About that Sherman Alexie interview …

Ahh, Sherman Alexie, I had looked forward to your return to The Report, and you didn’t let me down (even though my expectations were sky-high after that first interview). I knew we’d be in for some passionate commentary when he and Stephen started talking about E-books. I was keeping my eye on a number of online discussions during the show, and I started seeing the responses almost immediately. On the one hand, we had the old school book lovers who were applauding Alexie’s commitment to paper. On the other hand, we had the technophiles whose characteristically colorful denunciations of Alexie called him a Luddite at best and went creatively downhill from there. I have a lot to say on this topic, so click past the jump if you’re interested.

Full disclosure: I’m a huge bookperson (if you didn’t know). I love physical books, the feel of good paper, the way my walls are increasingly obscured by bookshelves, books with intricate spines and covers, and the way I sometimes wake up with my fingers asleep from where they’ve been stuck in the book I was reading when I drifted off. A bad day for me is when I’m trapped somewhere without a book or two — nightmare! That said, I do understand that there are advantages to digitized books. It would be nice not to struggle under the weight of multiple tomes when I travel, just so I can feel confident that I’ll have a book to hand to match whatever mood I’m in at the time. People living in small spaces would have an easier time reading what they wanted without having to worry about storage. Certain features on the Kindle (like the ability to look up unfamiliar words on the spot) sound pretty cool. In the long run, there’s probably an environmental component to reading E-books vs. reading them in print. You get the idea. And I’m certainly not averse to technology in general (she says on the BLOG), so I know there’s a lot to say on either side.

What I found most interesting about the responses to the interview last night was how quickly and loudly people proclaimed Alexie an “idiot” who didn’t understand open source culture. I may have gotten this wrong, but I listened to the interview again, and I think he understands it just fine; he doesn’t allow his books to be digitized AND he’s worried about the lack of artistic ownership characteristic of much of open source culture, but he wasn’t confusing the two, as some of his critics seem to argue. He also acknowledged that the publishing culture is changing and that he’d adapt to that.

What he sounded to me like he was saying was that it is easier to pirate digitized media, and that once digital media hits the internet (with its open source culture), protecting one’s own artistic product is a lot harder. And I’d agree with that, actually. People freely sample and exchange what they find on the internet, whether they created it or not. We do it here, although we try to be careful to link people back to original sites and sensitive to privacy or ownership concerns before we post. It’s definitely fair to ask where artists fit into the internet culture and whether it helps or hurts them; Alexie’s a big enough name that he can live off of his writings, but that’s obviously not the norm. Pirating media — books, music, movies, whatever — was common well before the days of digital media, but I do think it has a much bigger impact nowadays on artists and publishers, etc., so I was a little surprised by the volume of some of the criticism.

I think one of the misunderstandings here was one of tone; there’s only so much you can say in a Colbert Report interview, and if you’re not familiar with the interviewee, you might not know when to take statements at face value and when to assume that there’s a little wiggle room. In addition, Alexie made a pretty public statement at this year’s BookExpo about how “elitist” E-readers were and how much he disliked them, and if you read his quote from the New York Times, it sounds like he’s an absolutist. However, I was at one of his (PACKED) book events last month, and he talked about that quote. It was accurate, he said, but it was also just something he’d said off the cuff. (There’s also a pretty funny follow up, where Jeff Bezos sent him a free Kindle after that in the hope that he’d use it and love it. Alexie gave it a try but, for a number of reasons, it didn’t really take.) From what he said at the signing, I don’t think he intended to be provocative, he was simply expressing his opinion that authors and readers were better served by the print model; his decision to limit his existing books to print distribution seems a natural enough personal choice.

I could go on here (and on), but I’m really interested to know what you all thought. I know we have a lot of big book readers on this site, so I’d love to know how you feel about various media formats, artistic ownership, etc. Please watch the interview again and let me know what you think.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Sherman Alexie
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

One last word to DB, or anyone who wanted to hear more about the book: War Dances is a gorgeous, bleak, hilarious, tough and tender collection of stories and poems. “Home of the Braves” made my heart hurt, in ways both good and bad, and I laughed out loud more than once during the title story. In other words, it was trademark Alexie, and you’re missing out on something beautiful if you don’t give it a chance. Happy reading!


  1. I thought the interview was an interesting and somewhat enlightening one. I am also a huge book lover (my bedroom and living room are more like libraries than anything else), but I also have a large collection of e-books. I can sympathize with Sherman Alexie’s fears about the digitalization of books and the “open-sourcing” of creative ownership, but I think that this type of concern depends on an author’s intention.

    If an author wants his books to target a certain age-range (the younger, more tech-savvy gen) and to “get his message across different boundaries/countries” then he should utilize the e-book phenomenon. E-books allow ideas and concepts to be spread out quickly and, in a way, cheaply (for the readers and somewhat for the authors). It’s like free advertisement for the author’s ideas and story. But if an author wants to target more for the physicality of a book and its presentation, the tangible love of bibliophiles, and focusing more on a wider range of audiences (age-wise) within a concentrated region (limited to cities with bookstores large enough to carry their books), then traditional books would be more ideal than e-books.

    In all honesty, I’m not as concerned about book formats. I’m more concerned about people reading books in general. And to further continue honestly, if I like something I read in e-book format, I usually will buy the “real” book in the store. It’s the same with other media formats for me. E-books are like my chance to “test out the waters” and see if it’s worth buying the physical book.

  2. Great post Ms.I! I heard a debate on the subject recently on NPR and I can see both sides of it. I acknowlege that technology is ongoing and changing and authors will need to adapt to that. I also understand the benefits of the technology, but I also really love the physical books for many of the same reasons you mentioned. I also can understand Alexie’s reluctance to put his books out there in a digitized format. I think he understands open source just fine and is more concerned about artists being able to protect their creations, which I feel is a valid concern.

    I was not at all disappointed by the interview, even though I had hyped it so much in my own mind. I’m a big fan of Alexie and can’t wait to read War Dances. It sounds exactly like what I would expect from him. Stories that are funny, engrossing, and heart-breaking like the ones in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

  3. Ms Interpreted says:

    I prefer books for aesthetic and tactile reasons, but I’m ultimately less concerned with format than with having the opportunities to read.

    I think one of the bigger questions is whether we value the product (the story, the book, whatever) with our without its creator. Alexie’s crticisms of open source culture and, I think, digital media in general seem to me about authorial anonymity vs. the position of the artist overall; that’s from an economic standpoint but also a cultural one.

    For instance, when I was at his signing, Alexie spoke about and read from his book for about an hour; he was very funny and talked about the extent to which the story was autobiographical, etc. But at one point, he stopped to chastise a woman who was taping the reading. He objected to what he felt was a theft of his words, which is how he saw the presumed posting of that taped footage on YouTube; it’s a common enough practice nowadays. You could argue that he’s limiting his appeal by objecting to recording (he gets less exposure this way than if he allowed it), but you could also see how, once a clip is on the web, the author becomes less relevant, in a way. There may be an online community (or not) to celebrate the author, but it’s one that lacks the personal connection between author and readers that face to face meetings have. In addition, it allows traditional media outlets — local TV or newspapers — to dispense with the author interviews (and resultant publicity) they might otherwise have granted. As a consequence, knowledge and respect for authors and storytellers (beyond a few marquee names) tends to decline, even when the books they create are successful. That’s certainly not the result of E-media alone, but I think it can be a factor.

    I agree that it absolutely depends on the author, though. New authors who can’t get big publishing deals are potential beneficiaries of E-media, as it might be their best option for getting their work out there at all. They might be less concerned with the makeup of the reading “community”, on or offline, etc. Authors like Alexie who value face to face interaction with their readers will likely be less enthusiastic about electronic offerings.

    I also know that people who don’t constantly have their heads stuck in books the way I do probably don’t care one way or another, but it’s something that I’ve obviously been mulling over for a bit. :)

  4. I love print books, and I don’t think they’ll ever die. However, ebooks are going to become a huge portion of the market. While I understand Alexie’s trepidation, the way he’s reacting to this paradigm shift isn’t very realistic. The fact is, the technology exists, and we’re going to use it. It isn’t going to go away.

    So if, like Alexie, one has concerns about how digital book piracy is going to affect the cultural and economic return on one’s books, the only effective solution is to engage in the market and do one’s best to curtail the trend toward piracy. Alexie mentioned in the interview that a great deal of digital music is pirated. What he failed to mention is that the publishing industry can learn a great deal from what the music industry attempted to do to stop music piracy, most notably when it comes to DRM. DRM just doesn’t work. Apple, Sony, and most of the major record labels have admitted this and removed it from their music. Now some members of the publishing industry are pushing for heavily-DRMed digital books, making DRM critics smack their heads and go, “Why?! Can’t you see this is going to backfire?!”

    If authors do withdraw from the digital market instead of participate in it, then piracy _will_ continue to run rampant. Why? Because with no legitimate alternative, piracy is the only way to get the content one wants. With no legitimate Alexie ebooks, should I want an electronic version, I have to go with a pirated one (and it’s naive to assume that because no legitimate version exists in the first place it precludes the appearance of pirated editions online). The only solution is to compete.

    No, you can’t compete in strict terms of distribution. The Internet has broken society, and things are going to change. Alexie smartly admits he’s going to have to change–we all will. Publishers will have to tweak their revenue models until they start making money again. They’re going to have to try a lot of things, fail, and try again until they succeed or die–isn’t that the free market?

    For those interested, CBC radio’s Spark recently posted an interview with Gabriella Coleman on digital book piracy: http://www.cbc.ca/spark/2009/11/full-interview-gabriella-coleman-on-digital-book-piracy/

  5. TiaRachel says:

    I found an interview yesterday (at http://www.motherjones.com/interview/2009/11/sherman-alexie-dont-call-me-warrior) with this:

    MJ: You recently got attacked for calling the Amazon Kindle elitist.

    SA: I got hundreds of emails insulting me, accusing me of being some caveman. I am by no means a Luddite. I have two iPods. I have a cell phone. I have cable TV, HDTV! If I had been talking about drowning polar bears, people would have been weeping with me. But nobody recognizes that a bookstore or library can also be a drowning polar bear. And right now in this country, magazines, newspapers, and bookstores are drowning polar bears. And if people can’t see that or don’t want to talk about it, I don’t understand them at all.

  6. TiaRachel says:

    Dmn firefox, keeps crashing on me. Anyway — I was a bit surprised at the immediate vehemence, too. I suppose he didn’t get his point across as well as he could, & knowing some of what else he’s said hid that from me. Or maybe he did, and they do just really, really disagree with him. But this is one of those arguments that’s gotten to kneejerk status, & people on both sides (kneejerk arguments only get two sides) have heard/read/thought about (sometimes, at least) the positions enough that they react to the keywords & either miss or (instantly) dismiss nuance/opposing opinions, so it’s hard to know what’s going on with those instant reactions.

    Stephen Fry just posted a discussion of copyright here http://www.stephenfry.com/2009/07/27/series-2-episode-4-itunes-live-festival/ — what it comes down to for me is, writing (or making art) needs to bring in a liveable wage, or the writers/artists won’t be able to afford the time to continue creating. But they also need to publish in a medium that people use. I like to not look at a screen sometimes, so I’m not a fan of Kindle (plus, I want to own the book I’ve bought, not a rescindable license to read it), but apparently lots of people disagree (although I think pricing new books at $9.99 instead of $20+-ish might have something to do with that).

    • Sorry for being off-topic but is this the same TiaRachel responsible for the DailyKos wonderful TDS/TCR chat threads? If so, I absolutely love your threads there and you do a wonderful job of summation of the interviews.

      I surely hope this is the same person, as when I read your posts/comments I always say to myself–what an ‘it getter’

      • TiaRachel says:

        Yep, that would be me. Thanks for the compliments, they’re good to hear.

        • Weeee =) I thought it was, but I don’t think I ever actually noticed one of your comments otherwise i woulda complimented you before.

          You should talk with DB and do some write ups from time to time. You are absolutely fantabulous =)

  7. Interesting comments everyone!

    Im a bit torn on this topic. My house is full of bookshelves filled with books and I have to do an annual ‘spring cleaning’ of my books (to donate ones I have read and dont want to keep to make room on my bookshelf for newer books I want to keep). I have never read/used a digital book and dont think I will any time soon, but I can see their use.

    I would like to see digital books used for the purposes of schooling – no heavy textbooks for kids to lug around and cheaper to update to newer editions for schools and families struggling with money. Thats the main reason I think digibooks are good.

    Personally I prefer to buy my books in a nice local bookstore – take time browsing the aisles and look for interesting new releases.

    Having said that, I am not sure that digital book culture is going to be much different for the average author than mega-bookstore-chain culture is (ie Borders). They are both have fairly anonymous cultures, lots of popular books and not much variety – even though the stores generally have a massive space and would be able to house diverse books if they wanted to.

    Also, re: piracy and books – I dont think it is much different to lending a friend your print book, or donating your print book to a library. There have always been ways around ‘buying’ print books. Open source isnt much different to this – except for the fact that the physical ‘book’ is left out of the equation because it is digitised. But I cant see any palpable loss of money here.

    However I do think that we lose a culture that revolves around books – that was the point of Alexie’s that I agree with. What do we lose when we lose print books – local, independent bookshops ( think of a walmart culture for books). This multinational model corporation for books would mean that there was limited access to titles and authors that are considered to have limited profitability by companies selling digitised books.

    Most independent bookstore owners I know love books and will sell because of the love of the books, not the profitability. An enforced corporate culture in relation to books would be steered by profitability, not the love of books.

    So the main concern for me is the change digital media would have re: corporatising books. An entrenched corporate culture would inevitably limit the diversity of titles, topics and authors to ones that were popular and profitable…and the ‘little guy’ once again would get left out. Thats why I cant shop at Borders.

  8. wildlymissingthemark says:

    I guess I have always been skeptical of e-books because do you really want to spend more time in front of a computer screen than you already have to? Other than for work or catching up on the news or with friends, it feels good to disconnect and curl up with something that isn’t electronic (especially if you’re unattached at the moment:) I think it is also better for your imagination and creative spirit to read a physical book.

    I think reading is both a physical and an intellectual experience. Physical in the sense that you have to be quietly settled and in a state of concentration, to some extent. I mean I would try out a Kindle or whatever, but my sense that it would be more like an ipod and less like a book. I don’t see that really replacing the genre of paper books altogether.

    I think what is more affected is the MARKETING of books, which is what I also believe Alexie was alluding to. It actually will be good because people can download books and audiobooks with the ease that they do music. And of course people will pirate content, but I still think there will be plenty of revenue opportunities for authors. They just have to adapt to representing their books in a different way to a changing reading public.

    • ColbertFaninChicago says:

      I am a book person, I’m moving to e-books, and I don’t see a difference in the experience. I travel frequently and this way I always have books on hand.

      Sorry, I don’t see this as the death of books at all.

      I can enjoy Colbert live on my TV screen at 11:30 pm or I can buy an episode off iTunes the next day and watch it off my iPhone. Either way, I get to enjoy the content in the way that is most relevant to ME and MY needs for the day. What’s the essential difference between those two options, and having the option of buying a book in hardcover or through a Kindle/Nook? The content still is what rules.

  9. bipolypesca says:

    You know, I work for a book publisher, and we’ve recently started very gingerly dipping our toes into the digitizing pool, so I find this discussion quite interesting.

    I’m surprised, however, that no one has brought up the missing part of the imaginary equation, “digital books = independent bookstores going out of business & less personal contact.” If digital books had still not been introduced to the world, or even invented to this very day, independent bookstores would still be going out of business and there would still be a massive ebbing of personal contact among the author/middleman/reader relationship.

    To wit: Anyone ever hear of the internet? Amazon? A1Books? eBay? BookMooch? All of these sites are selling paper books (with the exception of BookMooch, where people just exchange paper books), and they are hugely undercutting the sales of independent bookstores and they are completely abolishing personal contact from the equation.

    Are e-books really increasing this trend so exponentially that we find ourselves forced to narrowly focus on their participation? I have to disagree. If we’re going to go after e-books because we decry the death of independent bookstores and the lack of personal contact between author/reader or author/bookstore, then we need to be focussing the same–in fact, more–of our ire at the rampant availability and usage of internet shopping.

    Now, I don’t have a Kindle. Don’t want one. Neither do I have anything against anyone else getting one. I do have an eBookwise Reader, but I use it to edit my own documents, not to buy and read e-books.

    I also very much agree with the point that once media is digitized it becomes much easier to pirate and so it will naturally become pirated more frequently. People are lazy, man. If it’s easier, we’re going to do it more often; count on it.

    But I think we’re bending the truth just a bit to flog e-books as our scapegoat for the downward trend of independent bookstores and the upward trend of non-personal purchasing taking place in the world–especially when so much of that is taking place on the web for pulp.

    I can’t speak for other publishers, but the business we get in e-books where I work doesn’t even remotely begin to approach the universe in which our sales for paper books resides. Methinks the wrath is misdirected.

  10. I like Alexie. I like that he decided not to allow his books to be digitized, for two reasons: 1. He’s standing up for what he believes in, regardless of the economic disadvantages of doing so. It takes well developed vertebrae to say, “No, I don’t want to sell to this market. No, I won’t take your money.” Usually, as Stephen has occasionally mentioned, money talks louder than words. But from my (brief) market analysis, digitizing books is one way to reach a new demographic that may not be reached by B&N or Borders. Those are new readers, some of whom would pay to read the book. True, some might (who am I kidding? would) pirate the book, but chances are, they would not be the ones drawn into bookstores to buy the print version in the first place. Alexie is, then, in my analysis, losing money by not allowing people to buy the digitized version. And I respect that. His values cannot be cheapened by money.

    Secondly, I agree with him. I get a headache if I stare at my screen for too long. With an actual book, there are no screen savers. In old or academic works, you can see what other readers thought important (assuming it’s a library or used book). There are often explanatory footnotes. Granted, my experience with digitized literature has been through librodot and the Gutenberg Project, so it really is reading Plato or whoever in PDF format. And it gives me headaches, and I can’t find my spot when I come back to it because I lack a digitized bookmark, and I can’t highlight or post-it note or underline parts I’d like to refer to in papers or classes, and I don’t like lugging my laptop to class anyway (thanks, dearest Western Civ professor, for assigning the Public Domain versions of Galileo and Plato’s works so we had to use the internet version). Maybe Kindle’s different, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s not a book but an impression of one.
    /off soapbox

  11. ColbertGirl27 says:

    I don’t have much time to post, but I love physical books. I can see the usefulness of eKindle for my friends who are in grad school and need several sources at their fingertips all at once, but I can’t imagine ever switching from physical to virtual books.

    recaptcha: and arcane (no!)

    • ColbertFaninChicago says:

      But no one says that you can’t do both.

      I can listen to the radio and enjoy the serendipity of whatever the DJ chooses to play next — or I can craft my own playlist from my iPod and ensure that I want to hear exactly what I want. I don’t need to choose between the two; I can do both.

      I can watch Colbert on my TV screen at 11:30, or I can watch any episode of my choosing on my iPhone at any time of day or night and not be bound by a physical TV. I can do both. I don’t need to choose.

      And I can choose to curl up with a physical book in front of the fire, or take 20 books along on vacation on one Kindle. I don’t have to choose.

      From a marketing standpoint, you guys are forgetting about the concept of need states. Your needs will be different at different times. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition where you have to go all e-book or nothing.

  12. narsilicious says:

    I prefer my books the way they are, especially as I like to share books I love with friends and family (I don’t know about all the readers, but the Nook only allows you to “lend” a book once, and of course, the other person has to have a Nook as well).

    I understand piracy is a growing problem, but my biggest concern with e-books, as well as print books bought online, is the death of browsing. It’s increasingly difficult for me to browse music, now that my Tower Records and Virgin Megastore are closed, and I don’t want it to be the same case for books. A lot of sites try to simulate it, with those tags, and their suggestions based on what other customers bought, but nothing can replace, for me anyway, the joy of hunting up the perfect book and carrying your prize home in your hands.

  13. lockhart43 says:

    First off, I am loving this discussion. :D
    The way I see it, eBooks vs. physical books is exactly like iPods vs. CDs. A lot of people are going to go digital because it is more convenient and compact. I LOVE my iPod. I wouldn’t trade it for my right to vote (a study was done last year that said something like 75% of college students polled would give up their right to vote forever for an iPod, which is just sad), but it’s still a wonderful thing to have. But I still adamantly believe in buying CDs. It’s a nostalgic feeling, sure. There is just something about physically having to go buy the CD in a store that makes the music more valuable to me. So it’s the same thing with books. Books last – computers eventually break down. I love going into a bookstore and buying a book that I’ve anxiously been waiting to read, and then curling up in my bed with the book and reading until 4 in the morning. I just don’t think I would get that same sense of gratification from something like a Kindle, so in that sense, I’m not really a fan.
    That’s not to say that I don’t see the upside to the whole thing. If more people buy Kindles, that means more people want to read books. Whether the books have been digitized or not, it makes people want to read MORE because it might be more convenient for some. So the fact that Kindle is still a way to promote reading and literacy is something that I AM all for.

    With that said, I absolutely loved the Alexie interview. He was so passionate about his position, which is something that I truly respect, and I could definitely see where he was coming from. What I took out of the interview was the fact that there are pros and cons to digitizing books, and just like owning an iPod or mp3 player, not everyone is going to be on board, but we will eventually adapt.

  14. “What he sounded to me like he was saying was that it is easier to pirate digitized media, and that once digital media hits the internet (with its open source culture), protecting one’s own artistic product is a lot harder.”

    The thing is, all that can still happen without him sanctioning official digital releases. He’s just cut out the opportunity for any digital readers to be legitimate.

  15. I have kind of mixed feelings about this topic, since I’m in the book business myself and my employment depends on the continued popularity of print books. My company is just starting to get into digital content, and that’s going to affect my job, too, although I’m not sure yet exactly how. We’ve had discussions around the office of the benefits and drawbacks of ebooks, but one thing my co-workers and I agree on is that print books will not die out. When you’re reading for leisure, and especially when you want to curl up with a good story, nothing will replace a physical book. But I can see the practicality of ebooks, too. They’ll be a real benefit in academia, because given the choice between lugging around either half-a-dozen textbooks or an ebook reader, the ebook reader will be much more practical.

    But the drawback to ebooks right now is that the technology is still developing. I don’t have a Kindle, but I’ve been told they’re text only (someone correct me please if I’m wrong). Newer readers, as they come along, will improve on the technology with color and the ability to display illustrations. There are also multiple formats for ebooks out there, and they’re not always compatible with each other. I can see myself getting some kind of ebook reader eventually (once the technology is a little more advanced and the issue of different formats is somewhat more settled), but I’d never consider giving up physical books entirely. I enjoy that kind of reading experience much more than I do staring at a screen.

    I loved Alexie’s passion on the subject, and respect his decision not to allow his books to be issued in digital format. But he’s right, he will have to adapt sooner or later. All authors will. It’s the nature of the business.

  16. http://techdirt.com/articles/20091202/0122097161.shtml

    The point is pirates don’t bother waiting for an official ebook version, if there’s no ebook version with a minor amount of effort you can digitize books the old fashioned way with a scanner and OCR software. If it’s a book by a popular author it’s pirated pretty quickly once the print version comes out.

    So the author is only hurting himself when he decides not to make available for purchase an ebook version of his work.

    And then there are authors coming over to the side of the argument that providing a free ebook of one or two of their works tends to increase the sales in print editions of their books.

  17. What a great conversation! I really enjoyed the interview, and I’m with him on this issue, so far. I don’t have a Kindle, and I love books – always have. Like many of you, I have a ton of books, which are displayed on shelves in almost every room in the house. I also used to own a mystery book shop many years ago.

    Something that occurred to me besides the pirating thing, and the I-like-the-feel-of-the-book-in-my-hand thing, is it’s going to be hard to hand books down to your kids. I have quite a few books that were my Mother’s, and my Grandmother’s. There’s something special about reading something that you know a loved one has read from those very pages.

    I’m keeping my daughters books (she’s now 18) from when she was little. I hope to give them back to her when/if she has children. The Poky Little Puppy? Fox in Sox? Alice in Wonderland? Tin Tin? Peter Rabbit? I don’t think any of them would cut it on a Kindle.

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