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.

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