The disappearing book

Jennifer 8. Lee Dec 27, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: Those protests that David just mentioned will take on another life in the pages of books. Historians and writers will offer their own spin on “the rise of the people.”

But, the question is: Will we read those works on paper, or screens or something else? For the next few days, we’re going to hear from several people about what the future might look like. It’s a commentary series we’re calling: “What Now?”

Up first, here’s Jennifer 8. Lee on books.

Jennifer 8. Lee: Bye-bye books. I don’t mean the book as a dead-tree object, whose death has been predicted for decades. I mean the book as the primary unit of publishing — ideas or stories that comes in 250 or more pages and sells for $5.99. $10.99, $24.99. And I really mean “book” as a term. Digital devices like Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook are changing what kinds of things get published. Why do they have to be as long as a whole book?

Truth is, people like buying things for $0.99 and $1.99 for their digital devices. We know that from iTunes. We know that from the app store, and now we know that from publishing. At any given point, if you look at the top 500 best sellers on Amazon Kindle, about a third of them are $3 and below. That’s what people want to pay. So we are seeing an new explosion of companies that are publishing shorter-form things that are designed for lower prices. A lot of it is non-fiction, like super-charged magazine articles that might not have warranted a whole book.

We’ve all read books that shouldn’t have been full book. Like, those books that have numbers in their titles. But the change does have something to cheer about: We can alter the way we tell stories. There are new ways to follow our imaginary characters. In the same way television is different than movies, these new short stories could be different from traditional novels. It could be the return of the novella.

The funny thing is we don’t even really know what to call these things. Don’t call them e-books, a horrible term which, to me, sounds like “horseless carriage.” First because e-anything sounds pretty 1999: eToys, eBay, eHarmony. And secondly, can it be called an eBook if it wasn’t intended to be a book to begin with? You see everyone struggle with what to call these new units of writing: Amazon calls them Kindle Singles, other companies call them “shorts,” Apple calls them Quick Reads. If you know what to call them, please give me a call.

Hobson: Jennifer 8. Lee is a journalist and author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.” Send us your thoughts. Write to us.

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