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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Traditionally books are created and sold by publishers, and the author is sent an annual statement of how many copies were sold and paid a previously agreed royalty on those copies. This spring I received a royalty statement for Saltsea, my summer-on-the-Island novel, which was published in 2006, and to my surprise the statement included a small amount for sales of the story as an e-book. A door opening to a new world? Maybe.

More and more books, we’re told, are being sold in digital format to be read on the various readers—Kindle, Kobo, and what have you—that are now available. I’ve just had the first clear evidence that work of mine is being approached by means of this new technology. Somewhere between Tryon and Tasmania, electronic devices presented my story to new readers.

Not too long after I got that royalty statement, The Writers’ Union of Canada held its annual meeting, and voted to accept, for the first time, writers whose work had been self-published. I wasn’t at the meeting but I suspect the reason for the decision was the recent radical changes in the publication and sales of books. Nowadays, with all the digital means of propagation, it’s not clear how many of the old rules can still apply.

Change and the increasing speed of change have created a new world. Digital technology is altering all forms of communication. With the internet, email, the invention of the blog, of YouTube, the cell phone, the i-Phone, the start-up of Facebook, then of Twitter, those of us of a certain age are left with the question of whether to try to keep up with these new fashions or to employ some new version of Occam’s Razor (see Wikipedia) to choose what’s valuable out of the new gadgets and processes.

I used to say that I would get a computer when they offered one free with a magazine subscription; only a joke of course, but to me it does make sense to wait until a device has proved itself before putting money and (more important) time into its use.

I sense that the personal blog, only recently grown popular, is now being replaced by Facebook and Twitter. Not all the new inventions will survive. I’m old enough to recall the invention of the long-playing disk, music in high fidelity we called it. More recently vinyl disks have been largely replaced by the CD, the compact disk very convenient for those like me who were not careful enough to keep our vinyl unmarked and playable. On CD, performances of classical music proceed uninterrupted by pops and clicks. There are those who have stayed with or returned to analog recordings on vinyl, and I am prepared to believe that the sound is richer and subtler to the best ears. But we have to live with our own weaknesses, so vinyl is no longer for ham-handed me.

But these days the CD is less and less the basis of a significant commercial business. Sam the Record Man and his colleagues are gone. A lot of music is found by downloading. Will the CD survive? How long will there be machines to play it? Have you ever found yourself wanting to play a 78 rpm recording? To find a suitable turntable is close to impossible. Technologies replace each other at high speed. So the e-book will survive for a while, but the smart money is on its eventual replacement by some new gimmick, or perhaps (sad thought) on the abandonment of reading as a pastime.

Surprisingly perhaps, no technology is likely to offer safer long-term storage for a given shape of words than the printed book. Decent ink on decent paper creates a simple but enduring mnemonic device. If you find the right library, you can go there today and read the Shakespeare First Folio, the original text of almost all of his plays, published in 1623.

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