Feb 102011

Here is a thoughtful and lucid essay on digital publishing and the decline of the book (what IanColford calls “a near perfect” piece of technology). Ian is a Canadian short story writer who happens to be a librarian at Dalhousie University next door to the University of King’s College in Halifax where my son Jacob goes to school. Ian is the author of a short story collection, Evidence, published in 2008 and shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed, Raddall Atlantic Fiction, and ReLit awards. A month ago NC published his short story “Laurianne’s Choice.”

The Author and the eBook

By Ian Colford

We know that eBooks pose huge challenges for publishers, booksellers, librarians, readers. Electronic books render fundamental concepts obsolete. Try to imagine, for instance, how phrases such as “print run” and “out of print” could be applied to eBooks. How do you calculate the number of copies sold of an eBook? eBooks will never hit the used book market…or will they? Can an eBook be remaindered? And, if a library has purchased the first edition of a text in eBook format, what happens to that edition when the second edition comes along? In some fields of study, it can be unhelpful to keep old information around when new information has been produced that supersedes or discredits it. How do you “deselect” an eBook?

It’s probably fair to say that eBooks—as an inevitable byproduct of the internet—have revolutionized pedagogy: that is, the way information is accessed, absorbed, and processed into knowledge. Before digitization, a book had to be read cover to cover in order for the reader to be certain that he or she wasn’t missing something. But with eBooks key phrases and concepts can be searched and specific pages targeted for reading. The rest of the book can be safely ignored. Some vendors have even begun breaking books down into component parts and marketing individual chapters. The root concept of bookness is changing before our eyes. With all these advances in technology, is something being gained or lost? Readers of eBooks, who are saving time by avoiding irrelevant passages, are also less apt to serendipitously happen across surprising or unexpected bits of illumination lurking in unlikely places. Searchable eBooks take chance out of the equation. There is no reason to browse. Readers are not going to visit pages that don’t match their search criteria because they know beyond any doubt that those pages will not yield the information they’re looking for.

Much has been written about the eBook and its impact on students and casual readers, on academic and public library collections. But what of the author? Other than providing raw text that the publisher edits, formats, and then markets, does the author have any role to play once his or her eBook has been published?

With regard to this issue I enjoy a dual perspective, being both a librarian and an author. My book of short fiction was published in 2008. I’ll admit that it is inexpressibly satisfying to watch someone walk away carrying a signed copy of your book, presumably with the intention of either giving it as a gift or sitting down with it in a comfortable chair and delving into its pages.

This brings us—predictably enough—to the book as tangible object. My ideas on this topic are neither new nor particularly unique, but I will put them down here as a preface to what I really want to say.

Authors and their books have been inextricably linked for centuries, a pairing—much like mother and child—that’s as unavoidable as it is unconditional. Authors write books, watch them go through the editorial process (not without trepidation), and breathe a sigh of relief when they finally make it into the hands of readers, hopefully intact. The words, the story, the ideas contained between the covers of a book reflect directly back upon the author—they are the tools the author uses to express him- or herself and to show us something of what it means to be human, in precisely the same way that an artist uses paint and a dancer uses movement. Stories and ideas issue from the author and reveal aspects of the author as a human being; and yet, strangely enough, by giving expression to these stories and ideas and sending them out there for others to read and critique, the author also cuts himself off from them.

This is because the book, once it is sprung upon the world, assumes an independent existence that has nothing do to with the author. In ways that are simultaneously reassuring and frightening, a book takes on a life of its own and moves beyond the author’s sphere of influence. Once the book is in the hands of a reader, it belongs to the reader, not the author. The reader is a free agent who can make whatever he or she wishes of the words and ideas found within its pages. There is no need for the reader to know or care anything about the author in order to gain insight or enjoyment from, or be puzzled, confused, or irritated by, an author’s work. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that with regard to the act of reading, the author is a needless and irrelevant distraction.

Each reader brings to the act of reading their own experiences, assumptions, biases, and attitudes that the author can never hope to anticipate or account for in the written work. Great authors don’t even try. No author worth the few seconds it takes to flip through the pages of his book will limit himself to a specific audience, because, first, it’s formula writing (ie, boring), and second, each reader’s experience of any given book will be unique (There are no exceptions: great writers of genre fiction transcend the genre; great children’s books captivate readers of all ages). This is one reason why good books generate discussion and debate, and great books generate passionate discussion and debate. Poor books deliver the expected, reaffirm our complacencies, and provide the sort of comfort a child derives from a familiar plaything. Great books challenge our assumptions and make us think hard about our place in the world. That said, readers approach books with a variety of goals in mind, and nobody has any right to declare one reader’s experience more valid than another’s. It all comes down to personal preference.

For the author, a new book, right out of the box, has about it an almost mystical aura. This object I hold in my hand is the culmination of all that effort and anguish, all those balled-up scraps of paper, solitary late nights and bleary eyed mornings; all those months, even years, of waiting. Because writing a book, not to mention getting it published, is, frankly, a struggle, a torment that the author willingly inflicts upon himself and his loved ones. Anyone who tries to write a book is gripped, no doubt, by an obsessive personality and is probably a little bit crazy—undeniably selfish and conceited—and likely unreliable and moody. Writers talk to themselves and stare in wonder at things normal people pass by without a second glance. Writers will spend hours, even days, struggling to formulate a phrase or find just the right word. The payoff for all of this eccentric behavior is the finished book, some good reviews, maybe an award or two, and with luck, industry, and repeated success, an enduring place in the country’s cultural heritage. Never mind that the new book, right out of the box, will never measure up to the expectations such a harrowing process gives rise to. But it does fill in nicely for whatever misguided ideal the author had in mind.

Imagine, then, the author of the eBook. Lacking a physical object that he can sign, proudly pass around, present to friends, or point to in shop windows, how does the author of an eBook demonstrate his accomplishment and declare his worth? The question might seem absurd, even a bit silly. Because the author of an eBook can easily send friends online to see his work. He can count downloads. He can peek over the shoulder of someone studying a laptop or eBook reader screen in the hope that the person is reading his book. Publishers of eBooks keep close tabs on usage, for which the author can expect to be paid. The new readers are making access to eBooks seamless and almost instantaneous. But long after publication, months down the road, once the initial flurry of interest has passed, where does the author stand in relation to his eBook?

A printed book is a cultural artifact and, in the anthropological sense, provides clues about the society that produced it. Physical objects can endure to tell their tale. Literary lore is replete with stories of authors who wrote book after book and died unrecognized, only to have their work discovered (in an attic or on a library shelf) and reprinted and appreciated years later. Authors are terrified of obscurity, but as long as the printed book exists, there is a chance that it will be found by that elusive ideal reader.

Even books that have failed to find an audience or outlived their usefulness survive and endure. Remaindered or warehoused, they can still be discovered by readers. Admittedly, some books are “pulped.” But it is difficult to destroy every copy of a book once it has been unleashed on the world (though attempts have been made).

We don’t know yet if digital objects will endure, and if they do, who will archive them and make them available, and, if they are made available, if they will be freely accessible, and if free, if they will be compatible with whatever reader or operating system is in vogue at any particular future moment. If the publisher of an eBook decides that a title is no longer profitable, or if the contract with the author expires, or if they go out of business, or if some other calamity occurs, they could delete it from their server. Or, God forbid, this might happen by mistake. Is it possible that a discontinued eBook would suddenly become unavailable, in any form, permanently? How then would it be different from the book that was never published at all and exists only on the hard drive of the author’s computer? Like apocryphal works from Greek or Roman or medieval times, its impact on the world would be measurable only in terms of the mention it received in other works.

For the sake of argument I am speaking in extremes. Google will probably see to it that no book, e- or not, will ever be lost to posterity. However, I can’t help but wonder about the long-term relationship between the author and his eBook. Since life is finite and the body perishes, authors tend to think in terms of future reputation: the students and scholars who will, perchance, consult their works decades from now. Where will the eBook that is published today be in fifty or a hundred years?

Printed books are everything I’ve already described. However, because of their aesthetic appeal they are also collectable, desirable objects. Long after the initial print run rolled off the press, long after the reviewers and readers have had their say, long after the author has breathed his last and the publisher has folded up shop, the book continues to be bought and sold. Collectors will pay a premium price for the first edition, with dust jacket—preferably signed—of a book published fifty or seventy or a hundred years ago. Often the reputation of the author is of no account, and the condition or age of the item determines its value. Sometimes it is sheer rarity that is the determining factor, even if the book is relatively recent (think of the first edition Catcher in the Rye with dust jacket photo). A combination of rarity, age, and decent condition can prove invaluable. A Wycliffe Bible is for sale on AbeBooks, the asking price of nearly three million dollars justified by its historical significance. In more modest terms, my prize possessions are first editions of John Updike’s Rabbit Run and John Cheever’s The Way Some People Live (both with dust jackets).

The eBook does not invite that frisson of rapture that the true bibliophile anticipates upon first holding in his hands an object that he has lusted after, perhaps for years. But does it offer alternative pleasures for a collector or otherwise compensate the author for its being a digital rather than a physical object?

Libraries collect eBooks to serve their patrons’ immediate needs. Its advantages are that it can be accessed by more than one person at a time, you don’t have to set foot in the library in order to use it, it doesn’t take up space, and it can’t be stolen or defaced or squirreled away in the library stacks. But as compelling as these advantages are, it’s hard to imagine an individual collecting eBooks for the visceral satisfaction of ownership. And as far as the author is concerned, is it practical to organize a book launch or tour around a virtual object? It’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible that for the moment, authors of eBooks will have to settle for virtual rewards: rapid download, searchable text, universal access.

I don’t mean to sound like a curmudgeon, arguing against eBooks. You might as well argue against the sun, the moon, and the stars. But it seems to me that of all the interests weighing in on the impact that eBooks are having and will continue to have on pedagogy and reading habits, authors are facing the most profound challenge. Will authors of eBooks ever be able to rest easy, confident in the knowledge that future generations are going to have access to their work?

The book as it has existed for more than six hundred years is an almost perfect technology: compact, portable, durable. On the face of things the book is simplicity itself. But resources are limited and the day will come when eBooks are the rule rather than the exception. By that time, like everyone else, authors will have learned to accept eBook technologies and make use of the freedoms and flexibility they offer. Let’s hope these are adequate compensation for the demise of the printed book.

—Ian Colford

(This essay was first published in Against the Grain, November, 2009. Thanks to Katina Strauch for permission to reprint.)

  8 Responses to “The Author and the eBook: Essay — Colford”

  1. An elegant and thoughtful essay. Thanks for posting it.

  2. “The book as it has existed for more than six hundred years is an almost perfect technology: compact, portable, durable.”
    And you can read it on the beach without squinting, in the bathtub or in the rain without worrying it will short circuit. It doesn’t damage your eyes. The paper feels good under your fingers. You can write notes in the margins.
    Long live the book!

  3. “Before digitization, a book had to be read cover to cover in order for the reader to be certain that he or she wasn’t missing something. But with eBooks key phrases and concepts can be searched and specific pages targeted for reading.”

    Reading Theodor Adorno’s essay “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening.” Your remark sounded disturbingly similar to what Adorno wrote about the vulgarization of music in a commodity culture:

    “Vulgarization and enhancement, hostile sisters, dwell together in the arrangements which have colonized large areas of music. The practice of arrangement extends to the most diverse dimensions. Sometimes it seizes on time. It blatantly snatches the reified bits and pieces out of their context and sets them up as a pot-pourri. It destroys the multilevel unity of the whole work and brings forward only isolated popular passages.”

    My simple translation and connection to this essay: Today’s e-book Nabokov equals tomorrow’s Lady Gaga. Adorno blasts the commoditization and simplification of commerical pop music as a stupefying cultural malaise. That this trend foreshadows what might become of literature terrifies me.

    Your essay was thoughful and thought provoking. Thanks for sharing it with NC.

  4. All true, of course, but technology changes and as that happens our expectations are shaped as well. I’m nostalgic about many things: the throaty confusion of a big block engine, my high school waistline, the old Underwood #6 that I wrote a sci-fi novel on when I was thirteen. But even though I miss those things, I understand they’re gone, and in the case of the Underwood, there are much more efficient tools now.

    I’ve been e-reading for a couple of years, and while I was initially against the e-book, I’ve found that the medium isn’t what’s important. Words still transport me whether or not they’re printed on paper or razzled into being on a screen. The e-book isn’t a harbinger of some fundamental alteration of our consciousness, it’s just yet another way for a writer to reach a reader.

    Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Just because a book is printed doesn’t mean that it’s more permanent. I’m not sure a book really exists in a manner that’s important unless it’s being read, so a book on a shelf in a dusty warehouse untouched and unread is just as immaterial as a book spinning wildly on a hard drive platter also unread.

    Attention is the only thing that matters.

    That a printed book can persist through an electrical outage is a positive, for sure, but so is the reduced cost and world-wide, immediate availability of the e-book. Neither system is perfect, but let’s not lament what’s merely a changing world. Let’s wail instead if words no longer focus attention at all.

  5. Death is a consequence of our multicellularity; taxes part of our social system. The only thing that can truly be counted on is change. The quest for immortality in our creative works is ultimately futile. Some sort of long-lived recognition might be a byproduct and perhaps one’s great nephews might care, but not something to hold out as a goal, I wouldn’t think? Granted, rents must be paid and groceries procured – what a bonus, if there is a way for one’s passion and art to pay the way. To find joy in the work and in the reaction of others (while one is around to appreciate that reaction) – isn’t that what it is about?
    Just my arrogance-is-a-virtue opinion. 🙂

  6. I sent Steinbeck’s East of Eden to a relative serving in Iraq. He read it, then passed it around to his battalion. When they all finished reading it, they passed it on to their Iraqi counterparts to read. Couldn’t have done that sort of book sharing with an ebook. Cultural influences of a physical book are immeasurable. Can’t charge up an ebook in the desert very easily.

    • Very true. But we’re talking as if physical books are going to disappear. They won’t. A physical book is much better technology in certain situations. The same consideration applies to the e-book as well. That this debate is going on is a good sign, I think. If no one were talking about this, then we’d already be doomed to physical and virtual shelves of Snooki and Bristol Palin memoirs. That some people are concerned is a measure of hope.

      Frankly, I’m glad to see the rise of the e-book because I think the industry could use a good shaking up. E-book culture could (and already has) resulted in a publishing environment where the author has more control. Too many publishing decisions are made nowadays through a bean-counter focus instead of looking at the work through the wider lens of art. The confusing snobbery of profit-oriented middlemen tends to introduce an untoward screech into the artist’s throat.

      I know that sentence sounds elitist, but I’m trying not to be. Hell, I live on a dirt road and barely graduated high school. I feel ill-fitted in my skin when I talk about art as superior to product, but the simple truth is that the more avenues a writer has to reach an audience, the better position the writer is in. How can this be bad? How can it be a degradation of culture that we can now carry around 3500 books in a device weighing less than a pound? That’s fucking marvelous, if you ask me. I don’t care if I have to plug it in now and then. I want the text and the text enriches me no matter the medium in which it’s read.

      Plus, when you’re rocking a baby to sleep, it’s pretty difficult to read a book with one arm. Shit’s simple easy on a Kindle. Such wonders can’t be overlooked.

  7. The eBook debate became more interesting since HarperCollins issued its dictum that beginning March 7, its ebooks will be subject to a license restriction limiting the number of times its eBook can be checked out. The number they settled on is 26, and their argument for this is revenue based (print books wear out after a certain amount of use and have to be replaced, so why should they lose sales just because eBooks don’t suffer the same kind of physical wear and tear?). Once the eBook has reached its lending limit, it will be locked down and if a patron wants to borrow it the library will be forced to buy it again. (See NYTmes article:


    This is just a reminder that there are ways to exploit new technologies for gain that remain untapped. HarperCollins claims they are protecting their authors. Maybe so, but the strategy they are adopting smacks of greed, because what they are actually doing is placing books by their authors at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. It remains to be seen if other publishers level the field by placing similar restrictions on their titles. One wonders too if publishers will begin to sell personal copies of eBooks to individuals that will expire after a certain pre-ordained time period, determined by the anticipated physical capacity of a printed book to withstand repeated readings. Here is another threat to the author of the eBook, whose words may not be available to future generations of readers if entrusted solely to the digital realm.

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