February 14, 2011

Digital literary transience


A recent thread on Joe Konrath's blog strayed from the subject of ebooks to why CDs continue to exist, and whether they are are a metaphor for the old-fashioned (paper) book or the new-fashioned ebook.

I still buy CDs, but as a backup storage medium. I don't even own an MP3 player, but rip everything. Also, CDs are pretty, shiny things that make nice gifts (a lingering technical and aesthetic problem with MP3s and ebooks).

As I discuss here, CDs continue to dominate the (legal) market in places like Japan because distributors like Sony go to extraordinary lengths to protect their CD cartel, even if that means condoning piracy elsewhere.

But I also consider music to be a fundamentally different form of entertainment than books and even movies. It comes down to a balance between the transience of the experience and the permanence of the medium.

Most books (movies) I'll read (watch) only once. But I may listen to a CD hundreds of times. This abstract sense of "permanence" does lend itself to a more physical presence. A CD I listen to only once is a waste of money.

Hence the proliferation of MP3 singles. The market has priced a single music track at $.99. Listen to it sixty times and that's two to three hours of entertainment for a buck, or about what I'd expect out of the typical novel.

When I was growing up, any purchased or gifted book was widely shared, and often ended up donated to the local library. The library, in turn, regularly cleared its shelves of worn and unread books for pennies on the dollar.

So the amortized per-read price again ended up around a buck.

Modern technology has brought us back to the future--to a time when "escapist" literature (including literary fiction) was exemplified by the "penny dreadful" and "dime novel"--and has priced our entertainment accordingly.

Dean Smith argues in turn that writers should take as their models the "men and women who wrote for the pulps and slicks" during the first half of the twentieth century. Maybe the last fifty years were the aberration.

The new norm is the old norm. Nothing really goes away. It falls out of fashion for a while before getting re-branded and repackaged, then goes niche and upscale, like musicians who make a point of selling LPs.

For that matter, you can still buy buggy whips. Though looking at the "Customers Who Bought Related Items Also Bought" section, you might conclude that they're not all being used as originally intended.

There's a metaphor in that too. The bound, paper book will be with us for a long time to come, though probably not as Johannes Gutenberg originally intended.

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