. Not the smell of the paper or the beauty of the cover.

Lately I’ve been carrying my Kindle around with me everywhere. I’ve got several manuscripts on it, and I can download books any time I want. Over the holiday I was a chain-reader. It was so fun to finish a book, click a couple of buttons to go to Amazon and find a new book, download it, and start reading it within a minute or two. So much fun! Like I have the entire bookstore in my bag.

I’m not trying to convert you. At this point, I don’t even necessarily recommend electronic readers to people who don’t have a professional use for it. They’re expensive and there are definitely still some annoying design flaws.

BUT I want to encourage you to avoid thinking of them as The Enemy. They’re going to have their place. Remember the days of 8-tracks and LPs? (I realize some of you weren’t even born then.) We’ve come a long way since then—iPods and computers and Bose music systems have revolutionized the way we purchase, store and experience music. Kindles and eReaders are simply new and exciting ways to experience books.

The publishing industry as a whole has been roundly criticized ad nauseum for being slow to embrace new technologies, new distribution methods, new economic realities. This decade long “reluctance to change” is partially responsible for problems in the industry today. Let’s not be part of that! Let’s not be called “dinosaurs” and hold back the progress of the publishing industry by our unwillingness to keep up with the times.

Way back when books went from being hand-lettered by talented scribes to being printed on a press, there were some who decried it. Yes, something was lost in the artistry with that transition. And the paper-to-electronic transition brings with it a loss, too. But words are still words. They still come together in extraordinary and wonderful ways to create stories and convey information. The delivery method is secondary. Kindles and eReaders cannot ruin good stories.

Of course, you’re going to make your own decision. I’m just asking you to consider all the angles. After all, if you’re going to be a published author, your books are going to be read electronically someday. And you wouldn’t complain about that, would you?

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Janet on January 14, 2009 at 1:41 PM

    >Ashley, my local library now allows digital downloads. The files expire after three weeks.

  2. Dal Jeanis on January 14, 2009 at 1:39 PM

    >Umm, Erastes –

    If I remember correctly, Amazon *does* keep track of what you buy and download for your Kindle, and you can delete it off the Kindle and re-download it later if you need the room.

    But, yes, digital rights management is a big hairy wormy subject at the moment.

  3. Ashley on January 14, 2009 at 1:32 PM

    >Hi guys! Great discussion. I wanted to throw in a new angle. My husband is allergic to most book paper. Going to the bookstores or the library makes him sick. In our four months of marriage we have found very few books we can read together and all other reading has to wait until he’s out of the house.

    We are saving up for an electronic reading device. I’ll miss the variety (and free books) from the library, but it beats nothing!

  4. Dal Jeanis on January 14, 2009 at 12:46 PM

    >In forty years, when the “books” are being imprinted directly on the retina, or injected by RNA bags that make you think you *were* the main character, that day’s thirty-somethings will be talking about how much they miss the smell and feel of a Kindle III.

  5. Joseph L. Selby on January 14, 2009 at 12:22 AM

    >I have my own reasons for not wanting/liking a kindle and the enjoyment of feeling a book in my hands is not on my list (though I do like the feel of a book in my hand). I could certainly use something like a kindle given that my bookshelves are beginning to sag from the weight and I’m running out of room. However, the kindle device itself needs revision. There are flaws in design that I would not want to deal with. More importantly, the DRM and cost structure I find to be unacceptable. Any publisher that says it costs the same to make an eProduct is a liar. I know this because that was my job for the last six years. The overhead on econtent is incredibly less than the printed page, ESPECIALLY if they’re printing the book too (if it’s not, then it’s the publisher’s fault for doing it wrong). File sharing and file ownership are a problem. I know piracy is a concern, but at the same time I have multiple machines that I upgrade regularly.

    Sony has a better model, allowing non-sony content to be added to their eReader and the machine’s design is better in my opinion as well. The problem is the guts, which have a shaky track record and Sony’s HORRIBLE customer support. Because of that, neither device is worth buying for anyone that isn’t in circumstances similar to yours or has money to burn. Come third generation of those devices, though, things will start to get shook up. Let’s hope their pricing models have come into reason by then.

  6. Crystal Laine Miller on January 14, 2009 at 12:15 AM

    >I asked for a Kindle for Christmas. I got a Keurig coffee maker. Ok, I was in shock. (I HAVE a coffeemaker!) Fortunately, he followed up with a stunning necklace, so he’s not completely braindead….And he tells the story with such glee, so I give him that.

    Anyway, the reason you gave, Rachelle, about putting manuscripts to read on it is one reason I want one!But I would download books from Amazon like a chainsmoker smokes cigarettes, too.

    I am working hard not to covet one. Truly I am.

  7. Rachel on January 13, 2009 at 7:56 PM

    >Too poor to buy a Kindle. No allegiance to paper whatsoever. Wish I had one super bad. 🙂

  8. D. Gudger on January 13, 2009 at 4:32 PM

    >I want an electronic reader! With a Kindle or whatever brands emerge, my house will no longer be a death trap.

    Pets and small children (I have both) live in constant peril. Death by an avalanche of breaking bookshelves is an extra rider on our home insurance policy.

    My hubby keeps telling me I have too many books. (Silence. Crickets…)

    Huh? There’s no such thing as too many books!

    E readers will save lives and lower homeowner’s liability. 300+ books in a tiny device? Ahhhh!

  9. PB Sumner on January 13, 2009 at 4:01 PM

    >I proofread books for a living, and publishers send me the proofs on paper, not in electronic formats. One problem with computerized print material is the resolution. Computer screens display at 72 or 96 DPI (dots per square inch). But the print on paper is at least 300 DPI, if not more. You can't see the details on a screen as well. And extended reading of a computer screen will harm your eyes because they have to work so much harder to resolve the poor resolution. (How many of you had to get "computer glasses" after a few years working in front your CPU?) Buy & read paper books: save the children's eyes!

  10. Janet on January 13, 2009 at 3:28 PM

    >You are always so sensible. I love level-headed people.

    Except for that annoying flaw of not representing fantasy, of course. I bet a really, really good query could convert you, right?

    Janet, who has yet to write that really, really good query

  11. Shannon on January 13, 2009 at 3:21 PM

    >Fearful that I’d become a Ludite, and not really understanding the growing piles of books in our home, my husband of two years presented me with a Kindle for Christmas. I LOVE it! I can instantly buy any book, any time and at a slight savings over book store prices. I feel good about not killing trees. And it’s always with me so waiting in lines is never annoying.

  12. Julia Weston on January 13, 2009 at 12:36 PM

    >Thanks Rachelle.

    I’m one of the Kindle non-believers. I am all for advances in technology, but there’s an issue that’s keeping me from converting. I hope, I hope, I hope this isn’t a dumb question.

    With eBooks, what’s to prevent the same file sharing/pirating that damaged the music industry? Is that a concern? If so, can the publishing industry afford that kind of hit?

  13. Dara on January 13, 2009 at 12:28 PM

    >It’s fine and I’d perhaps consider getting one when it doesn’t cost so much. It’s too pricey now.

    That and there are a number of hard-to-find books that aren’t available on the Kindle. Also, I’m of the opinion that a book should not require a power source to read 😛

    Not to say it doesn’t have its merits–it would be a great gadget to have if I was an avid traveller. Also, I’m not one for purchasing a book until I’ve read it once through the library first–I’ve been burned too many times with books I thought sounded intriguing and were reviewed high only to find out I couldn’t get through the story. Can you use the Kindle to get ebooks from the library or do you have to purchase them?

    I also cannot picture reading a book to my (future) child on it 😛

    Perhaps in time it’s something I’ll consider, but not any time soon.

    I’ve asked this on another blog, but how would this change the industry if books became solely published electronically and if physical bookstores disappeared?

  14. Lea Ann McCombs on January 13, 2009 at 11:19 AM

    >I think my biggest concern with the Amazon-Kindle connection is the threat of monopoly. As someone pointed out, how will the smaller and even Christian bookstores compete? Will Amazon eventually control our reading options? Once the smaller bookstores go out of business, where will the competition come from?

    So when Amazon or one of the major e-chains refuses to sell certain types of books, will that in effect be censorship?

    I don’t know enough about it to worry, but I do see some potential for abuse and possibly limitiung our reader options in the future.

    Anyone else wonder about that?

  15. Lady Glamis on January 13, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    >I am definitely PRO Kindle. I commented on an earlier post about how much I love it. My parents bought one, and after playing with it, I AM SOLD.

    It’s amazing technology, and so easy and fun to use.

    While at my parent’s house on Sunday, their Kindle actually BROKE. It turned black on black… a blackened screen with the black ink still there…

    So my Dad called Amazon, and they are sending a new one right away! Even though they are currently out of stock for three months, they obviously keep ones on hand for existing customers who have problems.

    So they even have great service! What more could you want?!

  16. Camille Cannon Eide on January 13, 2009 at 10:30 AM

    >I wouldn’t complain about my books being read electronically OR being listened to while cleaning toilets. I would just picture them cleaning MY toilets, Timothy. Because no matter HOW they bought it, there’s more $ for me to hire a maid. :^) (Okay, I’m really not that mercenary.)

    Can’t you picture a mom listening to your book while sitting in the car waiting for her turn to pull up and suddenly bursting into tears when she hears the part where the boy’s dog dies and she’s a mess and can’t move her car ahead and the flagger kid has to wave a security guard over to find out what’s the matter with her? Wouldn’t that be cool? Wouldn’t that picture inspire you to write a powerfully emotional scene?

    When the price comes down and they work out the bugs, I’ll get a Kindle. But where does the autograph go?

    I remember 8 tracks. That monstrous thing held EIGHT songs. My daughter’s new Ipod holds like 30K. But they were better than LPs because you couldn’t scratch them and cause skips, and you could carry them around easier. I played my Carole King Tapestry and Best of ZZ Top till they melted. How’s that for age, Karen?

    I think an 8 track cassette was about the size of a Kindle, come to think of it.

  17. Kristi Holl on January 13, 2009 at 10:27 AM

    >I hope the price of a Kindle goes down soon, as I would certainly buy one for travel. It might be the only place I used it, but the last time I flew somewhere, I had to leave most of my clothes at home so I could take all the books I wanted in my carry-on. I had two pairs of jeans and ten books in there. Next time, I’d like to take several sets of clothes and all the books I want on a Kindle. 😎 As a working writer who depends on her royalties, the piracy issue is a concern, but I try not to worry about things I have no control over. It has never helped!
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  18. Chatty Kelly on January 13, 2009 at 10:21 AM

    >I loved your closing, because really WHO can argue with that?!? I am one who enjoys paper more, but that's because I feel like I stare at a screen enough…PC & TV. So to have something non-glare, non-reflective is pleasant. But I definitely see the time & place for it.

  19. WendyCinNYC on January 13, 2009 at 10:21 AM

    >I’ve been thinking about getting one. My shelves are completely packed with books and I’ve been considering ways to get *rid* of some–not add to the collection.

    I think the Kindle is probably a good thing overall. Wouldn’t the average person who bought one of these devices be likely to read more books, if only because they are so easy to download? I, too, like bookstores and paper and all that, but in the end, it’s really about the story.

  20. Karen on January 13, 2009 at 9:52 AM

    >My Christmas gift was a Sony 505 reader–actually DH got me the 700 to start but we returned it after I saw the difference between the two models. The 700 is more like reading your computer screen. The 505 had the “paper” technology like the Kindle.

    I chose Sony because we travel out of the country a lot. (Lynn, you’re right saves room and weight in the suitcases). The reviews I read on the Kindle said there was a problem downloading books out of the States. I always travel with my computer so it’s not a problem for me to go online to download.

    Gwen, you would love the feel of the reader in your “tiny hands.” It is lightweight and thin. It took a little getting used to pushing a button rather than turning a page but after a while, I was so engrossed in story that I didn’t even think about it.

    Pirates will be pirates–always have been, always will be.

    I could go on but as has been said before, technology will move forward with or without us. I remember hearing many authors complain at conferences about having to buy a computer because editors and agents wanted electronic submissions. And at that reference to my age, I’ll quit.


  21. Linley on January 13, 2009 at 9:26 AM

    >Thank you for the very interesting discussion!

    The one point that seems to be missing here is supporting independent booksellers, if you are still fortunate enough to have access to one.

    The difference between the iPod and the Kindle in that sense is I still can (and do) buy CDs from the local record store and rip them to my computer, but the same can’t be said for books and the Kindle.

    Other than that, good god, that little piece of equipment would make my life easier!

  22. Gwen Stewart on January 13, 2009 at 7:50 AM

    >I have the silliest reason for wanting a Kindle ever. Seriously.

    I have tiny hands. I had to do all kinds of stretching so I could play an octave on the piano.

    Big books hurt my hands, and the Kindle looks slim and light.

    Told you it was a silly reason. 🙂

  23. Jessica on January 13, 2009 at 7:23 AM

    >About piracy, I was looking up Frank McCourt online and would you believe Google has a site with ALL of Angela’s Ashes on it? I was amazed. Maybe it was legal, but it was still weird.
    I do love the feel of books in my hand. I don’t have a Kindle or e-reader, so I don’t know how comfortable they are. But I hate reading for pleasure off my laptop. I can’t lay on the couch the way I like. I can’t sit in the bath and hold it with one hand. I can’t drive and read-uh, didn’t say that.
    Anyways, I’m sure the future is full of great technology, but I’m always going to want something that’s small and comfortable. Same reason I prefer paperbacks.
    Anyways, I hear you about the nerd thing. I raced from lunch every day in order to go to the school library and get more books. Total bookworm. 🙂

  24. lynnrush on January 13, 2009 at 6:48 AM

    >These sound awesome. Mostly for those who travel a lot, I mean, I don’t, but when I am travelling I devour books (with all the waiting around for flights, etc.) If I could store like four or five on this little device, that’d be awesome.

    I’m forever filling my suitcase with thick books….then toting them around.

    But when I’m at home, just relaxing, enjoying a good book, then yeah, I’m one to wants to hold it, smell it, feel the paper….

    There’s room for both. And you’re right, I wouldnt’ complain too much if someone were reading MY book on an e-reader…LOL

  25. Timothy Fish on January 13, 2009 at 6:44 AM

    >For me, I think it is better to have someone reading my work on an electronic reader than to have them listening to it on 8-track. Though I wouldn’t complain about either, as long as they’re doing it legally.

    I know many people like listening to books on tape (or CD or mp3), but I think they are missing part of the experience. The reader I picture in my head as I write is totally absorbed in the story as he reads or as she listens to a friend read. I don’t usually picture a reader who is picking up the kids from school or is cleaning the toilets at home.

  26. Erastes on January 13, 2009 at 4:40 AM

    >It’s not that I consider them to be the enemy but I know that they are not for me for many reasons (I have a big list here, although some are jokey)

    that they aren’t for me. I break electronic equipment. Remote controls last about 3 months. Laptops about six months. Mobile phones? I’m on my second one FOR 2009!

    There are many other reasons, some of which are on that list, but insurance is an issue–as far as I know insurance doesn’t cover them here in the UK yet, the insurance companies have only just admitted that they’ll cover music, and songs are only .40pence each – I don’t know if they’ll ever cover a claim for hundreds of books on an ereader where the books are $5 or so each. I guess if someone kept details of every download, but who does that?

    Piracy is my biggest worry. No-one has every managed to stem to flood of pirated movies and songs, so I can’t see how ebook piracy will ever be addressed, and less effort will go into addressing it, that’s the thing. Hollywood is a massive industry and the studios can mass togther to fight piracy, the DVD market ditto – but where you’ve got many many tiny publishers, all struggling to stay afloat, they aren’t going to have the resources to campaign for improvement of the technology to try and prevent piracy.

    Every day, in my position as Director of the Erotic Author Association, someone emails me about a pirated site where there are hundreds of books being made available to anyone-thousands of pounds of royalties being lost and it makes my blood boil. If you own a paper book you can give it away to one person–not a million people.

    Yes, the technology is here to stay and it’s a great thing for all the reasons you say, but there are drawbacks too. I’m more than happy that my books are available in every format out there–a lot of my readers wait specifically for the ebooks, but I’m not happy that once they get a electronic version, they email to all their friends.

    Oh – and as for the starbucks thing? (laughs) I live in the middle of NOWHERE in Norfolk, UK. I think there’s a Starbucks in Norwich, perhaps, but it’s a long way to go for a coffee. I do feel I’ve missed out on a decade of something, somehow. I WANT to order a complicated coffee!!