“The Kindle has changed everything in publishing, no doubt, but if you’re an author, your ambition will always be to see your name on the cover of a real book.” These are the musings of L.R. Price Publications’ Senior Editor Matt Vidler.
The glint in his eye would certainly suggest little exaggeration in these words — Matt is no novice to publication, and has released several books, stories and screenplays in e-book format over the years, as well as establishing an academic presence on the internet, but one can clearly see that once that paperback proof came through his letterbox, his pen name boldly emblazoned across its front, he was finally comfortable enough to tick off a major milestone on his career to-do list. “Writing books was all I ever wanted to do — it was the reason I studied, the reason for all the work I’ve done. Until today, I never felt that I had actually achieved it.”
It would appear that this is a very common conception among authors. Whilst most are very quick to distance themselves from any disparagement of e-books (from which many, in fact, actually made their names), it seems that the books-in-print-club remains a relatively exclusive, and somewhat coveted, one.
But why is this? There is little doubting the validity of Matt’s first statement: Kindles have changed everything. Of course, e-books have been around for as long as computers, and the Kindle certainly isn’t the only reader on the market, but what Amazon have managed to achieve, if only for a limited period, is a monopoly on book retail; what it has achieved in the long-term is a radical shift in the way the public buys and reads books. How? We would suggest pure, old-fashioned marketing. The fact is that Amazon already owned the largest retail platform on earth — in truth they could have likely monopolized any product line they chose; they chose books.
But Amazon isn’t entirely responsible for the shift; you can’t really sell people a product they don’t want — not on such a large scale, that is. Perhaps Amazon got lucky, by (using the age-old formula of luck) exploiting an idea at the exact moment the public were awaiting such. Can it really be the case that people don’t want books anymore?
Well, the public seem divided on the issue; a very large and outspoken number argue that the Kindle is the most Philistine act of cultural vandalism since Sky Sports obtained rights to the Premier League, and that tablets and e-readers will single-handedly destroy our documented and patriotic love of books. But a couple of things should be pointed out here: firstly, if, as the pessimists suggest, there is to be a mass public defection to technology from print, well then maybe as a society this is what we want, and the critics are simply clinging by their fingernails to the (inevitable) past. After all, and secondly, for every criticism of e-reading, there are arguments for it, and good ones.
E-readers are incredibly useful, tablets even more so; the original Kindle held up to 1400 books, which were a lot cheaper to buy and faster to obtain than their printed counterparts. Not only could one pilfer his own portable library at leisure, he could read as many books at one time as he wanted, without having to pack the lot in his holiday bag. Not to mention the space in the dining-room; there are few things considered more refined in one’s home than a large case of bookshelves, full to the brim. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our population is _un_refined, and many lack the space for a large case of bookshelves (look how quickly people ran to the charity shops, arms full of VHS tapes, when DVDs went on sale). Some people, rightly or wrongly, don’t want a shelf full of books; many feel that they should, lest they are branded somehow ignorant. People don’t want a recycling box full of newspapers, which are rapidly becoming a popular use of e-readers.
And, on a more serious, altruistic note, one could argue that if the Kindle were invented a century ago the planet might still have a reasonable sized rain-forest left. (Some coincidence, is it not, that the future saviours of our rain-forest had the foresight to call themselves “Amazon”? Was their objective from day one to entirely digitize — and exclusively monopolize — the literary world?) Amazon is noticeably under-spoken about its plans for world domination, and notoriously furtive when it comes to revealing how many millions of their devices have been sold to date, suggesting that the cultural criticism of e-books is not lost on them.
But Matt suggests the paperback ambition is simple for authors; “Writing and uploading a book is easy — thousands of people do it every day, but creating a physical book is a craft, which takes time, skill and hard work. As well as that, in generations to come, the internet will be a wasteland littered with digital debris, but books are physical, and some remain in circulation for centuries.” Therein lies the ultimate ambition, we suspect.