Marianne Combs, Katie Eggers, Guy Eggers, Laurie Hertzel, Caroline Casey, Hans Weyandt and Patrick Thomas discuss the future of reading in a digital age at Micawber's Bookstore in St. Paul. Photo by Kristi Fuller.


Guy Eggers might have said it best last night, or at least most succinctly, when he told the crowd (and it was a big crowd) at Micawber's Bookstore, "You want good content--good things to read." How a person reads--on a Kindle or an iPad, on a book or a Nook--is, ultimately, less important.

E-books, said Patrick Thomas, editor of Milkweed Editions--"that's just another format. It's all reading."

Eggers, co-editor of Thirty-Two Magazine, Thomas, and several others were addressing the issue of how our reading habits have changed in a digital world. The consensus seemed to be that, well, we are still reading, avidly, and print is doing fine, and content is the more interesting question after all.

(Though it's true that a panel of bookish people talking to folks gathered in an indie bookstore might have had a wee bit of optimism fueling their opinions. The discussion was sponsored by Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, more book-lovers.) 

The panel moderator, MPR arts reporter Marianne Combs, got things rolling by asking the crowd how many folks owned a smart phone: Nearly every hand shot up. How many own an e-reader or tablet? Again, most hands.

"And how many of you read predominately from a digital device?" Not one hand raised, and Combs said, "God bless you all."

Caroline Casey, marketing director of Coffee House Press, and Thomas of Milkweed Editions both talked about how their publishers have embraced digital as an opportunity to do things differently and reach out in more directions. Thomas said, for example, that Milkweed's online catalog includes authors reading aloud from their forthcoming books--something that would have been prohibitively expensive just a few years ago. (You can take a listen here.)

And Casey talked about how Coffee House is reinivisioning itself not just as a traditional publisher of books but as an arts organization that connects readers and writers in a multitude of ways--through readings, events, exhibits and experiences, both real and virtual.

"We decided that our role was to connect readers and writers whether or not they buy the book," she said.

All of the participants agreed that turning their backs on digital would be futile. "You don't want to hold off the technology by saying you're stealing from us," said Hans Weyandt, co-owner of Micawber's. "The music industry did that to great failure. For me, the thing is to fight against the idea that books are dying. That is not true."

With the digital world still in flux--there are no standard platforms for e-books or e-magazines, and devices are changing all the time--print offers stability. While Thirty-Two Magazine does have a website, they do not offer e-versions of the magazine and instead rely primarily on print--gorgeous print, high-quality paper, a magazine you can carry around and read and touch, said co-editor Katie Eggers. Creating digital versions for all the various e-readers would be prohibitively expensive--at least as expensive as creating a print version, she said.

Most panelists predicted a widening split between print and digital, with readers continuing to buy print copies of books they admire and want to keep and re-read, and with digital eating up the bulk of more disposable books--romance, mysteries, soft porn and other books that people read once, perhaps as a guilty pleasure.

Thomas said it's not uncommon for readers to buy an e-book as a convenient, less-expensive way to sample a book--and then, if they like it, go on to buy the book in print. "Quality really trumps some of the aspects of ease that e-books bring," Thomas said. "E-books are great for ease."

But for something you want to keep, there's nothing like a beautiful book. (Weyandt held up Milkweed's "Things that Are" by Amy Leach and Coffee House's "Potluck Supper With Meeting to Follow" by Andy Sturdevant as examples--both beautifully designed and illustrated hardcover books.)

And in the Twin Cities, where three of the four major literary presses live (and the panelists joke that they're going to force the fourth, Copper Canyon Press, to relocate here some day) and where libraries are vibrant and readers are everywhere, the health of the printed book is particularly robust.

"We see ourselves fighting a culture that is always telling us we're gonna die," said Weyandt. Not true, he said, and all in attendance last night almost certainly agreed.

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