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Interesting Times

March 7, 2010

We welcome guest writer, Jen Brubacher, into the Sunday chair today, while we send well wishes to Paul for a change in fortune from his less than fantastic luck of late.

It’s an interesting time to be a writer.

Since storytelling began there has been one major change to the way we tell our stories, and that was: Writing it down. Stories told out loud, stored only in the storyteller’s head, shifted and changed as their imagination let it. There’s good reason every child must learn that the printing press was one of the major revolutions of the modern world.

Even after writers could physically write their stories down the huge changes didn’t occur until the printing press made mass copies quickly and inexpensively.

But as writers started seeing their work in black and white, put down more or less permanently and able to travel long distances without the writer herself, there was no Internet on which to discuss these developments with other writers. And so there was nowhere to spread the panic.

Gutenberg had it easy.

Now, too, writers have long seen their books on computer screens, usually when they’re writing them, but the rules are being changed by ebook readers and booksellers embracing the new medium. And that panic I was talking about? Oh, it’s in full swing.

The loudest worrying on the Internet seems to be coming from authors who have already gained success publishing via traditional methods, that is: paper books. They see piracy and DRM problems and pricing issues like the Amazon/Macmillan kerfuffle and they throw up their arms and say, “Well, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be! It won’t work this way! We’re all doomed!

Author Cory Doctorow, who is becoming a voice of reason amid the chaos of panic online, gave a speech at the National Reading Summit called “How to Destroy the Book.” He warned that the publishers’ new approach of licensing books rather than selling them is the real threat to the book.

Meanwhile, Apple’s new iPad is being advertised as some kind of ereader device even without solving the back-lit screen eye-strain problems that the Kindle and Sony Reader solved ages ago. And according to some the ebook will not be the death of the book at all, but something even more exciting is going to land the killing blow: the vook or something like it, that uses text, photos, videos, and the Internet together to tell the story. This medium became impossible to dismiss the other day when Anne Rice published a vook short story.

All these developments, changes, and worries lead me right back to my first line: that it’s an interesting time to be a writer, and the old curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

But I’m okay with this. We are entering a stage in the timeline of storytelling when we may define stories by their content rather than the package in which they’re delivered— the story, not the book— a situation paradoxically much closer to aural storytelling than the hundreds of years of “traditional” publication since. The distance between writer and reader is smaller than ever, and though it looks complicated with bells and whistles and vooks, the journey has actually become easier. It has certainly become quicker, less expensive, and less environmentally damaging.

And aside from everything else, all the panic and promise, I’m okay with how things are going because I know one thing to be absolutely true: when I started writing I wrote because of the stories I had to tell. Not the desire to be published or the worry about who would notice. I love my readers but I would keep writing without them. I would have to, and I’m not alone. The publishing industry might destroy itself but we’ll always be here, writing away, drinking our coffee and shrugging our shoulders as if to say, Well, what’s next?

It’s impossible to say what’s next. But the stories will still be told.

Jen Brubacher is a librarian and writer, born in Canada and currently living in London, UK. She writes mystery and suspense novels and participates occasionally in Friday Flash Fiction. She writes about “the writing life from a librarian perspective” at Scribo Ergo Sum. Follow her on Twitter at jen_b.

  1. March 8, 2010 4:16 am

    I can understand published writers being vexed about piracy and pricing issues with the rise of e-publishing – who wouldn’t be? But like most new technology, the innovations will spread more information to more people, which may mean that while writers may miss out of royalty earnings, their stories may have a greater readership. I think if your stories mean more to you than dollar signs that should be a pretty spectacular thought!

  2. March 8, 2010 2:35 pm

    That’s a good point zz. I’d wondered about the statistics for ebook piracy. It seems like the books that are pirated are the ones that have sold quite a bit anyway, ie. it’s actually an indication of success. I’d think little known authors won’t have as much of a problem. But I could be proven wrong.

    There’s definitely some of the “Any publicity is good publicity” element at work here! (Though I’m sure some authors would disagree.)

  3. March 10, 2010 11:21 am

    Dear Jen,

    Great thoughts here. I agree that e-books should be sold, not licensed, but other than that don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about e-book vs print book, etc. Change is always unavoidable. When I start selling my _stories_, I’ll help get them out to as many readers as I can, in the format they prefer.

    And regarding your last paragraphs–you’re right. You’re absolutely not alone.

    “We’ll always be here, writing away, drinking our coffee and shrugging our shoulders as if to say, Well, what’s next?

    “It’s impossible to say what’s next. But the stories will still be told.”

    I feel like cheering!

  4. March 10, 2010 12:24 pm

    As a reader (and a sometimes closet writer) I can assure you that nothing I’ve seen so far has the power to destroy the printed book. I’m so old I remember when TV was predicted to be the end reading for pleasure. I can see when TV will be history while the printed book will endure. Keep writing. Our future generations are counting on you.

  5. March 12, 2010 2:27 am

    Ev, go ahead and cheer! 😉 That’s the way we *should* be approaching writing, anyway.

    And M.Olson, you make me laugh. “So old” indeed! But a great point made. And thank you, I will keep writing!

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