Last night Bookman and I ventured out to Micawber’s Books in St. Paul. I have heard of the shop but had never been there. It turns out to be a nice little store with a carefully selected stock of the mostly literary sort. I say mostly literary because they did have George R.R. Martin but Dan Brown was nowhere to be seen. My kind of place.

The event we went to was a panel discussion on how we read sponsored by the Minnesota Book Awards (yes I did apply to be a poetry judge, no I never heard back from them which is their loss). Panel members included Hans Weyandt, co-owner for Micawber’s, Carolyn Casey from Coffee House Press, Patrick Thomas from Milkweed Editions, Katie and Guy Eggers, editors of Thirty Two Magazine, and Laurie Hertzel, Star Tribune books editor (yes, my local newspaper still has a books editor!). The panel was moderated by Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio arts reporter.

Combs started off by asking the packed crowd how many had smartphones. About half raised their hands. Then she asked how many had iPads, Kindles, Nooks or other ereaders and about half raised their hands. Then she asked how many read predominantly on an electronic device and no one raised a hand.

The question then went across the panel whether and/or how ebooks and digital were affecting the work they did and reading in general. Both publishers said they offer just about all of their books as ebooks too and pretty much see it as just another format. Patrick from Milkweed likened digital to the mass market paperback. When those first came into existence everyone thought the world was going to come to an end, that it was going to kill books and reading. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Hans, co-owner of Micawber’s, said he wasn’t sure that digital was affecting bookstore sales all that much. He said if he is losing sales it is to people over fifty who have the money to buy the gadgets. He, along with the others, didn’t believe digital piracy was an issue at all. He said we are being naive to think that books weren’t being pirated in other ways before digital came on the scene.

I must say I have to agree with him on that. When photocopiers were invented publishers got really worried and tried very hard to keep libraries from making them available to public use because they were sure people were going to use them to copy books. I know some people probably did this, but really, how many of us had the time to stand at a copier duplicating Naked Lunch? And even before that, before international copyright agreements were made, books published in one country were often pirated in another. In Emerson’s letters to Thomas Carlyle, Emerson frequently tells Carlyle to get him a clean print of his new book ASAP so Emerson can get it to the U.S. printer first and earn Carlyle some money before someone else copied it and printed it cheaper. Sure, copying is faster and easier than it has ever been, well easy if you know how to break an ebook’s DRM or have a super-fast book scanner, and distribution is global, but I don’t think it is ruining publishers or authors.

Sorry for stepping up onto the soapbox, I’ll get back to the panel now.

Laurie, the Strib books editor, said she doesn’t review ebooks not because she won’t but because readers aren’t asking her to.

Katie and Guy, the editors of Thirty Two Magazine said they made a decision from the start to not offer a digital version of the magazine. They said printing a single format on paper is not as expensive as having to create various versions of the magazine for all the different digital formats and devices. What they and Carolyn from Coffee House noted as a problem is what Carolyn called “the primacy of cheapness.” The internet created a belief that digital should be free or really cheap. Katie and Guy said that their goal as magazine editors is to create good content and engage the reader, to make the value of the content evident and worth paying for.

It was noted by several on the panel that in spite of the supposed popularity of digital, an author, unless you happen to be someone like Stephen King, still needs a print edition of a book in order to be considered legitimate. People also don’t trust a digital book to be around forever and will buy the books they want to keep in print.

Pretty much everyone on the panel agreed that the digital world has shortened their attention spans. Hans said that he thought edevices create a physical and spiritual exhaustion in people. Nonetheless, there is still a craving for long-form writing said Katie. Laurie added digital was not destroying long books at all and noted the length of Donna Tartt’s newest, which is close to 800 pages, did not seem to be affecting sales.

Carolyn suggested a short attention span seemed to be predicated on what one was reading. If you are reading a riveting book, you are engaged and will keep reading. If, on the other hand, you are reading something junky, you are more willing and more likely to be distracted. Patrick agreed, and said the goal at Milkweed was to create and publish books that were so compelling they created a distraction from all the distractions.

When asked to predict what the world of books and publishing might look like twenty years from now none of them could do it. They did agree that print will always be around because, as Carolyn remarked, print doesn’t go bad or become obsolete. Katie and Guy think there will be a movement toward quality content, that those who publish quality will be the ones who are still around in twenty years. Katie wished that the conversation would change from print versus digital to one about what we are reading and the ideas and issues we are reading about and the effect that has on people and culture.

There was a little time for questions at the end and Bookman boldly asked why print books don’t come bundled with the digital book. Patrick explained that it was mostly because of DRM and distribution issues. You can buy the print book at Micawber’s but where is the digital book going to come from? Bookman was not pleased that they made it out to be a huge insurmountable thing. And I wonder too because why, if I go to the bookstore and buy the print book, can’t I pay a few dollars extra for the digital and get a coupon-sized card with special password to use at the publisher’s website that would allow me to download the book? I wouldn’t have to go through Amazon or Barnes and Noble or anything. As for format, they could offer ePub, mobi and PDF. It can’t possibly be that hard. Oops, that darn soapbox.

Anyway, it was a fun evening. We are glad we had the chance to go.