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.

July 23, 2012

eBook vs. pBook: Imaginative Discovery

Before anyone jumps to an unwarranted conclusion, let me say upfront that I really like ebooks for reading fiction (but not for nonfiction) and that given my personal preference, I would read fiction almost solely in ebook form. However, …

I have been observing the reading habits of a young child of a friend, sometimes getting a closeup view while babysitting. What I have noticed is that he seems to interact more with pbooks than ebooks. I have been thinking about that for several months now and I think the reason is what I call imaginative discovery.

The ebooks give him animation, which he does find entertaining. But I think he finds the animation to be similar to how I find a movie: great entertainment but it is someone else’s imagination that shapes the scene, not mine. I especially noticed this with the Lord of the Rings movies. Peter Jackson did a great job imagining the story, and although I enjoyed the movies greatly, I also remember commenting to my son how this scene and that scene were not how I imagined them when I was reading the book. With the Lord of the Rings movies, Peter Jackson did all the imagining for me; I had to exercise no creativity at all.

When my friend’s toddler reads a pbook, he often flips back-and-forth, or even folds over pages so that he can see two illustrations simultaneously. Sometimes he takes crayons and colors black-and-white illustrations or adds another head to a character or changes the colors used. Occasionally, he adds to the illustration additional characters or images. He interacts freely with the pbook and lets his imagination be his guide. He either seems to find that difficult to do with an ebook or is not motivated to interact with the ebook in a similar way.

It is this interaction that I call  imaginative discovery. I think imaginative discovery is a very important component of reading, especially for those who are just beginning the lifetime adventure that reading can bring about. When adults watch a movie or play a video game, they tend to become absorbed into whatever action is occurring before them. They do not independently discover new things or use their imagination. They follow the creator’s storyline.

In contrast, when an adult reads a novel — whether ebook or pbook — the adult uses his or her imagination to fill in what is missing, whether it be dialogue or visualization of the scene or how a character looks. But adults do so from a lifetime of experience. As we grow from childhood to adulthood our sensory experiences grow and we are increasingly able to imagine that first kiss, or how a teenager feels when bullied, or how slimy a frog’s skin is. Because we have built these experiences, it really doesn’t matter whether the book we are reading is a pbook or an ebook — we bring these experiences to both. Thus our preference for an ebook over a pbook is really guided by other factors, such as cost, ease of reading, ability to carry hundreds of books simultaneously without back-breaking strain, and the like.

But the young child doesn’t have that lifetime of experience to bring to the reading experience. He (or she) is only beginning on the road to building the tools needed for imaginative discovery. Thus the tactile capabilities of a pbook may be more important than all of the enhancements that an ebook can bring.

Even for an adult, an ebook can be a failure. Consider these two books: Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews (2002) edited by Houman Sarshar (ISBN 0827607512) and Five Hundred Years of Book Design (2001) by Alan Bartram (ISBN 0300090587). Each of these books relies heavily on visuals; that is, the illustrations — their detail and their color — are important to the tale being told. In neither case would reading the book on a Kindle or a Nook be what I would consider a quality experience. Not that they couldn’t be read on such a device; just that the experience would not be as fulfilling as when read in pbook form. The books are really designed for the pbook experience.

Just as those books are really designed for the pbook experience, I am increasingly convinced that the reading experience for beginning readers should be a pbook experience rather than an ebook experience. The reason is not because ebooks cannot be excellent children’s books, but because they are not able to give the emerging imagination the ability to imaginatively discover. The enhanced ebook’s experiences of such things as alternative endings or the ability to choose a different outfit for a character make for a wonderful tale, but limit the child’s creativity to a set of predetermined (by an adult) choices, when, instead, the child should be encouraged to design his or her own creations.

The pbook for children encourages a child to start with what is in front of him or her and to then rename, redo, recast, reshape the story as they see fit. Should they want to rename a character from Oscar to Annafrannabumpkin, the child can with a pbook; with an ebook, they are limited by whatever the programmer has opted to include. It is easy to add a second horn to a unicorn and call it a duocorn in a pbook; not so easy with an ebook that doesn’t have the option already built-in.

eBooks have a place in the scheme of reading, but I do not think they are yet ready to replace pbooks as the source of reading material for children, simply because of the limitations inherent in ebook creation that stifle the imaginative discovery that is essential to the mental growth of children. When it comes to reading, what to read and how to read it (i.e., ebook or pbook) should always be based on what is best for the reader, and in the case of children, on how well imaginative discovery is promoted.

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