An American Editor

February 18, 2013

Are eBooks the Death Knell of Authorial Greatness?

I was sitting in my library and my eyes scanned the bookshelves filled with hardcovers. I occasionally would pause on a title and think about the book’s contents. It is not that I remember every book in my library sufficiently that I can recall the content of each as if I had just read the book yesterday; rather, it is that I can recall having read each book and for many of the books, I can recall the content at least generally.

I then thought about my ebooks. The number of ebooks I have read since buying my first ebook reader far exceeds the number of pbooks I have read in the same time frame, yet I can rarely recall an ebook like I can recall the hardcovers on my library shelves.

Part of the problem, I think, is that recalling my library books involves a visual scan of its shelves, something that is easy to do with shelves of hardcover books staring at me and difficult to do with ebooks because that casual eyescan is not as readily accomplished. This visual scanning acts as a stimulus to my memory because it thrusts the title to the front of my mind, which triggers the content recall. (This is also why good cover design is important. Covers — even ebook covers — act as memory triggers.)

This led me to wonder about authorial greatness and the problem of out of sight, out of mind. Authors like Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, and Hemingway carved their greatness in an era in which their books would appear on library shelves (personal and public) and each time a person scanned the library shelf looking for a book, one of their books would present itself. This has begun to change with ebooks, especially with those books that are published only as ebooks. (Books that are also available as print-on-demand books but not as mass distributed pbooks are, for all intents and purposes, available only as ebooks and should be viewed that way.)

I think most ebookers probably store read ebooks and never peruse them again. I wouldn’t be surprised if many ebookers simply delete read ebooks from their devices. The devices are designed to highlight new purchases, not to scan library shelves. When we are faced with new ebooks that we have yet to read, I suspect that most of us quickly choose the next available not-yet-read ebook and go no further. This is unlike the experience with a library of pbooks that are physically always in front of you and reminding you that a book is available for rerreading (or even for reading for the first time), even if we rarely reread a book. The point is that the library of pbooks constantly acts as a stimulus for recalling the content of the pbooks, and this phenomenon is lacking with ebooks.

Getting back to the great authors like Dickens, Twain, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, I think part of their lasting greatness is a result of their pbooks being always in front of us. I grant that the bulk of their greatness lies in their writing, but even great tomes can fall into obscurity when they are absent from the eyes of readers. Part of the reason I think this is truth is that I have tried, unsuccessfully, to identify any ebook-only author of the past decade who is viewed similarly to Hemingway or Steinbeck.

I am not talking about sales numbers; I am talking about backlist longevity and how readers talk about the author and the author’s ebooks. I understand that an ebook can sell hundreds of thousands of copies and earn an author millions of dollars (need we look any further than Shades of Grey?), but popular sales within a short time span are not reflective of longevity, quality, or any other characteristic that one might apply to a Dickens or a Steinbeck.

Which makes me wonder whether ebook-only publishing is the death knell of authorial greatness?

Whether Steinbeck is a great writer or a hack is a subject for debate. Similarly, whether J.A. Konrath is a great writer or a hack is a subject for debate. What is not a subject for debate is that if one were to ask knowledgable readers to name 10 authors who are recognized generally as being great authors, the likelihood is greater that Steinbeck will appear on the list than will Konrath. Readers over the decades have coalesced around certain writings that are considered timeless for one reason or another, with the result that the books by such authors are repeatedly recommended over decades and generations.

At least to date, each of those “great” authors’ books were published as pbooks and mass distributed — and continue to be available as pbooks and mass distributed, even if also available as ebooks. Perhaps this will change as ebooks become more commonplace, but I wonder if ebook-only authors will ever reach that pantheon of greatness populated by Dickens and Hemingway, and if the reason why they do not will be that they are ebook-only authors and thus lack the library eyescanning that reminds a reader of a book’s (and author’s) existence.

There are a lot of reasons why an ebook is viewed as superior to a pbook, but none of those reasons addresses the issue of future generations recognizing authorial greatness. Are there any of us who think 30 years from now any of J.A. Konrath’s ebooks will be required or recommended reading? Do any of us think they will even be remembered? Do we think, however, that A Tale of Two Cities may well be required, recommended, and remembered?

Again, I am not knocking ebook-only authors like Konrath who sell hundreds of thousands of ebooks. Rather, I am wondering if authorial greatness — something that very few authors attain —  that lasts decades and generations is obtainable in a world in which eyescanning of a pbook library’s shelves is absent. Will the transition to ebooks and ebook-only authors decrease the pool of authors available for authorial greatness? Will the transition distort authorial greatness so that it is very time limited and transitory, resting primarily on sales numbers?

I do not have the answers and it will be many years before the answers are available, but I do know that when I sit in my library and scan its shelves of hardcovers, I can recall having read the books and the pleasure they gave me, whereas with my ereader, I generally only see the newest books I bought that I haven’t yet read and never see the ebooks I bought and read 4 years ago.

9 Comments »

  1. Your thesis is compelling, unfortunately. It reminds me that many of the works I studied in my university literature courses were neither particularly popular when they were published nor sold thousands of copies; the appreciation of those who valued their greatness seem to be the only reason they’re still “alive,” and it often took many years before their future was assured. In any case, books that survive through generations of readers are an extremely small share of all books published. These factors seem to mitigate against the longevity of even great ebooks.

    On the other hand, maybe no modern-authored ebook yet published meets the criteria for great literature, whatever they may be: Ebooks haven’t been produced for longer than the last ten years or so. Maybe a great one will last, somehow. And the accessibility of the electronic publishing medium may mean many more books will be published per year than ever before, which may increase the number of “great books” able to live on.

    But the “out of sight, out of mind” problem is compelling. Maybe the lack of physicality of ebooks could be ameliorated by long, horizontal touchscreens hanging on a bookstore or library wall, slowly scanning spines of all the available ebooks; touching one allows browsing the book or loads it onto the viewer’s ebook reader and either pays for it or records it as borrowed.

    Comment by Ward Webber — February 18, 2013 @ 10:50 am | Reply

  2. [...] read this article entitled “Are eBooks the Death Knell of [...]

    Pingback by pbooks | Eight Cousins — February 18, 2013 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

  3. Great analysis! Perhaps one day everyone will have a wall sized screen projecting a virtual bookcase filled with virtual book spines. Wave your hand and the spines move across the screen. Touch one and the book opens on your tablet. Or right in the air like a hologram. Yes, we’ll all have a thousand books of light until the electrical grid blows. Then we’re back to telling stories around the fireplace, if we can remember any.

    Comment by Annette Leach — February 19, 2013 @ 12:50 am | Reply

  4. Interesting thoughts. I tend to forget what books (not a lot) I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle for PC. Hard copies sit in a stack, also unread, but the pile reminds me they’re there.

    There’s nothing like the smell of a book, the feeling of the pages, etc. When we were kids, we’d sometimes judge a book by its smell. British children’s books smelled different from standard American children’s books, which smelled different from cheap wartime children’s books or Hardy Boys with browning pages.

    I hope future generations don’t lose contact with real books. But then, real old-timers might have complained that there was nothing like reading a scroll in a monastery.

    Comment by Gretchen — February 19, 2013 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  5. I remember most of the ebooks I have read. It helps that I catalogue them in them in Goodreads, and will occasionally go through the list to see what I have read. I think similar thing is going on here. I don’t need a huge bookshelf to remind of the content of the book. I go through the web-based books and can recall each book because I also have a small review with the books.

    Before I did this, there were plenty of physical books I forgot I read to the point where I had someone tell me how great a book was, told them I would check it out only to find it siting on my shelf. I read the book and even staring at it in that moment couldn’t recall it.

    Obviously, this is a small sample, but I think the way people remember and their forms of recall may be what counts here.

    Comment by Susan Lulgjuraj — February 22, 2013 @ 12:20 am | Reply

  6. Interesting post. I too spend a lot of time scanning my shelves, indeed anything I really like gets purchased as a paper book to go up there. But as for your proposition? I think it may be too soon to tell. One of the other big factors about authors like Steinbeck and Hemingway and Dickens is that they’ve been around a long time. Our parents spoke of them, our teachers spoke of them, their names come up in movies and on television. You hear about them in so many ways that they’re definitely locked into your memory. Some ebook authors may be selling lots, but they’re not selling as widely – yet – unless they also make the move to pbooks. So, unless you’re a very young reader, you’re not likely to be hearing about ebook authors from your parents and teachers yet, and there aren’t many on-screen mentions; they aren’t yet well entrenched. That may change, but it may take a generation or two.

    Comment by Geoff Worboys — March 5, 2013 @ 5:48 am | Reply

  7. [...] In a recent post on An American Editor, Rich Adin posits that eBooks may be sounding the death knell for authorial greatness (see Are eBooks the Death Knell of Authorial Greatness?). [...]

    Pingback by The Little Man Who Wasn’t There | An American Editor — March 13, 2013 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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