Friday, 4 March 2011

E-Books: boon or bane for authors?

The Kindle was the number 1 bestselling item for Amazon last Christmas. It’s an e-Reader, one of a range that has recently sprung up and allows people to read books electronically.

The Kindle’s screen has improved resolutions, to stop people’s eyes going all fuzzy, sizeable memory and free internet access almost anywhere (if you buy the pricier version) enabling quick access to download new books.

Older works, due to copyright expiration, are free, which is pretty fantastic. I’m going to get one, probably in April, and look forward to seeing how good it is.

The Kindle and other e-Readers enable people to buy and receive books very rapidly, save on storage space and receive a huge number of older books entirely free of charge. If you’re a lover of classics, an e-Reader will probably pay for itself pretty quickly.

They do more than just speed up the process of buying, however. E-Readers enable writers to give away first chapters, or appendices, for free to help entice full scale purchases. They also make a chip in the dam of the agent/publisher barrier. Getting an agent, let alone a publisher, is difficult (perhaps especially so in sci-fi/fantasy). The advent of e-Readers and e-Books means aspiring authors can sell directly to potential buyers, through collective sites or their own blogs, or even through Amazon itself.

There are two problems with this, and they’re pretty big. The first is essentially identical to the digital music problem. Once information, whether musical or written, is encoded digitally and can be transmitted in that way it can be easily stolen and distributed free of charge (albeit illegally). The music industry struggled for years with this, but whereas musicians can perform live gigs to hundreds or thousands of people authors don’t have an equivalent outlet.

I’d like to think, being an avid reader, that people who love books and follow certain authors would not stoop (in large numbers) to theft. The best books are immersive and thrilling and often emotional, and if you take it for free then authors will take a financial hit and may stop selling e-Books altogether (although pirate e-Books may arise).

The second problem is an electronic version of the difficulty all aspiring authors face anyway. I’d bet a week’s wages to a dead mouse that Joe Abercrombie or George RR Martin could shift more copies of a new e-Book in a week than a new, unknown author could in a year. Getting the media attention necessary to sell books, in physical or electronic form, is very hard for new writers. I’ve been wondering about how to encourage more regular readers (beyond the obvious planting of shirtless photographs displaying my rippling torso) myself.

There’s also the question of whether the current model of writing fiction ought to continue indefinitely, be entirely replaced, or whether a new model can exist alongside. For example, an author (aspiring or published) releasing a new book tends to charge X amount for it. The money is paid, the download of physical copy handed over, and the reader gets to keep it.

But what if books became serialised? It’s often said that a book should have a certain number and regularity of exciting moments to keep people interested. The serialisation format (with either a smaller amount paid per episode or a certain total in donations needing to be raised before the next episode is released) could work well online, but it could mean that an author would only make a finite amount for their book (in the latter example it would become free after a certain total had been donated by readers).

Despite the success of the e-Reader and the potential of new technology I am certain physical books will still be bought. Even after I get my Kindle, I’ll be buying a smaller number of physical books.



  1. Hi Mr Dancer,

    Good blog, good read.

    I wonder if you have any book recommendations?

    I'm particularly interested in the myths and legends of the Roman and Greek eras, any advice appreciated.


  2. A book that's been sat in my Amazon basket awhile is Greek Myths, by Robert Graves. It's just under a tenner (on Amazon) and almost 800 pages long with a pretty high average rating.

    Regarding stuff I've read, The Iliad is well worth a read (I considered getting the perfectly rated Lattimore edition despite already owning another translation), but my favourite would be Euripides' Medea and other plays (Hecabe, Electra, Heracles).

    Medea is a short play but it's bursting with torment and tragic conflict. If you're ok with a quartet of short plays, get Euripides, if you want something heftier, get Lattimore's translation of The Iliad (and if you do get that, let me know if it's worth the perfect rating).

  3. Thanks, I've just orderered Greek Myths, exactly what I'm after. The Iliad and such like are on my deffo-must-read list.

  4. "beyond the obvious planting of shirtless photographs displaying my rippling torso"

    Well, you could try posting a charming picture or two of your dog. It would have a wider appeal, and be in better taste.

    Serialisation of books was a technique used successfully by Dickens and Dumas, so it is not a new idea as such. It does force a certain style though. The climaxes and cliff-hangers have to occur at regular intervals, at least one per episode (i.e. every n thousand words) and that takes great skill if it is not to appear formulaic, especially in the finished article. Dumas did it brilliantly in the "Count of Monte Christo", but he was a superb story-teller. I am not sure that us lesser mortals could pull it off.