Books – the new era

I had a long chat with someone in the publishing business today about how books will be marketed in this new era of e-books. It’s such a rapidly growing technology, I think everyone in the business is feeling a little overwhelmed.

I have a mental picture of someone sitting on horseback watching the first train go by in the  1800s, and knowing that, despite the economy and efficiency of the new technology, and despite the excitement of what’s coming, something will be lost. 

Not that there are no longer any horses, or that radio disappeared with the advent of television. But not everyone has a horse or even a barn, anymore, and that’s a change since my father’s childhood.

My father, now 94, remembers going on a date with his high school sweetheart and having his face slapped — for the first time, as he puts it — when the cutter broke down in the ruts in the old road. Imagine going on a date in a horse and buggy because that was the only form of transportation.

Thinking back on it, I’ve experienced some pretty dramatic technological changes in my own lifetime as well. Just in terms of ‘social media,’ I think I was around nine when we got our first black and white television. Rabbit ears, of course, for reception: maybe one or two channels, tops. 

From that to Blackberries, laptops, and e-books is pretty amazing. But here we are. Hence today’s discussion as to whether e-books  will be marketed through social media, through twitter, podcasts, or by short clips on YouTube and which of those might work best.

For people like my daughter,  who has grown up in the Internet era, all of this probably seems unexceptional. And yet I remember the days when door-to-door salesmen  used to come around, selling encyclopedias and cookbooks. (Milk still came to the door back then, in glass bottles. It tasted different – fresh. Pure. I used to love being the first one out the door in the morning to bring in the milk.)

Sometimes I do feel overwhelmed by all these changes — mostly because I’m so inept at mastering them — and sometimes I long for those simpler days. But I’m reminded of my good friend, George Spangler, a brilliant fisheries biologist who retired recently. He pointed out that when the Ayatollah Khomeini denounced western science, he did so on television, using a microphone to transmit his words.

I wonder how my great grandfather would feel, sitting on that horse, watching that train move faster than seemed possible. If he could even imagine that one day in the future, one of his great grandchildren would be working on  a book that could be  transmitted instantly anywhere in the world, would be talking about how to market it using methods that would have seemed like witchcraft in the Victorian era.

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