Wednesday, July 21, 2010

E-books: Love'em or hate'em?

Digital Revolution Hits Home 
Technology foisted itself on me for the first time many moons ago. It struck like a taser when I toiled as a sergeant in California in the early 1990s. 

My watch commander—several years my junior—sauntered up to my desk as I wrote out the night’s duty roster for swing shift. I felt him breathing hard as I diligently wrote down names and duties of those officers about to venture out into the night to protect and serve. Once I wrote this all down, I’d walk to the photocopy machine and make enough copies to rival LA’s phone book. Then, I trudged from office to office—or send my emissary—to make sure everyone got their copy. 

I looked up at my towering boss and wisely stifled my irritation. I looked closer. Was that flecks of fear dancing in my lieutenant’s eyes?

He coughed. “Mark, this is your last night.”

My eyes narrowed. Slowly I rose. “Last night? I've got another ten years before I pull the pin. What are you—?

"—no, you got this wrong." The lieutenant cast a wary eye on my 40-caliber Smith and Wesson strapped to my waist. I saw him stare at my right leg with a worried look. He knew about my little 40-caliber Sig tucked in an ankle holster on my leg. . 

He was walking on dangerous ground.

I  still had not consumed my quota of coffee and I had a long, dreary night ahead. My in-basket looked like the tower of Babel before God created a need for bi-lingual education. Several days ago, this same boss ordered me to stay in the office until I got caught up on paper work. Another conversation where I narrowed my eyes like Dirty Harry. 

To his credit, he never caved in. Not then. Not now.

He thrust a finger at my roster, his new lieutenant's bars sparkling like chunks of gold under white-neon lights.  “No more paper and pen. Tomorrow ... use the computer. You can send it to everyone with one push of the button. Saves time and money.”

I glanced with contempt at the computer monitor some IT geek plopped on my desk a few months ago. “I don’t even know how to turn that ... thing on.” In fact, I wasn't sure whether they even plugged it in. Cob webs danced across the key board.

“I’ll get somebody to help you.” He turned to leave. "Everyone else is doing it, Mark. Time stops for no man. Law enforcement is changing."

I glared at him without saying a word. After all, he is  my boss and momma didn’t raise a fool. 

The next day I crossed over into the digital world silently kicking and fighting. No one seemed to care. They were too busy trying to get their own computers turned on.

And now I write a blog. I’m a writer and I spend a good chuck of each day navigating this new technology as I try to write the next great American novel, or least a crime mystery that will give Michael Connelly a run for his dinero.

This is a long, twisty way of getting to the issue at hand. E-books.

Last week, I took another major step and bought a Nook reader from a coat-less salesman hiding behind a display at Barnes and Noble. As I walked up to the salesman, I thought I may have seen fear in his eyes. He reminded me of that lieutenant, only this guy was much younger. And he didn't carry a gun. Didn't need to—he had a Nook.

Alfred—not his real name—came armed with a lot of information that sounded like Greek and which almost went over my head. I say almost because he uttered just enough common English to suggest we spoke the same language. He pointed toward a pink-backed Nook perched on the counter. I glanced at the machine with disdain..

Alfred took a big breath and started in about a reading screen with 600 by 800, reflective high resolution E Ink electronic paper display. He must have seen my eyes glaze over. I heard him sigh before saying, “It reads just like a book.”

“Oh. Wow.” That was about all I could utter, still struggling to figure out if there was some common word in all this I might be able to grab onto. My wife, Katie—who speaks Geek-eze—stepped  in and took over the conversation. They finished talking. I walked out with a Nook tucked under my arm.

One might ask why I—a low tech kind of guy—would cave in and buy an E-book reader?

Short answer: I may be a dinosaur, but I see the handwriting on the wall for writers and readers. Even cavemen could read cave drawings. E-books are changing the way we do business as writers.

No one likes to lug around a ton of books on vacation or pay a small fortune on a novel to find out whether they like the guy’s writing. They like to sit on an airplane and thumb to their favorite novels with a tap on the screen without suffering carpal tunnel injuries. They like getting their newspaper, magazine and latest news in seconds. They don't like to travel miles to enter a store or wait for snail mail to ship book orders.

In an online article yesterday by The Wall Street Journal, Amazon's CEO Jeff Bezos announced his company sold more e-books than hardbacks over the last three month. Publishers, however, say it is too early to determine whether e-book sales are impacting the paperback books trade, a significant slice of the publishing pie. Representatives for such digital readers as Barnes and Noble's Nook, Sony's e-reader, and Apple's iPad indicate sales of their  e-reading devises are climbing significantly--whatever that means. Bezo stated that Kindle sales have tripled since the company lowered it price to $189 from $259, although he did not mention whether B&E's earlier move to lower the Nook price to $149 had any impact on Amazon's decision.

Here is the point: E-books will change the face of traditional publishing.

I admit I'm still a dinosaur. I still yearn for the days when I could write out my duty roster with paper and pen. I miss the days when a dispatcher sent us out on the next call without the officer having to stop and read a computer screen. And I enjoy walking into my neighborhood book store, sniffing the print, and losing myself in a world of history, mystery and suspense. 

My pen-and-ink rosters are long gone. They're never coming back. Police work has changed in so many ways, and my hat is off to those younger cops out there fighting the good fight.

Time stops for no man.

I hope my bookstore days won’t disappear. But I see our culture changing. I see the younger generation thumbing and tapping their messages to friends on gadgets so small I have to breakout my reading glasses just to see what they are using. I see a publishing world trying to cope with these changes, and I see brick-and-mortar book stores fighting to stay in the game.

This is what I see as an aspiring novelist looking at the publishing world from the outside. This publishing industry has been turned upside down by economics, technology, and culture. In this vortex, aspiring authors feel like salmon fighting upstream searching for a beachhead, looking for someplace to plant one's self before launching further. (Okay, salmon might not be the best analogy since they swim upstream and die. But you get the point, right?)

I suspect published authors might have similar thoughts, trying to survive within a traditional publishing model while searching for ways to spread their wings in non-traditional ways—e-books, pod casts, webinars, trailers for new books, and whatever else the digital community offers.

This is change. And change can be exciting.  I see writers using their creativity to build  their own platform, their own readership, their own markets. I see some writers taking more and more control over what hits the market, when it hits, and how it hits. 

Let us not get caught like the dinosaurs in a new ice age of traditional thought and stagnation. Let us learn to adapt and change, while still clinging to that part of tradition worth holding on to.

We cops still use black and whites to get to calls. Detectives still interview suspect and witnesses. The tools have changed but the past blends with the future for a purpose. It is how we move forward. It is how things work. 

How about you? Ebooks—Love them or hate them?

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