In my bedroom there’s a thick wall of books, seven piles across, and about fifteen titles deep. This is where my overflow has gone to, through lack of bookshelf space, and I find I don’t mind at all. The books are gorgeous, shiny, vividly colourful and promising and every time I look at them (and I look at them a lot), I see ones I want to pluck from the pile right away and start reading. And I wondered to myself: if these books didn’t exist in paper form, if they were only a list of titles on a kindle, would I be so keen to read them? The answer was a resounding ‘no’. Instead, confronted with a numbered list of contents, I’d have to face up to how many books I actually possess (undoubtedly more than I can read) and feel obliged to be sensible in future. The ones at the far end of the list, like the titles on the back end of my amazon wish list, would have trouble ringing bells in my memory – why did I buy that book again? What did I want it for? And I would be cut off from the sense of variety that the real book gives me; the longing for a fat embossed book after a slim literary novel, the desire for that slightly battered paperback that I bought when I was in my twenties working at the bookstore, a big, beautiful hardback, the neat smallness of an old-fashioned crime novel. On an electronic device, it would just be a lot of pages, all samey, just more stuff to read.
Another anecdote: on holiday, for the first time in four years, my son read a whole fiction novel. He’d seen me read it, and then he’d watched his father read it. We’d discussed it together and laughed about it (it was David Nicholl’s Starter For Ten, a very, very funny book, warmly recommended). And then one afternoon he picked it up and started reading it, and didn’t stop until he got to the end. He had to look at that book long enough for it to become an object of desire to him. If he’d been staring at the back of a kindle screen, he wouldn’t have evolved an interest in that specific book, wouldn’t have seen anything different to what he’s seen day in day out all his life (his mother reading). It could just as easily have provoked a desire in him for a nintendo rather than a novel.
At the moment ebooks are subject to hard sell because publishers think they want us to have them. They have novelty on their side. And in a society where the paramount consumer desire is for new hi-tech gadgetry, they really ought to sell – no conditions could be more favourable. But I’m curious about what will happen five years down the line, when the novelty has worn off. In a world where shopping depends on visibility (being able to see and covet what we want) and variety (we want something different to what we have already), what will make us buy MORE ebooks when we already have some? We’ll just be purchasing more pages of text on a screen, exchanging money for something highly ephemeral. Unless you’re actually reading the book, there’ll be nothing to show beyond an icon, and how many of those would you really line up in advance, and then still want in six month’s time, when the first joy of ownership has worn off?
As negative as all this sounds, I am not in fact in opposition to ebooks. What I’m in opposition to is the idea that the opportunity they represent will be squandered by desperate publishers, trying to use them to replace the paper book entirely. I think that ebooks are potentially excellent for specific things, and here’s some of them:
Travel – this has always seemed an excellent idea; you take the kindle or whatever, rather than lug around all the novels you might want in a fortnight. Not so great if you drop on the tracks getting out of the train or the batteries go flat as you’re waiting for a delayed flight in an airport at midnight, but still, there are evident advantages.
Research – marvelous for academics trying to get hold of rare books, out of print books, books that few libraries bought, books in the library of your own university when it’s vacation time. Also good for carrying all the books around that you might need to write an article, say, and for searching texts online. Also, I would have thought that academic publishing could gain a new lease of life and finally stop whining about low print runs.
New writing – edgy, exciting, unusual new writing, niche writing, poetry, all the risk areas of the publishing world that have been pruned out of existence thanks to the big conglomerates could be put out in ebook format. The point being you could publish relatively cheaply, have fewer concerns about bestsellers, and then hopefully convert cautious readers to writing they might otherwise never have tried. You’d have to hope the publishers were sensible and didn’t attach an unreasonable price tag, or else it would never work.
Subscriptions – I could really see this working with genre fiction: crime, romance, sci-fi. You subscribe to a publisher and once a month, say, you’d get the latest publication in your ereader. It would be a way to try out new authors, be assured of your favourite reading matter, have the excitement of a new book coming your way, and again, you’d hope to benefit from discounted rates.
Self-publishing – this is a double-edged sword. As the barriers to getting published by the traditional route become ever more ludicrous, more and more thwarted authors are going to turn to ebook publishing. But beware: when people really wise up to how easy this is to do, it could mean turning on your ereader and being informed that every day, another couple of hundred titles are out. And how to distinguish between them? But still, exciting new authors could still make it through this way.
Freebies – again, as many disadvantages as advantages. Sure, free stuff is great, but those who want to protect library funding need to watch out for this. Governments are reluctant enough to spend money on libraries as it is, and if they felt that anyone who wanted to read free books could do so easily enough via the Gutenburg project, the backlists of modern classic authors and new publicity offers made by publishers, then the reasons for expensive state libraries start to look shaky, particularly as the older, technology-unfriendly generations die out. Remember that they are looking for reasons not to fund. But used wisely, the free offer could attract a lot more people towards reading, and encourage readers to read more widely.
So, generally my point is, if ebooks want to have a long, sustainable life, they need to offer something specific and different, something that exploits their unique advantages. Ebooks could be such a wonderful supplement to the book market, opening new sectors up, tempting people to read more because they have a variety of ways to enjoy reading, offering publishers and readers alike access to forms of writing we might have had to lose due to the strictures of profitable commerce. But I feel we need to think about what ebooks do well and what they do badly. What makes them desirable, beyond novelty? Otherwise, readers will be confronted in a few year’s time with little more than boring black plastic devices and an ocean of undifferentiated text – publicity chapters, bestsellers, self-published books of dubious quality, old classics, out of print non-fiction – and none of it will look special or particular or even particularly desirable. Just pages and pages of homogenized type – the part of the book that the actual, real, hold-in-your-hand, book-as-lovely-object is designed to make you forget. Even I would want to step away from that and find something else to do.