If You Can Read This, Thank a Writer

We who work for newspapers have a love/hate relationship with the Internet. On the one hand, more people than ever — millions every week — are reading our product. On the other hand, fewer are paying for it. Search engines, such as Google, make it easier to look up information, but they’re pirates that make money off print content without paying for it. Facebook and Twitter get our names in front of new noses for free, which is good, but those sites require constant care and feeding.

For young readers, paperless newspapers are preferable because they’re presumed to be good for the environment. For old news hands, however, paperless means free. Well-meaning people now chime in and suggest that newspapers could make more money by dispensing with print. They don’t understand that pop-up ads generally don’t produce the revenue needed to bankroll a room full of editors and reporters.

With e-books, finally there’s an advance that bridges the two worlds. Paperless need not mean payless anymore.

It’s not a new technology, I know. I bought my parents a Kindle two years ago, and I’ve had my Nook for about as long. The Wall Street Journal reports that there are 40 million e-readers and 65 million tablets — iPads and other devices. In the first quarter of this year, e-books generated more revenue than paper books.

The San Francisco Chronicle now boasts an iPad app and an e-edition, which allow readers to browse an on-screen version of the print edition.

Political writers have seized the opportunity to produce the sort of books on the presidential campaign trail that used to appear postelection but now run in installments as the election plays out. Already, writers at Politico and RealClearPolitics have released two books each on the 2012 presidential race.

The walls at the home of South Dakota author Joseph Bottum are lined with beautiful books carefully collected over a lifetime of loving literature. “I like the physical object of a book,” Bottum told me. “It’s a technology that I was trained very young to use.” In this brave new world, this bibliophile is working on his third Kindle Single, this one on New York Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.

With magazines running shorter pieces on fluffy topics, Bottum told me, “the long-form essay has become harder and harder to place, which puts writers in an awkward spot. Either they write short or they write books.” E-books signal an opportunity for strong writing to “find its natural market without the high overhead that magazines had.”

Nick Dunne, the protagonist in Gillian Flynn’s new novel, “Gone Girl,” was a New York magazine writer before magazines began “shuttering, succumbing to a sudden infection brought on by the busted economy.” He was on the top of the world — actually getting paid to write — when suddenly, he laments, writers “were like women’s hat makers or buggy-whip manufacturers.”

I read those words on an e-book. And I wonder whether technology and innovation finally have come to the rescue.

Email Debra J. Saunders at: [email protected].

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