Digital & Print: We will have our cake and eat it, too– Part I

Once again the conversation at the salon has been nothing short of riveting. Roz Foster in her posts, “From M-novels to the Death of Paper Publishing” Part 1 and Part 2 stokes an iron hot literary fire. Anyone who’s been following the digital versus print battle royale has witnessed the flames flicker across newspapers, magazines, blog posts, and RSS feeds.

Image from e-Reader Zone

Digital technology has been as active as Kilauea cracking fissures in literary tradition and forever altering the publishing landscape. Foster lends astute coverage on the latest innovations comparing the “one-trick pony” e-book readers, such as the Kindle and Nook, to the multi-use devices like the iPhone and the highly anticipated Apple Tablet. While many in the publishing industry are bemoaning the tides of the future, and the other half are cheering Father Time on, perhaps we should take a step back for a wider perspective?

Instead of pitting one against the other–digital chokes out print, or print trumps digital for tradition’s sake–can we not use both technologies as we do with the television and the radio or the MP3 and the LP player? Each device has assumed its own particular niche use where content and circumstance predicate form. More than likely, the battle between print and digital will shape into a similar story.

We can see this dual as the glass is half full or half empty, or, we can step into the future double-fisted. Let’s try sipping from both:

Reasons to hail digital

Just last year, The Atlantic announced they would start releasing short stories on Amazon’s Kindle. For lit writers, this by far is one of the most exciting outcomes to celebrate. The possibility of wider distribution for small journals and university reviews with substantially lower costs for dissemination should be making editors at the likes of One Story, Tinhouse, and other lit mags angling to get in on the action. Eventually, readers may be allowed to i-Tunize our favorite short stories, essays, and poems, mixing and matching Sherman Alexie (if he’d let us) with Lysley Tenorio, Yiyun Li paired with Angeles Mastretta or Ovid and Gogol. Norton may not be the only one who can anthologize.

The iPhone and Apple Tablet will be a boon to content that begs for digital interactivity. As writer Thomas Rogers points out in his “Tablet is the new book”, multi-use devices will unlock infinite virtual adventures for comic books, graphic novels, academic textbooks, travel guides, and maps that include links, video streams and audio archives. Click happy readers, be ready.

Popular fiction has already grabbed the e-bull by the horns as we’ve seen in Japan with m-novels, and Harlequin’s eBooks have fully embraced digital publication, rightly so. Kindles and Nooks are the perfect fit for mainstream pulp lit, allowing readers to plow through series such as Sue Grafton’s alphabetical mysteries, Nora Roberts steamy sagas, and Dan Brown’s latest and greatest.

Lit writers have started to dabble with different digital forms and found some satisfying challenges. Rick Moody played with Twitter and discussed his experiences working with the medium, covered in NPR’s “How E-Books Will Change Reading and Writing”:

Moody says he got intrigued by the idea of writing in abbreviated form to fit within the 140-character limitations of each Twitter post.

I began to see that trying to write within this tiny little frame, 140 characters, was kind of like trying to write haiku. It’s very poetical in its compaction, and it kind of got under my skin…His flirtation with Twitter was not entirely successful. The delivery of the story went awry, and some industry insiders were bombarded with repetitive tweets. Still, Moody doesn’t regret the experiment. But he does have doubts about Twitter’s literary potential.

Interactive narratives may flourish with works such as The Amanda Project, which requires readers’ active engagement to develop the plot-line and even create new characters, and Narrative recently cast a submission call for iStories for their iPhone App, defining this new genre as:

a short, dramatic narrative, fiction or nonfiction, up to 150 words long. We are particularly interested in works that give readers a strong sense of having read a full and complete story in a brief space.

Anyone up to the challenge?

Finally, e-readers are sure to give magazines and newspapers a new lease on life once these publications figure out how to generate revenue from subscriptions and advertisements. For these literary purposes, digital publications make the most obvious sense.

Causes to cherish print

Let’s begin at the beginning. Remember your first book? If you do, more than likely you literally consumed it, meaning your first book was scribbled on, chewed on, torn up, perhaps got soaked and wrinkled because your parents read it to you in the bathtub, or you took it to bed with you and hugged it and licked it because at three or five-years old you just have to taste everything.

And how about those touch and feel books with the duck feathers on them or the patches of felt, and the pop up books where the dinosaurs came to life and stegosaurus roared at the tug of your fingers. If print publishing was really dying, than these memories would go with them.

Pat the Bunny

From where Pat The Bunny was voted one of the “All Time Best Books for Babies.”

Countless studies have proven time and again that households with books and families who read aloud ensure academic success for children and lead to lifelong readership, that means books lying around in the living room, shelved in bookshelves, on night stands, and, maybe, even at the dinner table. Easily accessible print material that kids can touch, feel, and taste guarantees a continued interest in the written word for generations. There are very essential reasons for keeping print books around since Nooks and Kindles aren’t exactly toddler friendly: #1 children like to eat them, which leads us to, #2 when children see and eat print books they tend to be hooked on reading thereafter.

Print  books still hold a high premium in places like Richmond, California, Northern Uganda, Bangalore, or the Hindu Kush province. Bookstores, libraries, and K-12 schools throughout the U.S. continue to hold annual book drives to ship these priceless gems to students who can barely afford pencils and paper, let alone a smart phone. Of course we’re not going to read about this in Business Week or because these kinds of stories don’t make money. Let’s not confuse headlines with reality. The digital divide persists.

Part II forthcoming…



  1. A rich, wide-ranging post. Thanks for this fascinating compendium of moments in the digital vs. print battle royale. May the struggle last centuries! I look forward to Part II.

  2. Thanks, Roz! As with most things found on this blog, this post is inspired by you. We await your next stroke of brilliance that kindles great conversation.

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