Monday, August 13, 2012

eBookish

You might have spotted a story last week in the Guardian reporting that Kindle books are now outselling printed books on Amazon.co.uk. The same thing had already happened in the United States a few years ago, a fact I have noted in several Welsh-language articles, urging Welsh-language publishers to stop killing their own language through languor.

The gist of these articles is that ebooks are not the future but the present, and the fact that only one (a) Welsh-language publisher has (unsatisfactorily) adapted to the present is embarrassing, distressing and appalling. Welsh speakers should be enraged at the fact that publishers which receive grants (more than half a million pounds a year for the top Welsh-language presses, according to the figures used in this rather dodgy story) from the public purse are so belligerently failing to uphold their responsibilities to the language.

But that stuff exists already in Taliesin and Barn. What I was thinking about as a result of the Guardian article was my reasons for liking ebooks, especially as a writer.

One thing that consistently annoys me about myself is that I tend to be very slow to adopt useful technology into my daily life. In high school, I decried the use of computers and held ridiculously to the idea of writing everything by hand into my early 20s. I didn't get my first mobile phone until 2007, insisting always that they were unnecessary. And when my mother said way back in 2006 that she was considering buying an e-reader I talked her out of it, insisting that such a thing was a terribly stupid idea and would never catch on. A visionary I am not (b).

I tend to hold to things on an odd emotional level. So, in refusing so long to use a computer, for example, I romanticised the physical action of my hand producing words -- as if the action, the flow of ink onto paper, somehow had an effect on the meaning, use, and value of the words. But, really, it doesn't. Not on anything but a one-to-one level. Perhaps, if I write a love letter to Jenn, she will see a kind of value in my having taken the time to do so by hand. But if I were to write a book the same way, all the words would be transposed into type. The three-line look of my letter E, or the dramatic way I swoop the letters B, D, G, K, M, Q, and R would be completely unknown to the reader. What he or she gets is the story I wrote, not the look of how I wrote it. My handwriting contributes nothing to the end experience.

Following the same line of thinking, it seems to me that if the look of the words are not all that relevant (c), neither is the material upon which the words are "printed." Beyond the simple issue of whether the reading experience is pleasurable to the eye, the exact medium of the words isn't a concern to me as a writer. What I'm giving you, what I'm asking you to pay for in some cases, is the story. Whether that story is conveyed on paper, or Kindle screen, or on the side of a building -- whatever works for you, whatever allows you to best grasp in your mind the images I have in my mind -- I don't think it really matters.

That having been said, as a reader, I find myself preferring the Kindle (d) experience for a handful of reasons. First, is the utterly unique and weird fact that I don't really like the feel of books. I don't like the cramp I get in my palm from attempting to hold a book open with one hand whilst eating or sipping tea. I don't like that it is hard to turn the page with one hand whilst eating or sipping tea. And I don't really like the feel of paper on my fingertips. When I mention this dislike of the printed book's tactile experience, most avid readers look at me as if I have confessed a love of punching babies.

But even they can agree that a book's pages can age. A book can look and feel "old" in not only the texture of its paper but the design of its cover. And in some cases I think that physical experience can affect the story, it can make the story itself feel old or dated. The book's unimportant external feel can somehow affect how one views the story within. I realised this when I read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America in succession. One book takes place in the 1870s, the other in the 1830s; one book was written in the 1870s, the other in the 2000s. But when reading them on Kindle both felt equally as fresh. Obviously, this is partial testament to the skills of both Twain and Carey as writers. But it occurred to me that because I was not sitting there with an "old" book in hand, I was taking in Twain's story in an unfiltered way; I was just getting his words and not a physical experience.

I realised this again when I read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. That book was published just five years after Pigs in Heaven, which I had read in paperback. The latter had felt dated, rooted in the late 80s/early 90s. The former, read on Kindle, certainly has more depth but I think the thing that made it feel so fresh was the fact that I wasn't distracted by the physical nature of a book. I got the story and not something extraneous.

As a writer, this is the experience I want for the reader. I want my story to have its best chance of succeeding with the reader, and would hate to think that he or she would subconsciously decide they hated my words because the book they read them in smelled funny, or had bad cover art. An ebook, I feel, is most likely to convey just my story, without added input.

Also, as a writer who would like to earn money, I like the fact that ebooks don't go out of print. My Kindle book, The Way Forward, is still selling a copy every now and then. Whereas you'd be hard-pressed to get your hands on a copy of my printed-by-a-proper-publishing-house book, Cwrw Am Ddim. As I get close to finishing my third book, and begin daydreaming of its being published, I hope it will be available in both formats, so the reader can make the decision for him- or herself. But if someone were to ask me, I'd probably suggest getting the ebook.

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(a) I don't know whether I can take credit but I am happy to point out that Lolfa, the one Welsh-language publisher with books available on Kindle, was approaching the thing in a very half-assed until after I had written a column criticising Welsh-language publishers for their failures.

(b) Though, it's OK to be a hater because everything is bad.

(c) I realise good arguments can be made for putting thought into which font is used, so, look may have some importance.

(d) I'm saying "Kindle" here because that's what I have. But I would suspect that the experience is more or less the same regardless of the reader you choose.

6 comments:

Dafydd Tomos said...

I know that Welsh language publishers that have been working on e-books in the last year. It's not something you can create overnight particularly if, as a publisher, you want to distribute yourself rather than via Amazon/Apple which apply their own commission (particularly important for smaller publishers). You have to build your own website and technical solution which takes significant capital (more difficult for small publishers with low profit).

I also know there are other large publishers in the UK that are still in the early stages of looking at solutions for releasing their back catalogue in e-book format. Publishing houses have generally been wary of this technology, particularly in relation to DRM.

Chris Cope said...

I feel it's poor thinking to try to reinvent the wheel in terms of a publisher setting up their own website to sell ebooks. This cuts into the ease of use that ebooks have, and expects of the user too much technical knowledge. Lolfa attempted this and it has been a real failure. The books need to be available for Kindle and iBooks because that is where people are buying books.

It's like trying to go your own way with MP3s instead of selling them via iTunes. Yes, you can complain about the money "lost" to Apple, but the fact is you're simply not going to sell as much product when you refuse to offer it where everyone is looking.

Alun Eurig Williams said...

I should note Chris that the article came from a Julian Ruck who made a speech at his Kidwelly E-Festival which was a notable and infamous flop: http://notesyoungcapital.blogspot.com/2012/08/in-response-to-ruck-kidwellyefest.html

Additionally, many of the leading people within the literary scene have refuted and rejected what he had said.

Anyway, you raise a good point. I know Lolfa are doing some things. Gomer are slowly getting their act together as well. But we should keep on the pressure. I know Carreg Gwalch are pretty much hopeless, I have emailed them because I love their books. But I am thinking of writing to tell them that I will only buy for the e-reader from now on.

Unfortunately, I believe there is a few conservative voices within welsh language publishing. Most notably the late Hywel Teifi Edwards, academic and writer who smashed a kindle live on S4C one.

Alun Eurig Williams said...

I saw Cwrw am Ddim on sale at the Eisteddfod. It was for a pound!

Chris Cope said...

Alun -- I know Ruck is dodgy. I was only referencing the numbers, which I haven't seen refuted. I have seen them defended and I don't take issue with that. I am happy for the Welsh publishing industry to receive public money. But in so doing it takes on a responsibility. Part of that responsibility is to help promote the language rather than form a circle jerk over the feel of a printed book.

On a side note, it's a shame that people don't appear to have read this post beyond the first two paragraphs.

Alun Eurig Williams said...

I got your novel on my wishlist by the way. I promise to do a review on Amazon when I finish it.

Where are you working now Chris? Is it with the Eisteddfod ; )