The Future of the Book

This weekend I took part in a discussion panel on “The Future of the Book” at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Except that I wasn’t in Virginia. Everyone else was – the other panelists, moderator Kathleen Fowler of ODU, and the audience.

Instead I was sat in front of a PC at the Old Dominion University campus in Bremerton, Washington, taking part in the discussion by Webcam. It’s amazing to think that a piece of equipment costing only a couple of hundred dollars can make possible videoconferencing which used to require tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

With the ubiquity of broadband, this kind of interaction is commonplace.

I’ve been a musician my whole life. One of the instruments I play is the Indian sitar. When I got my very first sitar, back in Scotland in the early 1970s, it was very hard to find an instrument in the UK. I could find only one instruction book. There were no teachers. I had to order my strings by telephone from a store in London.

I bought a new sitar a few months ago – on the Web. For anyone taking up this or any other “exotic” instrument, life’s very different today. You can shop for sitars online. Buy strings and accessories. You can find instructions how how to set up the instrument properly, how to tune and maintain it.

On sites like YouTube you can watch videos of sitar players – the masters, and others maybe less masterful. There are video instruction sessions. There’s even a professor of music at a university in Calcutta, India, who offers online 1:1 sitar lessons by webcam!

There’s a huge amount of information now available to anyone with access to a computer. The sitar is just one example. Pick any topic and you can use the Web to access information you’d never have been able to find before, which would have taken months to track down.

Want to find information on and photographs of the red-footed booby? (it’s a bird). Search the Web. Bought an electronic keyboard secondhand and need the instruction manual? Find it on the Web.

I honestly don’t know how we ever managed without it.

The audience at the conference were mostly writers wanting to find out how to be successful, especially in the digital age. There was a panelist who owned an independent bookstore, and a librarian.

During the panel discussion – to illustrate the change that’s happening – I went online wirelessly with my Amazon Kindle and bought a book. It cost me about $4.00, it was available almost instantly, and I searched the 100,000 or so titles available to find it.

Another illustration of the rapidly-changing world happened last week, when a young Japanese woman won Japan’s premier literary award, the Rashomon Award – their equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize – for her novel published serially in blog format, and read mostly on mobile telephones.

Any time of rapid change is also a time of chaos and confusion. Writers, publishers, editors, bookstores, librarians – everyone involved in the publishing business – we’re all going to have to move quickly, try new things, explore new roles and business models until the chaos settles down.

Maybe it’ll never settle down.

The main piece of advice I had for aspiring writers? Know your audience, then go out and find them. Publishing is now accessible to everyone, and there’s no excuse for not jumping in and seeing if you can make something happen.

In a nutshell: “Go Forth and Blog!”

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