An American Editor

April 28, 2010

eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round II

When you have 1 million books to choose among, how do you choose which to buy and read? Even when the number was just 10,000 (last seen probably in the late 18th century), the task was daunting. But there was a process that worked — perhaps not with the greatest efficiency — until the rise of ebooks and print on demand (POD).

Admittedly, the process let any number of worthy books fall through the cracks. I have no doubt that among the lost were another Philip Roth or Ray Bradbury or Elizabeth Peters. No matter the method, none is perfect. But the process, in its original incarnation, nurtured writing and enabled the discovery of literature (see eBooks & the Downfall of Literature: The Great Debate – Round I for a discussion of literature).

In the early days, every author was self-published. But as the numbers of publications grew and the cost of publishing grew, self-publishing became publishing companies looking to make a profit. Along with the profit motive came a gatekeeper role (for an earlier discussion of ebooks and gatekeeping see The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role). Publishers both created and reacted to the reading market.

As gatekeepers, publishers separated author manuscripts according to house criteria. Two of many criteria were likelihood of sales and literature value. Publishers separated the haves from the have nots. I grant that the process didn’t stop there and that further culling of the haves occurred. After all, this was a business. But this initial culling made the universe of manuscripts signficantly smaller and thus made it possible for a consensus to be built about the literary merits of particular books.

Book reviews continued the process even after publication. Nearly every newspaper had a book reviewer and reputations for quality reviews were built. A cadre of professional book reviewers came into being, reviewers who were supposed to look past popularity and look for literature. A favorable book review from a recognized reviewer was important to the success of a new book.

Also important was book club acceptance. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, organizations like the Book-of-the-Month Club wielded enormous clout. Consequently, a book that reviewers deemed literature got that extra shove and was pushed on a broader population. Book clubs and reviewers acted as consensus builders and when publishers, book clubs, reviewers, and readers all came together on a book, the book was closer to literature status than ever.

eBooks and POD have come about in an era when book clubs barely exist and wield little to no power and when reviewers with broad reputations are scarce. Whereas every newspaper once had a book review section, now only a handful do and those are declining.

But I can hear the clamor now: There are thousands of book reviewers on the Internet! First, I ask you to compare. Compare a review in the New York Review of Books with a review from your usual book review site on the Internet. The difference in quality should be obvious in most instances. Second, what do you know about your Internet book reviewer? What makes him or her qualified to review a book other than that they may have read it? A well-written book review, like a well-written book, is much more than a rehash of the plot and a thumbs up or down. The review itself is worthy reading.

Compare these reviews of Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War: a “professional” reviewer’s review from the New York Review of Books, customer reviews at, and reader reviews from It isn’t that the latter two sources aren’t useful, it is that the NYRB review is worthy writing itself.

The credibility of the reviewer is also important. It isn’t that customer reviews aren’t worth considering, especially for a book’s readability; but what about subject matter knowledge? Isn’t that an important component of a review? What about having read prior works on the same topic and comparing past books with the new effort? Isn’t that an important review component?

With the demise of the traditional publishing system and the overtaxing of readers by numbers of books published, it is increasingly difficult to create a consensus as to whether or not a book is literature. Where previously dilution was minimal (relatively speaking), with the addition of self-published ebooks and POD books dilution is extensive.

Of the 1 million books published in 2009, how many did you read? Not just buy, but actually read? How many do you think any reader read? How can we build consensus when we read so few of so many?

eBooks and POD will be the downfall of literature because it will become ever more impossible for a sufficient number of readers to come to agreement on whether or not a book deserves the accolade of literature. This is not to say that controls to limit the number of books published should be imposed; rather, it is to say that there needs to be some method for separating dreck from literature.

The debate continues in round III…


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