Remember the vision of the paperless office? When personal computers first took off, it was predicted that the mounds of space-eating paper that any kind of business (including a writer’s personal business of writing) demands would become obsolete, as everything from corporate contracts to canceled checks was stored electronically. It didn’t happen, and not because text and images couldn’t be reproduced in electronic form. The problem was, and still is, that as the computer industry has gotten further and further entrenched in its model of competitive operating systems and rapid obsolescence, it has become impossible to count on access over time to material stored even a few years in the past.
Besides being a mystery writer, I’m a therapist who’s been seeing clients online for the past ten years. Both confidentiality and documentation are important to mental health professionals, however they work. I see clients in a secure chat room that makes transcripts accessible online only to me—and deletes them after 18 months. I recently heard from a former client who wanted me to write a letter attesting to something we’d discussed in 2007. I reviewed the entire record of his treatment so I could respond appropriately. It was available only because I’d printed out transcripts of every session at the time and kept them all in a paper file in the same kind of file cabinet I used to use in office practice.
So how about my writing records? I have manuscripts I stored up to ten years ago on floppy disks. I can read them only because my seven-year-old computer still has a floppy disk drive. Even so, some of the old disks can become corrupted, and I can’t access that material at all.
Archivists and historians are currently mourning the decline of the personal letter, which in the past has provided a huge body of source material. People don’t write letters any more. They send emails—which may be deleted on the spot by the recipient or lost when the sender changes his or her email software or simply upgrades to the next version.
The Kindle and other e-readers are evidently here to stay. Everyone who has one seems to love it. Royalties on Kindle editions seem to be competitive. And authors are enthusiastic about using it to keep their backlists available. This makes them good for both authors and readers, especially series-loving mystery readers.
So what’s the catch? Books bought in Kindle or another electronic format are accessible only as long as the device they’re stored on doesn’t become obsolete. And new versions, not to mention competing devices, are already proliferating. The computer industry has given us no reason to believe they’ll make sure books we bought for the Kindle of 2010 will be readable on the Kindle of 2015. So readers who loaded up on the complete works of Shakespeare and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone from A to U this year may have to buy these books again.
Mystery readers in particular are great re-readers. I love to take out a cherished volume in battered paperback—Gaudy Night or Brat Farrar, for example. I have a trade paper copy of Pride and Prejudice that I acquired in college fifty years ago and still dip into occasionally. I have a complete set of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances that I inherited from my Aunt Anna, who died at 96, leaving towering piles of mysteries and Harlequins. Heyer is still a favorite comfort read. I read with a bandanna spread out on my lap to catch the flakes that crumble from the brittle pages and use a rubber band to hold them together, since all the glue has vanished from the spine. But I don’t have to buy another copy.