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The Future of Printed Literature: A Digital Dilemma

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On July 18, 2011 came the announcement that Borders, the second largest book retailer in the United States would close its doors for good following a chapter 11 filing and the liquidation of more than 200 stores on American soil. Borders, a favorite store of mine since early childhood, didn't have the financial leverage to keep up with competitors Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
As a young girl entering a Borders store, I came to associate the brand with learning and escapism, and of course the soft lighting, aroma of coffee, and contented people browsing the shelves that were a staple in my local branch. It was a place I came to think of as "mine," where I could go to focus intensely or lose myself entirely. Later, it became a place I would associate with music as well as literature, as I entered my teenage years and spent equal time in both sections of the store. Borders became a place that I identified as an extension of the literature I held so close to my heart, and thus, the most influential brand of my early years. 20 years after entering a Borders for the first time, I work with words as an editor, and still remember the chain fondly. And perhaps because of my professional position, it comes as no surprise that the chain is closing.  

As of May of this year, Amazon's book sales are primarily electronic, meaning that the bulk of literature purchases are through the company's branded e-reader Kindle, versus print. Barnes & Noble recently debuted their own e-reader the Nook, and I wonder if they would have found themselves in a position similar to Borders had they not gone digital as well.  

As an executive in the publishing industry, I am well aware of the daunting and often prohibitive costs associated with publishing printed material. Especially in the digital age. What remains a highlight of my reading experience -- and a point of professional pride -- however, is the feel of a book in my hands and the smell of freshly printed pages as I turn them. As a passionate consumer and publishing insider, I know how much sweat is put into each product that winds up on the shelves; the words and imagery within books are just the starting point. 

Reading is a visceral experience, which to me is as important as the story itself. When I purchase a printed book, I own it. When I purchase an e-book, I feel like I'm borrowing someone else's intellectual property. It's an intangible thing that is as fleeting and ephemeral as the time it takes me to read it. I've found that with e-books, I don't form an emotional connection to the literature... no matter how well written. Which isn't to say that I don't own a Kindle -- I do. I laud the virtues of the Kindle, but not at the expense of the printed book. And as for a comparison, there simply isn't one. The e-book is about convenience, the printed book is about ownership and identity. 

My prediction for the future of the printed word, is that it will become an article of rarity and reverence -- similar to fine art. I foresee the book becoming something only available -- like a Matisse or Picasso -- to the echelon of individuals who are lucky, smart or savvy enough to find themselves in the top tax bracket and in close proximity to these relics. I envision a world where printed books are sold primarily through auction, specialty boutiques and eventually even a black market, and the majority of people pick up their literature casually through digital platforms such as the iPad, Kindle, Tablet and Nook

Interestingly enough, in my segment of publishing--luxury coffee table books-- sales are on the rise. As are the sales of used books, which along with the e-content sold on Amazon, according to Publishers Weekly are dominating the book trade market. I appreciate the high demand for luxury products like the books my company produces, but also fear printed literature becoming so rare that it is unobtainable to most people. Costs to produce books are high and many printers do not want to take on short production runs. In the publishing world, anything less than 10,000 copies is considered a "small run." That makes it difficult for a boutique to produce specialty books. It also drives retail prices up considerably. Mine is a daily struggle to come to a compromise: how do I make well produced informational literature available to everyone who wants access to it?  

Literature is, at its very essence, the sharing of ideas and a historical record of cultural, political, scientific, etc. interests. For roughly 4,000 years, beginning with the ancient Babylonian epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh, to the most recent breakouts in literary pop culture such as Kathryn Stockett's, The Help or Taschen's The Big Butt Book, we as consumers are carrying on the tradition that has sparked some of the most important leaps in modern history. Gutenberg's printing press, invented approximately 1440, was the answer to slow method of spreading news or ideas. More than 500 years later, e-readers present a rapid fire way to acquire literature, but I'm not sure it's an accurate method of sharing. How can we identify with something that exists only within the murky depths of a machine. Literature within an e-reader is a vaporous enigma, that provides a fleeting distraction at best. 

I purpose that printed literature is valuable enough that it should be celebrated and revered, even, now -- as an item of great cultural and historical value before it becomes a rarity on the verge of extinction. Lets lose printed literature before acknowledging its true worth.