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Thirteen Ways of Looking at E-Books

Will e-books really take over the world?

Every so often, somebody asks me for my “opinion” on e-books. I’m not sure why I’m expected to have one – and, if I did, what difference it would make. The assumption, I suppose, is that I’m a writer, and that writers are being rocked by this revolution in the industry. In truth, I’m not particularly interested in e-books, though if my own books are selling in that format I won’t complain. I don’t own a Kindle and expect I never will. I can hardly fail to be aware, however, of the ongoing discussions in which e-books are alternately lauded or condemned.

Those in favour seem particularly effusive, claiming that e-books will break the power of traditional publishers (who, it is assumed, bring out only junk these days), heralding a new era of unfettered creativity, bringing new authors to the fore, and making available vast reserves of neglected backlist. The ability to carry your whole library in one electronic device is seen as an advantage, though the price of e-books isn’t. They should clearly be much cheaper, if not free, and the pirating of e-books hardly counts as crime when publishers are rip-off merchants who deserve all they get. Frequently we are assured that it’s the content that matters, not the container. People who fetishise “dead tree books” are said to be ridiculous, while the dead tree brigade find e-books infuriating: those who use them are vacuous philistines, trampling over treasured traditions of Western culture. And, every so often, somebody asks what happens if you drop a Kindle in a bathtub. If I had one, I’d do it and tell you.

I offer the following observations. There are thirteen of them – like Wallace Stevens’ ways of looking at a blackbird. The Stevens poem shows that blackbirds, and other things, can be looked at from many angles. All are fragments of the truth. So, I think, are these ways of looking at e-books. They are in no particular order. I may contradict myself. I hope I will.


1. THEY’RE HERE. GET USED TO IT. E-books exist and no doubt will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. Those involved in the contemporary world of books and writing must accustom themselves to this fact.

2. MONEY, MONEY, MONEY. Authors who claim to hate e-books are probably lying. Even those published by traditional publishers receive considerably higher royalties on e-book sales. Also, e-books encourage impulse purchases. The Internet, for all the talk of democracy, communication, etc., is a vast vending machine. It makes people buy things. That is what it is for. It would be disingenuous for any but the wealthiest writers to pretend they’re not interested in sales. We all are. This isn’t about being mercenary or only in it for the money. It’s basic survival: if your books don’t sell, you won’t publish more of them – at any rate, not with publishers who pay. If e-books make us money, then we like e-books.

3. SHOOT THE GATEKEEPERS. Much has been made of authors’ new-found ability to bypass traditional publishers, uploading work directly to Amazon and elsewhere. At last “the gatekeepers” – depicted, inevitably, as cynical, corrupt, and operating an old-boys’ network – will be pushed aside, and “the public” can decide what it wants to read. We are told that vast numbers of deserving, even brilliant manuscripts are regularly rejected by the hated “gatekeepers.” I’m not convinced. Anyone who has read a publishers’ slush pile could tell you that the 99.9 per cent of it which is rejected is, mostly, rejected for good reasons. Everything written does not deserve to be published.

(Those who speak out against traditional publishers seem remarkably sanguine about throwing in their lot with Amazon. There’s a beggars-can’t-be-choosers aspect to this, it’s true, and we may yet all end up as beggars, but still, it’s nothing to celebrate. Literary people persist in thinking of Amazon as a bookseller. It isn’t. It started out selling books because books are easy to warehouse and ship; now it sells anything it can market online. Amazon makes available many diverse products, each of which may have a small individual sale; where e-books are concerned, it would be happy to stock a million titles by a million different authors which each sold one copy to the author’s best friend. Result: Amazon sells a million books; each author makes next to nothing. This is no way to build the careers of unknown writers.)

4. PLEASURES OF THE SENSES. Every new technology strips sensuality from the world. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield said of automobiles, “I’d rather have a goddam horse. At least a horse is human, for God’s sake.” This isn’t just a joke. It’s a profound observation. How much are we prepared to sacrifice for the sake of convenience? Everything, of course. Electric light is less sensual than candlelight; e-mails are less sensual than letters; CDs are less sensual than LPs; iPods are less sensual than CDs. There’s no romance in a Kindle – which, I observe in passing, must be one of the ugliest consumer electronics products ever devised.

5. CAN PAY, WON’T PAY. “Reading should be a right, not a privilege,” said the advertising copy for one online bookseller. One might say the same thing about owning a BMW. Why should a book, in any format, be cheaper than a trip to Starbucks? The deep discounting of books came to the fore in Britain with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1997. It made possible the selling of books in supermarkets as “loss leaders” – cheap things to tempt customers into the store. If you went to Asda to buy a Harry Potter book, you were probably going to stick around and buy some groceries, too. It gave us Amazon, on which nobody pays full price for any halfway popular book; it brought us the frenzied selling of J. K. Rowling titles at competitively knock-down prices. What other industry allows its most (commercially) successful products to be marketed like this? It’s crazy, and the culture this has created bears fruit in the contemporary e-evangelist’s outrage at being expected to pay for reading matter.

6. BACKLIST BACK AND FORTH. Why is it a good thing that backlist (books published in the past) should be constantly available? When Virago began republishing neglected novels by women in the 1970s, the very fact that these books were published to a schedule, in distinctive jackets, generated interest. The appearance of new titles was an event. (Ditto more recent re-publishers such as the stylish Persephone Books.) An e-backlist is only desirable if people look at it and buy from it. Most e-backlist, like almost all self-published books, will languish for eternity in the e-garbage bin. The most important truth about publishing is this: It isn’t enough to make something available. It isn’t enough just to be published. You have to be published well.

7. THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE. Those who think “content” is the only important thing about books have forgotten, or never encountered, the key quotation from Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964). What is the message of an e-book, as opposed to a book? Something, I suspect, about malleability, impermanence, and instantaneity. Reading a book on screen is not the same as reading it on paper, and logically it cannot be. Children were once taught to revere books – to destroy a book, or deface it deliberately, was felt to be a depraved act. Historically, I suspect, this has two origins: (1) the relative scarcity – and expensiveness – of books in the past; (2) the analogy, which runs deep in Western culture, between books, in general, and the holy book. As a child, I once ripped up a Bible. No one caught me or punished me. The act filled me with a sense of power, but then came shame. I have never destroyed another book. The physical existence of books is part of their power: sensual, cultural, imaginative, emotional. An all e-book world will not be the same.

(I observe at this point, and it isn’t tangential, that since early childhood I have loved books: their look, touch, smell, the binding, the illustrations, the feel of pages turning. I don’t care – much – about rare books or deluxe editions. I can love a tatty paperback, yellowed and brittle with age and with the cover hanging off, as much as, if not more than, a signed first edition. I love books for their longevity: there’s something moving about an old book which has travelled down the years, long surviving its original owner. I love books: I’m not giving all this up for an ugly piece of plastic.)

8. DEAD TREE BOOKS AREN’T ATTRACTIVE ANY MORE. Those who decry the loss of traditional books forget how ugly and shabby “dead tree books” have been for at least a generation. The average modern hardcover is nowhere near as well-produced as hardcovers used to be. The clunky, over-large quarto format introduced by many publishers around thirty years ago is one example; the ubiquitous use of “perfect binding” is another; paper stock, in modern books, is frequently abysmal. Many British publishers should be ashamed of their rubbishy production standards. British books were once beautiful. Short of buying all our books from the Folio Society, what motivation is there for us to keep supporting a product which, after years of cost-cutting, has overthrown and trampled on its own best traditions? Many new hardcovers fall to bits as quickly as paperbacks. Read them once and the spines are pushed permanently out of shape. Paperbacks tend to be better, but few modern paperbacks are as appealing as an orange-banded Penguin from sixty years ago.

9. SELF-PUBLISHED E-BOOKS ARE ALL, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, SHIT. There is no evidence that e-books will allow good writing, which is presently overlooked, to come to the fore. The proof lies in those few self-published e-books which have already come to the fore. Patently, the e-book revolution favours trash: erotica, aka pornography; fan fiction; genre fiction of the lowest kind. The debasement of public taste is not a cause for celebration.

10. MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS. Reading is felt to be an inherently virtuous activity. We are never told why. How is perusing Twilight or The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey better than watching television or playing a computer game? I don’t think it is. But let us assume that reading is a good thing. Let us assume, too, that what people read, how they read it, and where, when, and why they read it are no business of anybody else’s. We would all be happier if we stopped worrying about things that other people do over which we can have no control, and shouldn’t want to have control. We can, if we are lucky, save ourselves. We cannot save the world.

11. PLEASURES OF SCARCITY. I don’t want to carry all my books around with me. Some years ago I went away for two weeks to an obscure part of the world where no easy supplies of books were available. I took just one with me: War and Peace, the Maude translation in a hefty 1940s hardcover edition. It was heavy to carry, but I didn’t mind. At every opportunity, I read the book. I had nothing to distract me – no newspapers, no websites, no mail, no email; reading it was an intense experience. Having a thousand other books on a Kindle would have ruined it. It is a fallacy, in fact a form of stupidity, to assume that abundance – in many things, or even in anything at all – is a good thing. Having too much is as bad as not having enough.

12. THEY’RE NOT WORTH ALL THIS FUSS. E-books will not take over the world. They will grow to whatever their saturation point may be, then stabilise at a certain level of sales. They are not a replacement for books. They are another alternative format, like audiobooks: convenient in some contexts, and that is all.

13. THEY’RE HERE, BUT NOT FOR LONG. Doing everything electronically is felt to be not only modern and progressive but an inevitable development. Some laud the supposed “ecological” benefits. There is nothing “ecological” about information technology. We need only consider how computers are both made and, after a couple of years, junked: e-books, and computers generally, depend on oil-derived plastics, fresh water – used copiously in their manufacture – and precious metals. They won’t work without regular, cheap, and unfettered supplies of electrical power. There are good reasons for assuming that electricity will not, in our overstretched world, be freely available in the future to the extent that it is today. Ditto oil, plastic, etc. Within a few decades we could be, probably will be, facing shortages which will render moot any discussion of the dangers of abundance. The computer revolution will, in all likelihood, be a fleeting episode in the human story.