Jonathan Franzen Writes Off E-Books as Publishing Lags

Jonathan Franzen Writes Off E-Books as Publishing Lags

Writer Jonathan Franzen spoke out against digital books, as the print publishing industry struggles to adjust to e-technology or face losing readership.

At a speaking engagement in Cartagena, Colombia, the notoriously outspoken author of “Freedom” and “The Corrections” extolled the superior quality of print books and said most “serious readers” agree with him.

Franzen’s statements reflect the print publishing industry’s reluctant stance on e-books and e-publishing. The advent of digital and mobile technology altered the long-standing dynamic — and profit margin — between publishers and readers, leaving publishing houses wondering how to adjust editorial fees, author royalties, and book prices.

Sales of e-readers, tablets, and e-books are soaring, and devices like Apple’s iPad 2 and Amazon’s Kindle Fire provide easy access to books for millions of readers. A growing customer base is a huge opportunity for print publishers, if they can adapt and embrace the changes.

Attempts to change with the times haven’t gone well so far, however. Five of the top six U.S. publishers are facing a class action lawsuit over alleged e-book price-fixing with Apple, and stand accused of strong-arming Amazon into raising its prices on e-books, resulting in a 30-50 percent rate hike for consumers.

Further, publishers can’t figure out how to work with the growing number of readers who borrow e-books from public libraries. Selling titles to lending libraries, even at a discounted rate, once brought in significant profit. However, as more borrowers demand e-books, some publishers like Penguin halted lending digital titles altogether, buying time to figure out a new solution.

Repeated hurdles cast a negative light on e-books for an industry deeply rooted in tradition, and Franzen, who once famously refused Oprah’s book club access to his first book, is among those most averse to change.

The author expressed open disdain for digital books and self-publishing, due in part to what he feels is the mutable nature of digital titles. “Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do,” he said. “When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing — that’s reassuring.”

The acclaimed novelist went on to say that “for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience” and that he fears “it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that.”

Drastic though his views may seem, they represent a deep-set notion in the publishing industry that e-books are not “real” books, and cannot be taken seriously.

But readers increasingly demand access to digital titles, and the longer big publishers grapple to please a tech-savvy reader base, the more likely they’ll be replaced by smaller, emerging publishing houses and self-published authors, shifting publishing from a mass market to an increasingly niche one.

Books aren’t going away, but their form is changing. Long-established book publishers will likely need to welcome their new readership with open arms, or face the very change they’ve long feared.

Franzen’s Freedom and The Corrections are both available as e-books on Amazon.

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