Read like you
16.04.12 | Peter James
In 1994 Penguin published my novel Host, both in printed form and on two floppy discs set in a hard sleeve, billing it “The World’s First Electronic novel”.
Neither I nor the brilliant Andrew Welham, Penguin’s then group marketing director, had imagined the subsequent furore it was going to cause. I was pilloried on the “Today” programme, ridiculed by the UK press and I was front page headlines in Italy, accused of murdering the novel.
To be fair, my e-book was clunky, it crashed frequently, and few people had laptops back then which, as the Guardian pointed out, meant you would need a porter’s trolley and a generator if you wanted to read it in a deckchair on the beach. But, it had all kinds of fun extras, including the ability to discover aspects of my research, and the dubious novelty of the author photograph coming alive and speaking for 30 seconds.
A year later, in the way these things happen, (and somewhat to my amazement) I was regarded as an expert on electronic books, and found myself as the keynote speaker on a platform at UCLA, in California, alongside Steve Jobs, architect Nicholas Negroponte and the president of Time Warner, on a conference about the digital future of reading. I said what I believed, that e-books would take off the day they became nicer and more convenient to read than the printed book.
So, 18 years later, has that day arrived? Lying in a deckchair on a Greek island last summer, reading my Kindle’s screen comfortably in bright sunshine, and happy in the knowledge that when I finished it, just about any book I might ever want to read was just a few clicks and 90 seconds away, it could indeed be argued that yes, it has. And with it has come both good and bad stuff.
The good includes a soldier heading to the Afghanistan desert who emailed me that he had all seven of my Roy Grace books loaded on his Kindle—and that he could never have fitted the physical books in his rucksack; the visually impaired are able to change the font size; newspapers and books can be delivered to you almost instantly, anywhere in the world; and a more questionable good is the boom in self-publishing.
The bad is the figure quoted recently in The Bookseller, that 20% of all e-book sales are illegal downloads; that high street bookstores around the world are being decimated; and that author royalties, tied to the cover prices of books, are falling because e-books are cheaper.
So what’s it like being a writer today? At grass roots level I don’t think it has changed at all from thousands of years ago. Good writers tell gripping stories; they always have done and always will do—it is the delivery method that has changed, but then it always has. Originally storytelling began as an oral tradition. Stories were eventually handwritten in order to preserve them. In Shakespeare’s time most people could not afford books, and would have been unable to read them anyway, which is why popular storytellers like him chose to write plays rather than novels.
The printed book has not been around as long as we all think. It was in the 1880s that novels became more common, but books for the masses only began in 1935 with Penguin’s launch of the paperback. Now we have audio downloads and e-books; formats that are cheaper, greener and that satisfy a modern consumer characteristic of instant gratification for the ‘I want it now’ generation.
The loss of physical bookstores is a tragedy on so many levels, most of all, in my view, the loss of browsing and the serendipity of finding new authors buried among the shelves, which has always been one of my great joys. But the digital age has brought so much to celebrate. The ease of editing without Tippex; delivering a novel electronically without all the faff of printing the damned thing out, wrapping and mailing it; the instant research provided by the likes of Google; direct communication with fans such as via email, Twitter, Facebook and blogging; and whole new possibilities for reviving the flagging interest in short stories.
Kurt Vonnegut Jnr wrote that wars were like glaciers, they would keep on coming because they were unstoppable. Like it, loathe it or fear it, progress is unstoppable too. New technology is like a steamroller. You are either riding up in the cab or you are part of the road.