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.

February 11, 2010

A Modest Proposal V: Libraries & Indies in the eBook Age

Recent posts on some blogs and forums I visit have questioned the future viability of libraries in the future ebook world. These got me thinking about libraries and independent bookstores.

I think libraries are the repositories of knowledge; it would be tragic if they disappeared, removing a fantastic resource for learning and knowledge. Libraries are a great way to introduce children to the wonders of books and reading. When my children were young, library visits were a weekly excursion and I expect to repeat the same with my grandchildren.

But now libraries — and independent bookstores — face a threat of extinction through the growth of ebooks. I admit that my power in Washington is nil and that getting Congress to do anything to protect libraries in the digital age is beyond my abilities. So, instead, I’m offering a modest proposal that, hopefully, doesn’t take an act of overpaid politicians to accomplish. I admit that the idea is in the germinal stage, but I also think it’s one worth exploring.

I modestly propose that libraries and independent bookstores combine and create a new entity that I’ll call the Lindie for want of better imagination (shall we hold a contest for a better name?).

Currently, many communities have at least one large building dedicated to the local library. If there is an independent bookstore in the community, it usually is a very small affair and in precarious financial condition.

As things are presently constructed, libraries and indies work against each other’s best interests. Indies want to discourage readers from borrowing, preferring that they buy, and libraries want to encourage borrowing. Additionally, indies have to fight against online booksellers, the growing ebook market, and the chain bookstores — very daunting tasks. Libraries have to deal with declining numbers of readers.

But what if my local library became a book mall, a Lindie, a place where I can both borrow and buy? I would readily give up visits to Barnes & Noble and online book buying, and if not give up entirely, at least significantly reduce those visits and buying. The Lindie would be my choice for one-stop shopping for the reader.

No indie bookstore can carry on its shelves the variety of books that the library can; they simply can’t afford to. Many indie bookstores supplement their current books with “antiquarian” and specialty offerings. Think about a reader browsing the library shelves and then wandering over to the  in-library bookseller and buying a print or ebook version.

The indie bookstore would pay a rental income and perhaps a percentage of sales to the library, thereby helping the library fund its own purchases. The library would provide the shelf material, the inventory so to speak, for the bookseller. More importantly, the combined resources of the Lindie could enable the purchase or lease of an Espresso-type machine (the one that prints books to order, not the coffee type). Currently, this is cost prohibitive for most small indie bookstores.

Someone who read a borrowed book and really liked it or wanted to give it as a gift to a relative or friend could get a copy printed at a discount or purchase an ebook version on the spot. And because of lower business costs, the indie bookstore would be better able to compete against Amazon and B&N by offering  a comparable discount and still make money.

Suppose the indie had a book that someone was looking to read but didn’t want to buy and which was missing from the library’s collection. Why not have a system where the indie supplemented the library’s lending collection? Perhaps by directly lending for a fee or by allowing the library to “lease” the book on behalf of the borrower.

And don’t forget the marketing capabilities. Think about combined marketing and advertising, especially around holidays.

But, you ask, how does this help the library in the age of ebooks? By providing funds to the library to purchase and expand their pbook and ebook offerings, by offering a single place for book lovers to go and thus increasing lending, which is often the basis for financing, and by giving libraries a source of revenue they currently do not have. For the indies, the advantages are lower costs and a better ability to compete.

One other advantage to indies and libraries is that many libraries have community rooms, places to hold readings, signings, children’s activities, senior meetings, and the like. The indies could sponsor more community events to draw in community members and the libraries could offer those events at minimal to no cost it.

By turning into a book mall where one can both borrow and buy books in either ebook or pbook form, the Lindie offers a way to save two endangered species: the local library and the local bookstore. It’s a win-win, I think.

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