E-books and great writing

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.


  1. One of the things that worries me is the e-book publisher who eschews ISBN numbers. One such publisher is interested in one of my books - but I'm afraid that it will be regarded as 'crap' of it doesn't have an ISBN. I also feel if I publish my book as an e-book it won't have the same status as a 'properly' published book. Does anyone have an opinion on this?

  2. Eva I think that at the moment this is a developing market so some people will think that it isn't properly published but this number is growing smaller.

    You can buy ISBNs and I think there are places you can get like single ones from resellers rather than having to buy a bundle. ISBNs just mean that the work can be referred to and searched/found easily - it does not denote quality.

    Tony - I think that the amount of work people will have avalible means that groups will emerge - so instead of having over night success or even a slow climb to super stardom will no longer happen. There will be more medium level stuff - some of which may indeed gain a large following but it will be more akin to 1800's interlectualism than the media circus of today.

    thankyou for posting


  3. Eva: I think there is a mindset that "real" books still come on paper. I think that will have to change. The economics of processing and distributing thousands of tons of paper in order to put content into peoples hands is just crazy compared to the alternative.

    Sarah: I agree, the mid-list as we know it will swell up like a star at the end of its life. It may continue like that, with a million authors each making a thousand dollars (rather than ten thousand authors making ten thousand each). At the high end will still be the blockbusters. At the low end, the mass of people who publish unedited, low-quality books will expand dramatically.

    I could slap a book up onto Amazon's Kindle download service right now; that doesn't mean it would be worth buying, even a $0.99.

  4. Change is always interesting. Over the last couple days (Mon & Tues), I have seen several posts on the topic of ebooks and publishing. They make me nervous - I published a wee ebook Sunday afternoon.

    I readily admit it's a Beta, perhaps even Alpha product. Truth is, I wanted to find out what it was like to go through the process, learn the technology, and plain and simple see what happens. Nothing gets done if you wait for perfection.

    The idea that change is happening so rapidly is an important one. Innovation in products is most readily accepted when it closely resembles the existing form of the product. The fact that eReaders more closely resemble laptops or tablet computers is, I believe, alienating to traditionalists. Is the value a book the story, or is it the ink and paper?

    The market is too large and too varied for a single solution, methinks.

  5. Trev: I'm reminded of comments from people bemoaning the loss of tactile interaction, and deliberate thinking, etc. when going from a typewriter to a computer. Much of the dissatisfaction of the traditionalists will fade with the passing of the generational torch, and flipping screens will be as natural as turning pages.

    Speaking of the form factor of e-readers, a fascinating study of the form factor of the book (pages, binding, spines, hard covers, etc.) is "The Book on the Bookshelf" by Henry Petroski. There are a lot of insights to be had in trying to predict what e-readers will look like in 20 years.

  6. ISBNs are a bad idea, firstly because they are a misnomer, they are really publisher number with a print-run suffix for each book.

    A real book ID number system has yet to be developed.

    ISBNs are old tech thinking, designed for old-style print publishing, and mostly for the convienence of the publishing houses themselves.

    The same book from two different publishers will have completely different numbers. Bad design.

    The fact that they cost money for "administration" shows how silly they are.

  7. oh, and good books are produced by a group of people, there might be one writer, but to bring them to market takes a team.

    The team, the social media is the filter.

    Bye bye publishing houses. (And Good riddance to Rupert Murdoch I say).

  8. meika said: The team, the social media is the filter.

    Exactly. Putting a book out there is the work of an hour. Having it take off and actual reach more than pure vanity press-type distribution, i.e. bought by people who are not your family and/or friends, you need to have a social circle to assist in spreading word of mouth. A sine qua non here is writing that is actually, well, good.

    Bye bye publishing houses.

    Perhaps not gone entirely, but they will exist as the editors and PR people that can improve and publicize a manuscript.


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