bathtub drawing

Franzen, E-books & Bathtubs

It seems it has become fashionable in certain circles to have a pop at e-books and e-readers (as well as those enjoying them). I’ve been noting the trend with some amusement, but had decided it wasn’t worth responding. That is, until Jonathan Franzen’s recent comments at the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena, Colombia.

Franzen had two main charges, both ridiculous. The first: “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t normally go round spilling water on my books. In fact, the only time I can remember having any damaged by water is when I was moving house, and had to haul box after box of print books from one place to another. Inevitably, some were water-damaged either during transit or storage. I attempted to dry them out, but many pages were stuck together or falling out, and the books had expanded to the point where reading them was a real chore.

Aside from that, the obvious response is that you can’t spill anything on an e-book, it’s a digital file, a collection of bytes. I’m being pedantic, of course. Let’s give Franzen the benefit of the doubt and assume he was referring to e-readers rather than e-books.

Even if you damage your e-reader (or pawn it for crack), you can still re-download your entire library when you get a new one. Something you can’t do with print books, obviously, if your house is broken into, gets burned down, or is tragically reduced to rubble by a stray meteorite.

On the other hand, if you engage in a lot more extreme reading than the average Joe, and can’t be without a book while you are in the bath, power-hosing your driveway, or water-skiing, then maybe he has a point.

Viewed through this prism, Franzen’s argument has solid historical precedent. The famed vulnerability to water of iPods, laptops, cell phones, and Blackberries has really held back their sales. And why stop there? Cars are for idiots! I drove one into the river and it broke. I’m sticking with horses.

Franzen’s second charge was a little more serious, and could shake the very foundations of democracy, no less.

“When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring […] Will there still be readers fifty years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

I’ll leave aside the claim that e-books could neuter the effective operation of either our courts or legislative bodies, and focus on the issue of the permanence of the text. The obvious retort is that many print books go through numerous editions. Often this is to update the text or to correct errors – which benefits writers, publishers, and readers. It’s just easier to do it with e-books – something Franzen’s UK publisher discovered last year when they printed 80,000 copies of the wrong draft of Freedom, riddled with typos.

Hey, it happens, and I’m not blaming the publisher. But, as I’m sure they are aware, correcting a digital version involves uploading a new file, and doesn’t require any additional printing, shipping, or storage, or the horrific specter of pulping all those books.

Franzen seems to worry that writers will constantly re-work the text after publication. Perhaps if you are the kind of writer who spends nine years polishing your prose before releasing it onto the world, you might be tempted to keep tinkering with it afterward, but I’ve seen zero evidence that this is actually occurring. Aside from correcting any typos that may have slipped the net, or updating the back-matter of an old title to reference a new release (both of which are beneficial to writers, publishers, and readers), I don’t know any writers that regularly re-work their old releases.

People tend to have strong opinions on Franzen’s writing. Personally, I haven’t read any of his work. When I see wall-to-wall reviews of a book, or a huge media push – like that which accompanied the release of Freedom – my contrarian nature leads me to avoid the work altogether.

And this isn’t about Franzen (honestly, I didn’t even mention Oprah); his comments were just the latest in a wave of misguided arguments aimed at denigrating e-books, e-readers, digital publishing, and self-publishing.

But the huge publicity his last release received leads us on to another point. It’s not surprising that writers like Franzen will rail against the digital revolution. The status quo has been very kind to him. It made him a millionaire. He is an international bestseller, a multiple award winner. Franzen is one of a small circle of writers whose books will be available in any store, across the planet.

Under the traditional system, most books have zero chance of becoming a bestseller unless their publisher anoints them as one of the small handful of books that they are really going to push. Only a very limited amount of titles will be given prime position in Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and Waterstones. Only a tiny minority of writers ever make it into stores like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Tesco. Most books (and their writers), will only ever be “spine-out”. In fact, these days, most won’t make it into stores at all, and are warehoused, only reaching the most dedicated readers who are willing to order them.

Under the status quo, to get to Franzen’s level of commercial success, you had to be anointed by both your publisher and by the traditional recommendation ecosystem, such as by New York Times literary critics (and again, the overwhelming majority of books and their authors will never grace their pages). The “sleeper” hit that attained bestseller status solely through grassroots word-of-mouth was a rare beast indeed. That is, until the convergence of e-books, e-readers, online bookselling, and digital publishing leveled the playing field.

This digital revolution has changed everything. Not only have the gatekeepers in New York and London lost the power to decide which books get published, they are also losing the power to influence which books get recommended.

It’s far easier to curry favor in a top-down, centralized world where tastemakers in august journals such as the New York Times have the exclusive power to make or break a book. It’s far harder for large publishers to do so in a world where that power is spread across a thousand book blogs and Kindle fan sites.

And it’s near-impossible to do it in a world where readers have the tools to express their own opinions, and easily exchange them. Amazon reviews allow anyone to rate a book. Social media enables genuine word-of-mouth to spread like wildfire. It should be instructive to note that when Amazon first enabled reader reviews, publishers went ballistic, demanding that Jeff Bezos remove any negative comments about their titles.

The closure of bookstores gets a lot of press, as does the rise of e-books. The logic conclusion is that large publishers face new threats in a digital world (where they no longer control distribution), increased competition from nimble players with far lower costs.

If book-buying moves away from stores with a limited selection, where only certain books and authors get the red carpet treatment, to ones with an unlimited selection, where there is little or no coop to be purchased, the path to the top of the bestseller list becomes a little more challenging for the big names of today.

But what gets less attention is the waning power of the traditional recommendation system. As less and less people read newspapers, and as those same newspapers reduce their book coverage, the power of traditional tastemakers to recommend books is slipping too.

What’s taking its place is something altogether more diffused. A whole crop of blogs and websites are emerging which have the power to place books on bestseller lists. And they are just as likely to recommend work from small publishers and self-publishers. In fact, many of them exclusively feature self-published work on the grounds of price.

This combination of a leveling of the playing field on retailers such as Amazon, the decentralization of book recommendations, and, yes, cheap e-books, has led to self-publishers making serious inroads into the bestseller lists.

And it’s only the beginning. Contrary to the propaganda of those wishing to pour scorn on e-books and e-readers, their popularity is still growing exponentially. A Pew Research survey conducted at the beginning of December, and again at the beginning of January, showed that US e-reader ownership nearly doubled over the holidays. And the numbers are even more impressive in the UK, where the revolution is occurring at an even faster pace, and closing the gap with the US.

And again, contrary to the wish-fulfillment of those that want to maintain the status quo, readers aren’t being put-off by self-published work. The gradual takeover of the bestseller lists of the genres that went digital first (such as romance and thrillers) seems to indicate that readers purchase more self-published work, not less, as their exposure to it increases.

If I was a large publisher, or if I was one of the small circle of writers who is guaranteed sales by being one of the anointed few getting a real push in bookstores, I would be worried too. And I’d probably pen a ridiculous article about not being able to read e-books in the bath.

David Gaughran is the author of the South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaiso and the short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection as well as the popular self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should.

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