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.
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