My response to Stephen King

My response to Stephen King

I’ve been a subscriber to Entertainment Weekly for years, and I read literally every word (well, maybe not all the ads and legal stuff, but the articles).

I was happy when Stephen King started his column, The Pop of King.  Here he is, one of the most loved, most successful authors in the world, and he’ll just shoot the breeze with the readers.  He’ll champion the lesser-known (in music, books, TV, movies…you name it), and I respect him for that.

He clearly consumes pop culture voraciously…for years, he’s been providing blurbs for books he has obviously actually read.  What a great way for a successful person to contribute to someone who might be an up and comer and could use a little boost up the ladder of acceptance.

His most recent column, in the April 2nd edition (it’s not online yet), has this subtitle:

“The Kindle certainly has its charms, but e-reading can never fully replace books.”

Well, I have to respond to that one.  🙂

I could just cheat, and pull out this quote:

“When it comes to reading, the Kindle supplies everything I want…”

If I did that, though, we’d have to remember the famous Manny Farber quotation:

“…context…”

🙂

Instead, I want to address more of what he said. 

King likes his Kindle.  The fact that he put out a unique-to-Kindle title,  UR, concomitant with the release of the Kindle 2, was key in getting it more respect with the mainstream reader.

On the other hand, there have been two negatives with King and the Kindle.

The first major hit was King approving of the “windowing” of his last big book.  Windowing is the publishing term for the delay of an e-book for a considerable time after the hardback is released.   That was a battle that was happening at the time.  The biggest e-book of last year had been released simultaneously: in fact, it sold more initially in e-books than it did in paperbooks (p-books) at Amazon…which we know thanks to the research of Stephen Windwalker of Kindle Nation.

The hardback of King’s book was released in early November: the e-book was delayed until December 24th.

King stated that he approved of the move.  He reportedly said, “My thinking was to give the bookstores a chance to make some money.” 

The difficult thing in that case was that Target and Costco (and Amazon) were selling the hardback for about $9.  Independent bookstores couldn’t match that price very effectively.  Delaying the e-book release certainly could help those megastores, but I’m not sure that people who would have paid $35 for it in an independent store are the same people who wanted to get it in e-book form.

Following that windowing, the practice became more common (although it wasn’t unprecendented at the time).  That’s not necessarily why, of course, but I think that if Stephen King does it, publishers feel more comfortable doing it with other popular books. 

The other major blow involved with King’s books was the switching to blocking text-to-speech access.  That’s not a decision King makes: that’s done by the publisher inserting code into the book.  However, King certainly had the power to say that he didn’t approve of the practice (if he didn’t).  That’s why I’m not naming his book now, or the biggest e-book of last year.  I listened to quite a bit of that book on commutes, and I miss that option with other books King has.  The book’s publisher, Scribner, was not blocking text-to-speech when we got it…they are now. 

What King says is important: readers listen…I know I do.

So, what is he saying in his column?

I have to first take objection to the part of the subtitle that says, “…never fully replace books.”

Well, not objection, because I think it is absolutely true.  Kindles don’t replace books because…we still read books on them.

I know some people see that as semantics, but I think the diminuition of calling e-books “e-books” and paperbooks just “books” implies that e-books ar something different, or smaller.  Books are books, whether you read them on paper or read them on a screen.  That’s why I tend to use the terms “e-books” and “p-books”, to equalize it.  Books are the words of the author.  I know there are a lot of other contributions, both in paper (layout, typography, deckling) and e-books (searching, active tables of contents), and I’m willing to say that the editor is a major contributor in both cases.   But paper or pixels (or E Ink), they are all books.

I like that “Comrade Stevie” (as he says in the article) just wants a dedicated EBR (E-Book Reader) to be about reading.  Yes, the iPad is going to do lots of other things, and people are going to read on it.  But I like that the main focus of my Kindle is reading…I certainly agree with that.

However, when he goes on to talk about some of the more things he would like it to do, I have to comment.

One is the idea that footnotes are difficult to access on the Kindle.  When done properly, they are easier than in paperbooks.  Well, correction: the footnotes become end-notes but outside of that…easier.  I click the number, I go to the endnote.  I read the note, I click Back.  Not that hard.  Now, a short footnote at the bottom of the same page in paper would be easier…and I do think that will be an option in the future (I expect it to work like the dictionary does now).  But if you’ve ever read a footnote that ran across several pages, that’s not a very elegant thing.  An electronic endnote works much better.  That was certainly true in Battle of the Network Zombies.  At least, it was for me.  I don’t find it counterintuitive to read a note and then when I want to go Back, hit Back.  🙂

King also suggests there is consumer resistance to e-books, because they don’t feel present.  He likes the heftiness of a large book (gee, who’d have guessed?). 😉

But don’t we want those books to feel formidable in our minds, not just in our hands?  The power of War and Peace doesn’t come just because it takes a Muscle Beach goer to hold it comfortably.  It’s the sweep and the epic nature.  Believe me, when I see that something has 17,000 locations, I’m just as impressed as when it’s as heavy a small dog.

Another concern in the column is the small size of some images on the Kindle.  Yep, that’s true…it can be tough to read some text inserted as images in a book on a Kindle.   Of course, it can be harder to read all of the text in some p-books…can’t make that print larger. 

One other big point expressed: drop a book in a toilet, and you can dry it out.  You may not be able to do that with your Kindle.  Yes, but drop a flood on your house, and your books are gone forever.  You can’t call up the publisher ask them to send you a replacement copy.  Same thing with fires.  With a Kindle, you can just download download the books again.  You don’t need to buy another Kindle (but honestly, wouldn’t you?).  You can read them on PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPod touches, Blackberrys, and soon, iPads.  I’ve known somebody who lost a library (well, comic books and magazines, mostly) in a fire.  That’s not a problem with e-books.

E-books will save the book business, not “eat” it.  I think they’ll reverse the trend of people reading fewer books.  Profit will increase with lower distribution and production costs.  Those unknown, independent authors?  They’ll have a real chance, with their books being judged on their contents, not as much on the ability of their publishers to supply the “hardwords” to the stores in a convenient way. 

If we step away from the “book business”, and just look at reading, there is no question e-books make books more accessible.  That’s true for people with print disabilities (text-to-speech, the ability to enlarge the text, the physical lightness of the device) and for those with economic challenges.   E-books are bringing the world’s literature to remote locations where it would simply be too expensive to truck in paperbooks (see Worldreader.org).

So, Uncle Stevie, I look forward to reading your future columns, even if I disagree with this one.  P-books may furnish a room, as you suggest…but all books furnish the mind.  E-books just make books more accessible for everyone.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

9 Responses to “My response to Stephen King”

  1. Jeannie Says:

    I agree with your statement that windowing is not an advantage to the bookstores, as per your reference to the $9 selling price in discount stores. I’d add that when Barnes and Noble releases a new book, I can as a member use the coupon B&N sends me just prior to the release along with my membership discount and buy the book there for pretty close to the average 9.99 Kindle price. Borders also send coupons by email which allow me the same price at the checkout counter.
    I often buy books at B&N. I buy books at the local used bookstore, both in print and in audio. I buy books for my Kindle. Buying the books on Kindle has not lessened the amount I spend on other formats – if anything, it’s increased.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Jeannie!

      Thanks also for sharing that!

      I actually represent the other side. I used to buy hundreds of dollars worth of paperbooks every year. Since I’ve had my Kindle (which is back a couple of years), I’ve bought one, I think.

  2. Rob Suggs Says:

    I really tire of the same moldy arguments, mirrored by some of my friends, that it’s not a book unless there is paper and binding. I guess cars didn’t seem so elegant after riding a horse, feeding it, naming it, and hearing it whinny. Sure, point taken; so what? It didn’t mean cars weren’t the next logical step, or that they wouldn’t come to feel perfectly comfortable in their own right. The paper-and-print adulation just feels like stale nostalgia to me, with no pertinent logic. I had hoped we were finally getting beyond that superficial stance, particularly from a forward thinker like King.

    As a writer supported by the book industry, I initially worried a bit with the advent of the e-book, particularly with digital file-sharing. Now I see it as the shakeup we need. Traditional publishing houses had grown far too conservative, too turf-reactive. E-books are doing two things: 1) democratizing who gets to be an author, and 2) creating new possibilities for the reading experience itself. New ideas, and the return of old ones (Dickensian serials, for example, which weren’t economically feasible as recently as King’s “The Green Mile,” come to mind; there’s no reason you couldn’t release a novel by 500-word-bites on a daily basis; people could “live with the novel” in enticingly tiny doses, while still reading the books they were already into).

    Writers can break out, win with fresh thinking, and so can the book form itself–just when it seemed tired and played out. Novellas, a wonderful format, will have a resurgence. And yes, multimedia offers new possibilities for insertion smack dab into the reading experience. Books could end up having their own sound track music; why not? Electronic delivery opens new worlds, just as movies did for theater.

    But in the end, story-telling, the kind as old as Homer or Genesis, will rule. It has seen us through campfire tale-swapping, stone chiseling, cuneiform, and paper. Surely it can weather one more reinvention.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Rob!

      I think your points are very well made!

      I’d say that, in addition to nostalgia, there is a carefully-sold idea that “fine books” show that you are in the upper class. I think the literati were dismayed by the introduction of movable type and inexpensive paperbacks. When we would see a commercial for a “Great Books” type series, it was as though you were buying fine art. They didn’t show us someone reading the book, or talk about the content…it was the hand-tooled leather.

      I don’t think people consciously think this way, but I think there is a resistance to the democratization of books (for readers as well as authors).

      As to serialization, that was the idea behind one of my blogs, 221B Blog Street ( http://sherlockblog.wordpress.com ). I’ve been sending out the original Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories…one chapter or story a day. It hasn’t taken off, but I have had some passionate comments from people enjoying it. I think that’s definitely going to be part of the mix in the future…as it was with some of the great literature in the past.

      I think multimedia will work particularly well with non-fiction, but there certainly will be people who enjoy fiction with it as well. It will be interesting to see stories that advance both through written words and through video. Writing can give us the inner monologue for a character in way the visual media can’t do as well. I can see a book where we get twenty pages of, say, a detective thinking about life. Then, you get a one minute video of a fight scene (which can be very hard to do well in words), then back to the writing as the detective considers what the fight means.

      There will be people who hate that idea, of course. 🙂 It may depend a bit on whether one thinks of it as a movie with added literature or literature with added video.

      As you point out, books are books…it’s not about the delivery method. For those who see the as a great monster, the question is, “Why?” Why don’t you want books to be read by more people in more places at more times? I especially like that e-books can help those who have print disabilities or economic barriers. I love my paperbooks…I love having one hundred year old books on my shelves. But a lot of people couldn’t enjoy those books…because they couldn’t find a copy, afford a copy, or hold and read it if they did. I don’t thrill to my exclusively having something: I want everybody to have it.

      Thanks again!

  3. Rick Askenase Says:

    I read my first pBook since I got my Kindle DX last June. No kidding. It was a paperback. It felt small, and I HAD to read it with my glssses on. I didn’t miss reading pbooks at all.

    Reading on kindle is such a pleasure. Forget travel or commuting (neither of which I do much of). Just sitting at home and reading on my DX is the only way for me to read. AND, I’ve been playing with Instapaper and Calibre for some magazine/web articles as well.

    Do I miss paper books? NO WAY. But I will welcome a color screen (I’m an old comic book fan, and hope to replenish my collection by pdf scans of classic comics that I can read on my DX or iPad. Listening Marvel?)

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing again, Rick!

      The last book I bought on paper was the Herbie Archives (volume 1) from Dark Horse. Herbie (the “Fat Fury”) was a great, now little known, comic…you may be familiar with it. 🙂 I loved reading it again, and it wouldn’t have worked at all on my 6″ Kindle. However, that doesn’t make me want to read paper more…it makes me want an EBR (E-Book Reader) that can handle it. 🙂

      My guess is that the iPad will be pretty well-suited to reading comics, and we’ll see serious content for it in that area. ‘Nuff said, true believers? 😉

      • Rob Suggs Says:

        Big Herbie fan here. Definitely a one-of-a-kind comic book. My teenage son is now a Herbie guy as well. “Gonna bop you with this here lollipop.”

        Tablets (I’m not going to just say iPad; we all make it too easy for Apple) will definitely make a comic book renaissance possible.

        By the way, re: Apple, I see Newsweek has another fawning Apple cover. This has gone on for years with them. When iPods were knew, I once counted something like five straight weeks with articles about the iPod and how wonderful it was. Some of this is because of Steven Levy, the writer who seems to live inside Jobs’ back jeans pocket. I often wonder whether Apple really creates the hype, or whether the hype creates Apple.

      • bufocalvin Says:

        Thought you might be. 🙂

        I remember going to a convention years ago, and there were people with Herbie buttons…they called themselves “Herbvangelists.” 😉 It wouldn’t surprise me if we get a movie at some point (undoubtedly 3D). Updated, most likely, although it would be funny to see it done with LBJ shown in office. 😉 Herbie fits right into the current slacker comedies, and he’s a superhero…seems like a good box office combination.

        I understand the desire to say tablets, but I was addressing specifically the iPad. 🙂 The joojoo looks interesting to me, but the iPad will drive content for a while in that segment.

        Ah, I love it when we pass our culture down to our offspring! Always impressive, but becoming less so as the culture flattens out chronologically (through unprecedented exposure to the pop culture of earlier decades). I have to say, though, I was driving my offspring and some high school friends. I was playing a CD I made with short little sound clips from movies and TV (short enough to be fair use…and I don’t sell it or copy it). One of them recognized Bob Hope’s voice! I told my offspring that they could marry that one. 😉

        Apple has had a great track record, although they aren’t all successes (Newton, anyone?). I don’t think we can just credit the hype for that. By concentrating on making things easier to use, they’ve created some great devices.

        Thanks again for writing!

  4. Round up #171: XBOOKS, Stephen King’s latest horror | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] My Response to Stephen King […]

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