Brave New (Writing) World: The End of the Throwaway Book?

“Good riddance.”

That’s what Craig Mod has to say about the end of the cheap paperback and other printed books whose sole purpose is to give the reader written text. In a fascinating and provocative article entitled “Books in the age of the iPad,” he says improvements in technology are getting to the point where reading on an e-book reader — or even an iPhone — is getting closer and closer to the ease of reading print. He points out the obvious advantages in distribution, not to mention saving all those trees.

And the convenience of e-books is already way ahead of print. I had lunch on Monday with two friends who are about to take a trip to New Zealand. On their list of things to do: load up their Kindles with lots of books so they’ll have plenty of reading matter for the long plane trip.

But Mod takes his discussion a step further. Up to now, the line was simple: A book that was “formless content” — like, say, most novels and other works that are solely text — is an obvious candidate for e-book publishing, because what matters is the words, not the way they’re laid out on the page. Works in which the form also mattered were best done in print, where those things could be handled properly.

The iPad, he says, changes all that, because it allows for digital content with form. While some works will still need print to present themselves properly, the iPad, and future devices like it, will provide new scope for content tied to its form. Mod observes:

We’re going to see new forms of storytelling emerge from this canvas. This is an opportunity to redefine modes of conversation between reader and content. And that’s one hell of an opportunity if making content is your thing.

I think we’ve already seen this to a degree with publishing on websites — Mod’s piece is a great example of using the features inherent in a web page to present ideas that are made stronger by images and layout. My sister, the poet Katrinka Moore, recently published a print collection, Thief, in which the form is integral with the words. She’s also published some of those same poems online.

But, of course, what works well on websites doesn’t work well in e-book readers, except, if Mod is right, the iPad will change that.

While I generally think he’s right in most of his observations, I think he’s a little quick to assume that the reading device doesn’t really affect text. He points out that most complaints about e-books have to do with the quality of reading — eyestrain, battery issues, reading in the sunlight. The critics don’t claim that the text loses meaning, he says.

But I wonder what happens to text if a large percentage of people are reading books on smartphones, which have small screens that can only display a few sentences at a time. That might work fine for reading Ernest Hemingway, who was partial to short sentences, but what does it do to the work of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, who often wrote long, complex ones? If smartphones are a primary source of written material, will the material adapt to the format?

I’m all for developing new forms of storytelling, but I don’t want to lose the old ones just because the reading device changes.

I highly recommend Mod’s article, though I must also point out that he doesn’t address the other question we all keep bringing up about digital publishing: How are we going to get paid? But he does provide an optimistic take on the future.

And he tosses out one observation in passing that I hope he’ll elaborate on at some future date: One of the positive effects of digital books will be “A rise in the importance of editors.” That seems to contradict what everyone else says on the subject, but personally, I really, really hope he’s right.


The Shadow ConspiracyRocket Boy and the Geek Girls

Nancy Jane has stories in both of the anthologies recently published by Book View Press: “The Savage and the Monster” in The Shadow Conspiracy and “Blindsided by Venus in the House of Mars” in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls.

Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press. All fifty (plus one new one) of the short-short stories she posted as part of her year-long Flash Fiction Project are available for free here.




Brave New (Writing) World: The End of the Throwaway Book? — 2 Comments

  1. Most likely aspects as costs and standards will decide. Will the iPad stay/become a propriatary format or a standard that others hardware manufactures can use? Without a standard “content with form” will be more expensive for the publishers (being limited to one device) and thus, for the consumer.

    I’ve seen a video of Penguin presenting their first iPad releases and it’s surely showing potential. Don’t remember that a price was mentioned.

    Personally I’d prefer pure text in bits’n’bytes and “content with form” as a book in my hands. But the electronic version can add multimedia content.

    So, as always, we’ll see.

  2. My daughter, in the US Army, is only interested in paper books. An e-book is worthless in the field, whereas a mass-market paperback novel can be crammed into a backpack or thigh pocket. It will be a long time before e-books are as versatile as paper books — it gets better every year, but we’re not there yet.