More on Technology and Reading

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of libraryman.

By Rachael

Building on the discussion GayAsXmas started below about reading trends and technology, I think it’s worth pointing out that last week ended up being a fairly significant one in terms of innovations with e-literature. First, The Atlantic announced its new partnership to publish short fiction exclusively to the Kindle, and secondly, several of the major publishing houses decided to delay releasing their titles to e-readers.

My take on the Atlantic/Kindle partnership, is colored by the facts that 1 – I’ve never used the Kindle, and 2 – I work for The Atlantic, and proofread several of the fiction pieces that are about to go on sale. (I should also point out that in no way do I speak in any sort of official capacity for the magazine on these matters.)

The Atlantic used to run short fiction every month in its pages, but for the past few years has sold a newsstand-only summer fiction issue. The Kindle partnership will greatly expand not only the number of authors and stories we can publish, but will also allow for more innovation in the kinds of pieces we can offer – for example, one of the first stories to go for sale is “Cynara”, by Christopher Buckley. It’s an engaging and very funny piece – I don’t think I looked up once while reading it – but at 15,000 words, it would have never fit into a print publication. And while initially there was some concern as to how authors would react to selling their work in such a non-traditional format, the response has been very positive – Edna O’Brien told the New York Times, “I’m totally open to acquainting myself with all that’s modern out there” and Curtis Sittenfeld pointed out that “had she sold it to a small academic journal, it would have had ‘limited distribution anyway.'”

So in many ways, it’s fantastic that the print magazine has been able to forge this kind of partnership, and explore new ways to use digital technology to honor content, rather than cheapen it. But my curiosity comes from the idea of selling authors and stories a la carte – what kind of shifts in the publishing industry will result from that precedent? Earlier this year, when Steven King sold a story exclusively to the Kindle, it was a successful enterprise because of his celebrity, but it’s easy to see that such an arrangement wouldn’t similarly benefit an unknown author, no matter how talented. With The Atlantic arrangement, consumers are in part paying for The Atlantic’s brand, and the knowledge that the stories have been carefully currated and edited by thoughtful experts. But will this continue to be the case? Will the Kindle become a kind of iTunes for literature, and if so, what will we gain, and what will we lose along the way?

This precedent is one reason why publishers like HarperCollins, Penguin, and Simon & Schuster are delying their e-book publications, along with concerns over timing and pricing. “Each new e-book represents a potential new marketing opportunity at a time when we need every possible hook to get consumer attention,” Brian Murray, chief executive of HarperCollins, told the Wall Street Journal. But he went on to say that if new hardcover titles are sold as $9.99 e-books, it will result in fewer literary choices for customers, because publishers will be disinclined to take chances on new writers.

GayAsXmas worries that the rise of e-readers will making reading more of a private, rather than social activity. While I’m not sure I agree with that – a certain amount of group-think and social media interaction will shape what texts and authors successfully make the digital transition, and new e-readers will have library and share features built into their programming – I do wonder about the impact of this technology on the content itself, and whether the diversity and quality of our options will expand or shrink in the process. Once she returns, I’ll be quite interested to hear what our hostess has to say on this point, given that she is a devoted Kindle user…