I was given a Little Mermaid singbook as a gift once. It came with an electronic side panel attached to the book’s binding and adorned with vertical images and buttons, so that I could turn the pages and press the buttons that corresponded to the illustrations in the text. All of this made reading fairly interactive for the five year old me who fell in love with the character Sebastion because he sounded like some of the men in my mostly West Indian neighborhood.
Years later, and still a dedicated reader, I work at a publishing company and have the breakdown of how much a book like that cost to make. The months of planning, the back and forth between interior design and copyediting, the time art directors spend picking out the right shades of reds, blues and greens, the marketing and sales pitches to the buyers, the distribution, marketing, and publicity plans. Elements (though there are many more) which create the price point of the tangible product: The book.
With the unveiling of the new Kindle DX this week—it’ll be many years before this $400 plus device makes it into the hands of the average consumer—publishers have been dealing with, among other things, the lack of perceived value a downloadable novel has over its physical predecessor. And then there’s also the piracy. And the recent consumer petition against raising the price of ebooks.
This all feels grim, for writers and publishers alike, but what are the possibilities for readers? What if my adult content could be just as interactive as it was when I was a kid? While reading Edward P. Jones, Lost in the City, my ebook would be filled with links to the heavily referred to streets of DC. I could learn about Janie’s dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Or listen to Malcolm X’s speeches as I read through his autobiography.
What if I can have all of this housed on one hand-held device, a la iPod, without the nuisance of an internet connections and cable lines? What if I only want a portion of a collection, a chapter in a reference book? A.O. Scott portends that much in an article meant to “Praise the American Short Story”:
just as the iPod has killed the album, so the Kindle might, in time, spur a revival of the short story. If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?
There’s no answer to the digital question, but how publishers decide to adapt, that is, reshape and disseminate the package won’t change the inherent value of a good book , a great article, or the story that makes you a life-time reader.