Embracing New Book Formats While Still Loving The Old

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As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sensation of holding Tapeworm in my hands for the first time. When Nate Jordon handed me that beautiful book, I stood absolutely speechless for several minutes. My heart swelled with pride. Sure, I’d been involved with book publication plenty of times before. I’d put out chapbooks of my work twice, and I’d been an editor enough times to know the joy of holding the finished product. But this was a book I’d spent nearly six years writing and editing, and it was all mine. All the weight of those experiences and memories—from sitting in the window of a furnished apartment in Russellville, Arkansas, typing the first lines of “Second Coming” to the looks on people’s faces when I read “Tapeworm” at the Summer Writing Program to the elation of seeing “The Ringing in Her Ears” in print the first time (then the second, then a third)—flooded back to me in that moment.

I had a similar experience the day after Christmas 2013 when Nate handed me The Boy in the Well, though I do suppose that was less of a spiritual high than the first book. Part of it was I had made the trek to Monkey Puzzle HQ in Harrison, Arkansas, with my brother, and he’d never met Nate before, and I didn’t want to leave them to watch me drowning in a sea of self-indulgent reverie. (This did not stop me from taking long, loving glances over at it from time to time.) Part of it too, I suppose, is that I was, for the first time I can remember, almost equally excited about the prospect of my book appearing on Kindle, Google Play, and the other e-reader formats.

Full disclosure: I don’t own any e-readers. I’m not against them (obviously), but I just prefer the experience of holding a book. I enjoy the book as object—when I moved to Colorado, my parents laughed that I had only one chair, two boxes of clothes, and six boxes of books (and two more we couldn’t fit). For as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, I longed for the days of holding a completed book in my hand, and I maintain that there is no experience quite like it. But the reading world has changed, and it will do me no good to hold on to the nostalgia of the past, especially if I have any hope of success as a writer.

People often complain about how we don’t read as much as we used to, and, to an extent, they are correct. People don’t read novels as much as they once did, but they read plenty of shorter stuff. People want quick fixes, and paperbacks and hardcovers take time, both to produce and to ship. A really thick book can also take up a lot of space, which makes it slightly more inconvenient for people who have to travel. You’ve also got to deal with nosy people (like yours truly) looking over your shoulder, trying to figure out what you’re reading.

Things like the Kindle help with this. Readers can access books in seconds, rather than waiting a week for it to arrive in the mail, or the indignity of putting on pants to go find a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Within minutes of posting that The Boy in the Well was live on Kindle, I had Facebook friends posting that they’d purchased it on Amazon. Because it’s cheaper, because it reads quickly, and because it will always be the same size as your tablet or reader, this new format makes it easier to get my work out into the world. Of course, there might still be people reading over your shoulder, but it’s probably only so they can add that new book to their own queue or wishlist.

Nothing can ever replace the book as object, though. I can still autograph paperback copies (like, say, at a release party on January 15) and I’m guessing no one wants me to take a Sharpie to their reading device. And while I’m happy that my writing can get to people faster than ever, it just doesn’t quite have the same charge as holding a collection of stories in my hand and knowing that every word between its covers is mine. I’m not mourning the loss of paper books—I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely—but I do want to take a moment to praise their contributions to the reading experience before fully embracing the digital revolution in publishing.

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