"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Here's my version of a de-brief.

I've been back from the Southern California Writer's Conference for a week now, and I'm just beginning to get it all processed in my brain. Part of this is because I came down with a cold on Saturday evening and am still in the residual-congestion phase, which makes it hard to concentrate. Part of it is because I spent too many late nights in the bar with everyone, cold and all, and my bio-rhythms get all wacky when I disrupt my schedule. And part of it is because I had so many interesting discussions with so many smart people, my mind goes down a million rabbit holes when I think of any of the topics we covered.

The cold was unfortunate on a couple of levels. For one thing, cold meds hamper your taste buds as well as your drinking, and the Crowne Plaza has a fun sushi bar. The only thing I could really taste was the spicy tuna. Yum. For another, Dale joined me on Saturday for a romantic evening, in honor of Valentine's Day. I'm afraid I was passed out on Sudafed instead.

The worst part of having a cold was that I was on a debut writer's panel on Sunday. Five of us were supposed to be talking about what our experience was like, being newbies, and what we wished we had known before we jumped into the publishing waters. The wonderful Cricket Abbott asked us questions first, then opened the floor to questions from the audience.

I've been on a panel before, and knew I had a tendency to be a mike hog, so I was careful to give short, yet clever, answers.

Here's the thing: the lady next to me couldn't stop talking. I'm not trying to disparage her; some people can't say in one word what they can say in ten. That's why their editors are so vital. But when you're on cold meds and the person next to you is talking so much that they begin to sound like they're kind of droning, you start looking around the room to see who's here and thinking about what you're going to have for dinner and before you know it, the microphone is in your hands and you've forgotten what the question was.

And you can't ask, "What was the question?" because everyone will know you think the previous author was talking too much and then it becomes embarrassing. So instead, I either gave an answer that covered all the bases, hoping I'd get lucky, or I just mumbled that I was on cold meds and gave some vague response. At any rate, I'd like to apologize for sounding like an idiot at various points during the session (in between bursts of brilliance, I'm sure).

I'd tell you lots of "late nights at the bar" stories, except I've been sworn to secrecy for most, and what happens in San Diego stays in San Diego. I'll give you one snippet: track down Gordon Kirkland or Rick Ochocki, and ask them to tell you the story of what happens when a serial prankster (Gordon) and the nicest guy in southern California (Rick) play a prank in the men's room. I heard the story twice, on consecutive nights, and laughed, in convulsive, weeping guffaws, each time.

Now then, for the deep discussions part: one of the guest speakers was David Mathison, former vice president of Reuters News Service, who sold 5,000 copies of his book, Be the Media, in a single day, as the result of one Tweet. Before all my author friends run off to the liquor cabinet, let me say that there was a lot of luck to his exceptional feat. He's a man who travels in the mid-to-upper stratospheres of society and has Facebook and Twitter friends who can say, "Hey, David, come up to the golf tourney this weekend and let's talk about a mass distribution of your book to my legions of students." And he has canned DMs (Direct Messages) he sends out to anyone who follows him - something I dislike - but apparently works when you're up with the Big Boys.

At any rate, his message was pretty simple: "The containers are dying, but the contents will always remain." In other words, LPs went to tapes, both cassette and 8-track, then to CDs, and now we're buying MP3s and iTunes. We didn't stop wanting music. We just changed the container it comes in. He thinks the same thing will happen to books. People still want to be told a good story, but the tactile experience of holding paper in their hands isn't as necessary as the words. He thinks we will all arrive at e-books, eventually.

Michael Steven Gregory (Executive Director of SCWC) and I sat in the bar (amidst a cast of thousands) and talked about the speaker's words. Michael was bemoaning the fact that, as a society, we are spending all of our disposable income on things we don't actually own. We don't own the recordings on our TiVo. We don't own our iTunes. This was recently evidenced when Amazon pulled all the Orwell books from everyone's Kindles because of some copyright question. He wanted to know what I thought.

You know me. I've always got an opinion.

"Our first experience with books starts with cloth books we can chew on, then we go to the thick board books, pop-ups, books with fluffy bunnies we can touch and flowers we can scratch and sniff. This prepares us for the experience of hard covers and thin pages. How are we going to replace those early learning tools electronically, so that the Kindles and nooks and eReaders are as second-nature to us?"

Michael, as usual, waxed philosophic. "Hell if I know."

So, my minions, what do you think? Will the container(s) for our words ever become as invisible as the containers for our music? At what point will society ever look upon books the way we look on old 78s?

Now you know why I go to this conference.


Helen Ginger said...

I think things will change over time. My grandmother may have loved churning milk by hand. I'm happy buying it at the grocery store. I love holding a book; my son, although a voracious book reader, is happy and adept at getting stories through games online. Link and Mario had stories to them. Now thousands of young people play online games which are stories. Stories that the players contribute to, change, and become. Young kids go online to sites that present interactive stories. People read stories on their phones, laptops and e-Readers. In my lifetime, there will always be print books. Generations to come may only see them in libraries or museums. Who knows? But I do believe there will always be stories, in some form.

Straight From Hel

Gayle Carline said...

I have a 17-year old son, so I understand their natural acceptance of tools we had to learn about - he was navigating the books and learning games on our computer before he was three, while I was teaching grizzled Marines how to move "that little arrow" around on a screen.

What I'm looking for are some serious ideas about the e-future of baby/toddler books that would stand our world on its head. Holograms? Baby-Kindles? What would put paper in a museum FOREVER?

Ruth said...

Happy Birthday a day late!

B. Miller said...

I think we don't have a choice about things changing, because it's the masses that determine how the message is received. As writers, it's important to learn how the mediums are changing, so we can keep the messages we have to deliver alive. I love what you wrote about the container dying, but the contents remaining the same. I agree that paper-and-ink books are an important part of my personal tactile experience as a human organism, but I don't think it's something future generations can't live without. They'll find something new to imprint on just as we imprinted on our first stitched-together books.

ed decker said...

BMiller is correct, the choice is not ours. Don't worry though, books will never go away. They're just going to have a diminishing role, like vinyl, and sitcoms.

Probably, by the time that these e-readers really get going, you may not even want a book. But, if you do, they will always be there for you.

I for one, welcome new technology. I gave up being grumpy about this kind of advancement a long time ago. When CD's came onto the scene, I swore I would never switch over. Now I don't know how I ever got through listening to records.

Proud Member of ALA!

I support fair and equitable library access to ebooks and so should you.