“Amazon is intent on completely destroying the publishing industry.”

My English professor dropped this bomb at the beginning of our Senior Seminar class last week. Fifteen of us sat doe-eyed around the large table, shifting in our seats uncomfortably as we tried to take in his assertion. We all had one, maybe two or three, books in front of us. Tucked up under the table, our bags and backpacks overflowed with more. In the back of our minds, we knew that technology was slowly edging into the reading market. But were Amazon and other electronic book vendors draining the lifeblood of the publishing industry? My personal guilt over owning a Kindle, which I thought I had permanently suppressed, suddenly bubbled to the surface. I quickly reconciled my conscience by reminding myself that several others in the class were proud parents of e-readers as well.

Owning a Kindle has never, ever changed the way I feel about books. My Kindle is convenient, but the slim screen has never provided me with the same sense of enjoyment as holding a crisp new book between my palms. Books have scents, cover images, margins for notes, pages on which I can underline words that grab my heart. Could anything ever truly replace books?

Amazon thinks so. Some of the statistics my English professor provided us with were astounding. Purely on the business side of things: if a writer enters a typical contract with a publishing company, he is looking at receiving between 10-15% royalty. If this particular writer, however, decides he doesn’t need a hard copy of his book (or an editor or producers or marketers) and simply wants to make his book available on Amazon.com in electronic format, he will automatically get 70% royalty. 70 PERCENT. Apparently, that’s what happens when all the middlemen get axed.

And speaking of the middleman, think of how efficiently Amazon is replacing professional buyers. E-books will never sell out! Of course, this unlimited access to material will undermine the laws of supply and demand. But libraries everywhere are already installing measures to limit the amount of electronic books lent out at a particular time (yes, you’ll still have to get in line when the latest John Grisham hits the shelves).

I feel whiplash from the force with which technology has accosted the literary world. I am shocked/awed/dazed… but not entirely appalled by Amazon’s takeover. Part of me is intrigued to see what sort of side effects this new stage of literary evolution will produce. I am completely at peace with the conveniences that technology has brought about. My bag is always ten pounds lighter, now that my Kindle has replaced my usual load of books. Of course, I will never give up my personal collection. I adore books– the feel, the smell, the memories contained between the covers. I’m a librarian, for goodness sakes!

And so it seems that everything boils down to this: are we, the literary audience, captivated by stories or the books in which they are featured? Is it really all about the “packaging”? I like to think there is something. Something beautiful and salient between the pages. It makes me wonder… did anyone ever regret the loss of the scroll? or of the artfully illuminated manuscript? In all fairness, books are a far cry from their literary predecessors. What makes us so fond of these machine-made and mass-marketed things?

While these questions are interesting to ponder, they are hardly foremost in my mind as I turn the page at the climax of a novel. Maybe it is appropriate to have a preference for “packaging”. But page or screen, codex or scroll, as long as I am completely captivated by the story, I will be content.

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