Will e-books kill great writing? There's an article in the Guardian by Tim Adams about e-books. As with many articles on this topic, there's the obligatory quotes from those who like, those who dislike and those in the middle.
The paper and ink crowd insist that something important is lost when relatively inexpensive bound volumes give way to pricey gadgets with screens and keys. This is true, they insist, whether you're reading Milton and Shakespeare or Morrison and Chabon. Nobody wants to curl up with a Kindle, they say. What is lost is not worth what you get in return.
The digerati trumpet the many benefits of e-books, the portability, the connectedness. Content is content, and curling up with a Kindle (or Nook or Android or iPhone) is only as different from a book as a paperback is from a hardback. Despite the issue of battery life, for which there is no true defense other than a candle lit at the altar of Moore's Law, they insist that what is lost is trivial compared to what you get in return.
The second wavers see and accept the advantages of both sides, and are as likely to have a book reader app on their phone as they are to have 40 to 50 linear feet of books in the house.
The real question is, if content is king, will e-books kill great writing?
n.b. - Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crud."
Consider a world before e-books (like, say, 1983), when publishing followed the traditional paper and ink model of (in order) writers, agents, editors, publishers, printers, wholesalers, dealers, *readers*, remainder and secondhand shops, Goodwill and the landfill. You can insert PR staff, reviewers, publicists, etc. in there where appropriate.
There were so many hurdles to overcome in order to get a book from the writer's typewriter into the reader's hands. At each stage, the ends of the bell curve were clipped. True, some groundbreaking, marvelous books never saw the light of day because they were too different and no one wanted to take a chance on them. However, the majority of what was blocked was at the other end, the lousy end. The filters were at the agent's slush pile, or the editor's cut list or the publisher's prioritized PR budget.
As sad as it is to contemplate, especially for someone who has yet to have a book published, each of these stages of blocking, each of these hurdles were applied because of a risk/benefit calculation. The costs of proceeding outweighed the potential benefit to the agent, publisher, retailer, etc., or at least that's how the calculation went.
So what does this have to do with great writing?
Since e-books are cheaper to make and distribute, a publishing house has less to lose from a flop. There are no remainders, no seconds to dispose of at a loss. There's very little cost in keeping an e-book available on the list of downloadables, so a book that catches fire through some late breaking word of mouth will not be out of print when lightning strikes.
This is great news for publishing houses big and small, but what about the writing?
The high end of the bell curve can be made available, so some potentially great books will come out that wouldn't have otherwise. Unfortunately, it's a skewed curve. The low end will also flourish, as the filters and barriers fall. There was a lot of bad comedy and drama around before cable television, but with many more outlets for it, the proportion of lousy stuff increases.
Great writing won't disappear, but it may become harder to find. The proportions of Sturgeon's Law will shift from 90:10 to 99:1. Finding and promoting the good stuff is hard, and the publishing houses and reviewers (e.g. Kirkus), are in a bad situation for doing that.
Fortunately, social networking has developed in a way such that authors and readers can do more of their own promoting and winnowing. The trick, as always, will be to sort out which of your social contacts are interested in talking about a book or author they like, and which are just trying to sell you something.