Yesterday my friend Jaye Manus, whose blog is indispensable for anyone with a passing interest in self-publishing, and merely incisive and fascinating for everyone else, took off from a remark of Stephen King’s that drew a line (albeit a thin one) between eBooks and real books. Here’s some of what Jaye wrote:
“I understand why some people don’t consider eBooks to be “real” books. On a Kindle ereader books look like ugly cousins. As far as e-ink readers go, the experience of reading a print book will never be replicated to anyone’s satisfaction. Then throw in the emotional, sentimental attachment to printed books that many have (myself included) and there are people who will never accept eBooks as real books.
“It’s not about technology. Notice how very few people bemoan the obsolescence of typewriters? It’s because typewriters were a pain in the ass. You had to actually be skilled to use them well. Typewritten pages could turn into unholy messes. Carbon paper? How about trotting a full manuscript to a copy shop in order to reproduce it (with all its mistakes). Computers and word processors are better. Period. Even the most hardcore typist gave up the old Underwood or Selectric with barely a whimper. I don’t know many people who feel sentimental about typewriters.
“eBooks, on the other hand, are not better (or worse) than printed books. They are different. We could argue all day over the pros and cons of text delivery systems (and that is pretty much the only thing they have in common) but the two sides wouldn’t actually be arguing about the same things.
“No matter how good the technology gets, how slick, fast, amazing, eBooks will never be the same as the physical object. I suspect there are some people who will go to their graves never considering ebooks to be real books.
“But. Go back to the quote from Craig Mod: “It’s a set of decisions clearly designed around efficiency (and, possibly, data) — get us into the text as quickly as possible.” As writers, when we produce eBooks, we focus on covers and content. Content and covers. Covers and content. Those are our priorities and that’s where all our time and talent goes. We are attempting to replicate a printed book in a digital format. What we forget or don’t consider at all is the gestalt–a printed book, when done well, is an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Our focus on covers and content–which are important, I’m not saying they aren’t–reduces our books to mere data streams. We’re treating eBooks like blog posts or newspapers, disposable information/entertainment, here today, gone tomorrow, with little to make them memorable. It’s no wonder to me, then, that many bibliophiles are appalled by eBooks. How they might think there is something suspect, even disrespectful about the medium.
“I’m not putting this out here to start arguments or to discuss the merits of one format over another. What I would like is for eBook producers to start thinking beyond creating digital replications of printed books. The best we’ll ever do on that path is create ugly and slightly less ugly cousins. We need to start thinking in terms of each ebook as an object that creates for the user an experience. We’ll have to find our own unique stamp. How to do that? I don’t know yet. The secret, I suspect, lies in the technology, much of which is already present and barely exploited.
“What I’d really like to see is the day when consumers choose ebooks not because of the convenience of the eReading device, but because the actual reading experience, the total package, the book, is better.”
I spent some time thinking about Jaye’s observations, and it struck me the extent to which eBooks and physical books are very different creatures.
An eBook is entirely functional and insubstantial. It exists for the sole purpose of providing a reading experience, one that is often (though not always) superior to that afforded by the physical book.
Its essential insubstantiality gives it several advantages. I don’t have to give it shelf space. It adds no weight to my suitcase. If I want to refer to it again, I don’t have to struggle to remember where I put it. I can call it back in an instant—wherever I am. (I did just that a couple of months ago in a flight lounge in Dubai.)
The physical book is also engineered to provide a reading experience, but it is also an object. I can put it on a shelf to help decorate a room, and take it down at will to admire it. It may be an attractive object irrespective of its contents; I have books it pleases me to own, even though I have not the slightest interest in their contents. I have others I’ve read and know I’ll never want to read again, and nevertheless it would pain me to let go of them.
Physical books are collectible in a way that eBooks can never be. I may draw solid satisfaction out of having on my Kindle all the eWorks of a favorite author, but I don’t expect my friends to ooh and ahh over my collection of bits and bytes.
All right, we knew all that. The eBook and the physical book. One’s pure functionality, the other’s that and more. And it’s the nature of the book as decorative and collectible object that has made it thus far endure in its present form.
The development and rapid acceptance of eBooks has been heralded, not without justification, as a game changer in the same league with the invention of moveable type. It’s worth remembering, though, that today’s eBook revolution was preceded half a century ago by the paperback revolution—which also drew Gutenbergian comparisons. Paperbacks—compact, affordable, does any of this sound familiar?—were decried early on as tawdry and ephemeral, with their sensational covers cheapening literature even as they made it available to the great unwashed.
But of course they caught on, to the point where, thirty years ago, it was the conventional wisdom in publishing that the hardcover book was essentially dead, as least insofar as new fiction was concerned. Everyone in the business pretty much agreed that hardcover fiction was on its way out, and we were all wrong. As it turned out, hardcover books more than held their own, in good times and in bad, until now—when hardcover books still find buyers, while trade paperbacks have been largely elbowed aside by eBooks even as their mass-market cousins are essentially reduced to a handful of Pattersonian bestsellers at airport newsstands.
Why? Not because the hardcover book is such a stellar system for the delivery of information. A trade paperback in an otherwise identical format weighs less, costs less, and is easier to handle. But a surprising number of us want the hardcover book anyway. We cherish the object.
(You can spot this bias, incidentally, even in the collector market. Many of my early books first saw print as paperback originals, and not a few of those were subsequently reprinted in hardcover. Book collectors typically seek out a title’s first edition, its initial appearance in print, so you would think those PBO firsts would be more in demand and command higher prices than the Johnny-come-lately hardcovers. And you’d be wrong. For a clear majority of collectors, what’s wanted is the first hardcover edition. Because it looks so much nicer on the shelf or the coffee table. Because it gladdens the eye, the hands, and the heart. Because it is ever so much more desirable as an object.)
This perspective becomes useful when we try to figure out, say, the role of a cover for an eBook. The cover of a physical book, hardcover or paperback, had a dual purpose. The first was to draw favorable attention when the book was on a table or shelf at a bookstore. The more appealing a cover, the greater the likelihood that a passerby would reach out and pick the thing up. A study a few years ago determined that, when a customer actually lifts a book from a shelf, there’s something like a forty percent chance he’ll take it to the cashier. (More to the point, if he doesn’t pick the book up, the chance he’ll tote it to the register drops to zero.)
That’s one aim of the cover—that it be sufficiently striking and attractive to get the book into a customer’s hands, and subsequently into his library. A secondary aim is that it continue to be attractive, contributing to his satisfaction at having bought it, and predisposing him to buy the author’s next book.
An eBook cover has a similar job, but only up to the point of sale. It has to look good on the product page at Amazon, has to catch the eye and suggest that this is something the prospective buyer will want to read. Once the one-click purchase is made, the cover has done its job. The buyer doesn’t care if he ever sees it again.
(And it’s entirely possible that he won’t. Kindle programs books so that they generally open to the first page of text, hurrying one right into the story. If I want to see the cover, I have to page backward from that first page. I wonder if anybody ever bothers. I know I don’t.)
I’ve self-published four books to date with the capable assistance of Telemachus Press, and we’ve put a lot of effort into the covers. I’m more than happy with them—which you’ll notice I’ve scattered along the right hand edge of this post. I think the covers work for both the eBooks and the trade paperbacks. I’m very gratified by the way the books have been selling in both formats, but there’s a greater satisfaction with the physical books—because they are attractive objects, and their covers are beautiful, and when I take one in hand I cannot but admire it.
I’ve made ten linked short stories available individually on Kindle. They’re all about a criminous criminal lawyer named Ehrengraf, and I cobbled up covers myself. All they had to do was suggest the nature of the story—a stock photo of a gavel worked just fine—and beyond that the covers differed only in the last words of their titles. Would I have taken the same approach if the Ehrengraf ouevre were a series of novels and I was bringing them out as physical books? I would probably aim at uniformity, I’ve always felt a series ought to look like a series, but I’m sure I’d have wanted the covers to be a bit more elaborate.
When Open Road brought out forty-plus of me eBooks early in 2011, they developed a template and stayed with it. They’re instantly identifiable, and brand the books effectively, I think; on the downside, they’re not terribly attractive, and one wouldn’t for a moment want to employ them as the covers of physical books. Does it matter? Would more buyers take them up off Amazon’s virtual shelves if they had more eye appeal? I don’t know. The Open Road covers are essentially icons, and not co vers at all, maybe that’s what they ought to be. My guess is they do their job quite well.
I could go on,but this post is already longer than I’d intended, and it’s not as though I were likely to come up with a conclusion. Jaye’s post got me thinking, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. And if any of the above should get you thinking, Gentle Reader, well, your comments are invited.