I love my books. I’ve got a lot of them and they range from faded little Janet and John books from the 1960s right up to signed first editions by my favourite crime authors. Between those extremes exists a vast range of books covering subjects such as psychology, history, cookery, childcare, magic, drama, travel etc., etc., etc. My tastes are, and always have been catholic, and authors that sit (as it were) on my shelves include: Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd, Sax Rohmer, Phil Rickman, Ian Rankin, Roberto Bolano, Jeremy Seal, Alan Moore and Josephine Tey. I love reading, I love books and I would rather part with the cooker than with my library.
However, and this is by no means news, I keep on seeing people wandering around with e readers. When I first saw them they just annoyed me and I managed to deal with their readers by keeping a dignified distance from them. But e readers have been around for some time now and so clearly sticking my nose in the air isn’t having any sort of effect upon their sales. Also, and even though I want to beat myself senseless for saying so, I have to admit that they are convenient. Whenever I travel I have to take at least four books with me and they take up space and weight allowances. Whatever you may think of them, in many ways, e books do make sense. But is making ‘sense’ necessarily a good thing? Taken to its ultimate conclusion, all books will eventually become handy, convenient e books and our shelves will empty out of yellowing, slightly smelly paper inside a generation. To someone like me, who loves all that old fashioned, heavy and unwieldy stuff that, truly, is a vision of horror.
But if that does indeed come to pass, where if anywhere, will conventional books go? One idea that I unearthed last year when I was in Detroit presented both a depressing and a very hopeful solution.
Up by Wayne State University, Detroit there is a small independent bookshop called Leopold’s. Run by a young guy called Greg it specialises in cult books, books with local interest content and books as works of art or ‘loved objects’. These are books that are not ‘just’ text or illustration but can also be viewed as works of art in and of themselves. Some have pop up elements or textural differences within them, some come in weird and funky shapes or can fold down to almost nothing. I bought a beautifully decorated box of American short stories for my son, limited editions that you will find nowhere else. My son was delighted and Greg made a sale for authors who will not make a fortune out of their collective work of art but will be able to carry on doing what they do. To have a look at what Leopold’s has to offer go to email@example.com.
However, what we’re talking about here is survival and that doesn’t usually pay the bills. If the whole e book scenario is handled by publishers so that both they and authors can continue to survive then it will be happy days all round. If it isn’t and books go the way of music then how any but the most famous authors will survive I don’t know. Artists have to be paid and, if they aren’t (unless they are independently wealthy) then they can only continue if they get other jobs to fund their ‘habit’.
That said, however, there is a sting in the tail for any potential readers who download books for free which has become apparent recently in the music industry. As the actor Bruce Willis (who should know better) has recently found out, downloaded music does not belong to you. What he put into his music collection for nothing isn’t his and so he can’t pass it on to his children when he dies. Quite what the law says about free e book downloads and who they belong to, I don’t know. But if anyone out there does know then I’d be interested to learn what that is. I suspect that whatever it may be, it will underline the old adage that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. Because there isn’t.