Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Stephen King's Joyland, and the ideologies of ebooks

I'm currently reading Stephen King's Joyland, which the author wrote for the Hard Case Crime series. I bought Joyland several months ago; and I am just now getting around to reading it. 

Some of you might be put off by the Hard Case Crime packaging, but you shouldn't be: Although the book was written for a themed series, it has the feel of a typical Stephen King novel so far. 

Joyland, you might recall, stirred a controversy when it was released earlier this year. 

This was unusual, because King's novels are seldom controversial in themselves. Stephen King-related controversies are ordinarily confined to the author's occasional forays into leftwing moonbattery. A few years ago, Stephen King suggested that the U.S. military is filled with illiterates. When the U.S. Army responded with data disproving King's assertions, King--who was an antiwar student protestor during the Vietnam era--ended up looking like an uninformed jackass. But I digress.

Joyland was controversial not because of its content or message, but because of its lack of a particular format option: Stephen King decided against an ebook version of the novel, citing his support of traditional book retailing:

"Mr. King, an e-book pioneer, held on to the novel's digital rights in hopes of spurring his fans to buy the print edition in bookstores. He said it is unclear when he will make the coming-of-age tale available digitally.  
"I have no plans for a digital version," Mr. King said. "Maybe at some point, but in the meantime, let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one."  
Mr. King's decision to support traditional book retailing comes at a time when many bookstores are struggling to compete with online retailers that sharply discount physical books and services that sell low-cost e-books. 
"Joyland," set in a North Carolina amusement park in 1973, will hit stores June 4. It is unclear whether any other high-profile writers will follow Mr. King's example. 
Paul Ingram, the buyer for the Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, said he's hoping they will. He lamented that browsing for books in stores has given way to people purchasing from computers and mobile devices. "I'd just as soon not have people buy their books while typing a thank-you note," Mr. Ingram said. He said his store's traffic has "fallen off some" in recent years due in part to "the ease of getting books other places."

The above quoted article mentions that King had actually been something of an ebook pioneer back in 2000, when he released "The Plant" and "Riding the Bullet" as downloadable ebooks.

King's decision has brought the inevitable detractors, as well as a scanned, pirated ebook version of Joyland

So what's the underlying problem here? The problem is that ebooks, like practically everything else, have become ideological. 

On one side is a faction with a sentimental, Luddite commitment to the "independent bookseller"--a business model that was initially doomed not by the Internet or ebooks, but by the superstores of Barnes and Noble and Borders in the early 1990s. 

All this grieving about the disintermediation of the retail book sector is very selective. I don't recall an outpouring of high-profile celebrity concern when travel agents declined by 45% due to websites like Expedia.com and Priceline.com. But somehow, the demise of the corner bookstore-cum-coffee shop represents a great economic and social injustice. The idea of people buying environmentally friendly ebooks from Amazon rather than overpriced, undiscounted physical copies really annoys Stephen King and other traditionalists

At the opposite extreme, there are those who believe that the possession of a Kindle entitles them to free (or almost free) copies of any book in print, simply because they've "gone digital". 

I can't tell you how many times I've noticed a string of 1-star reader reviews of a given book on Amazon.com, only to notice that the negative reviews were reactions not to the book--but to the price of the Kindle version

I would suspect that the parties who pirated King's Joyland were of a similar ideological persuasion. They wanted to demonstrate that King's apostasy would not be permitted: Joyland would go digital, because ebooks and the Internet are oh-so-special, elevated above the domain of mundane concerns like law, property rights, and respect for an author's individual wishes.

My reaction is: "a pox on both your houses": The ebook is a format, not an ideology. Its mere existence does not confer special rights on anyone.

Independent bookstores with obsolete and economically unviable business models do not deserve to be "protected" from ebooks. Nor do I, as a reader, deserve a price break from Simon and Schuster simply because I own a Kindle. Nor am I entitled to an ebook version from a author/publisher who doesn't want to release one.

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