Stark ebook choice for writers: publish and be damned anyway

According to Harper Lee 'some things should happen on soft pages not cold metal'. Her dissenting voice is one of many as digitisation proceeds in its ungainly fashion

Harper Lee: after years of resistance from her, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was published for Kindle by HarperCollins last month. Photograph:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Harper Lee: after years of resistance from her, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was published for Kindle by HarperCollins last month. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty


‘Don’t tell me there is no romance in buying ebooks,” Margaret Drabble recently wrote in an article in praise of the digital platform. “What could be more romantic,” the septuagenarian asked, “than sitting in the sun by the breaking white and turquoise waves on an island in the mid-Atlantic, enjoying a pleasant lunch and talking about William Blake, and finding yourself able to find the quotation you half remember with a click of a finger? And all, if you so choose, for free.”

Such unequivocal praise for ereading is unusual in the literary world. For every enthusiast such as Drabble, there are dozens of naysayers. For Jonathan Franzen, ebooks “are just not permanent enough”; reading on a “screen always feels like we could delete [a book], change it, move it around.” For Penelope Lively, “Anyone whose library consists of a Kindle lying on a table is a bloodless nerd.”

Some writers feel strongly enough about the potential negative effects of new technologies that they withhold their titles from digital release altogether. Harper Lee has for years been involved in a legal dispute with her publisher about potential ebook versions of To Kill a Mockingbird. Despite her general public reticence, Lee wrote an open letter to Oprah Winfrey in 2006 about how technology was influencing the art of reading. “Can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer?” she wrote. “Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up – some things should happen on soft pages not cold metal.”

After years of resistance To Kill a Mockingbird was published for Kindle by HarperCollins last month, alongside a new digital version of the audiobook recorded by Sissy Spacek.

Lee’s reference to Holden Caulfield in her letter to Winfrey seems particularly pertinent. The Catcher in the Rye, which was published 60 years ago this year, has also yet to be published as an ebook, and according to Ereader IQ, an American website that tracks books that have not been released in Kindle format, The Catcher in the Rye is the most watched title since To Kill a Mockingbird’s July release.

Classic titles of Irish interest yet to find digital form include Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Although Finnegans Wake does not appear as a “watched” title on eReader IQ, the notoriously complex form of the book offers the potential for an innovative adaptation. (Incidentally, the Irish director and film-maker Eoghan Kidney has raised funds for a digital version of Ulysses, a “next generation ebook”, which will mirror the experience of virtual-reality videogames and allow “readers” to inhabit Joyce’s characters and make Bloom’s journey across Dublin with him.)

Audrey Niffeneger is another outspoken critic of the ebook. Digital reading, she has written, is “clunky and weird”. She also feared the potential death it heralded for traditional publishing models. Last year, however, Niffeneger succumbed to the digital marketplace, but on her own terms, selling the digital rights to The Time Traveller’s Wife, her bestselling 2003 novel, to Zola Books, an independent digital publisher and bookshop.

She also wrote a sequel for the ebook, ensuring an extra dimension that she hoped would attract fans as well as new readers. Niffeneger’s exclusive relationship with Zola was an enormous coup for the fledgling company, whose mission is to allow customers to buy ebooks from every publisher in every format. Where Amazon and Apple’s iBooks store tie customers into their own formats (and devices), the books that Zola deal in are supported by every tablet, computer, phone and other device.

JK Rowling’s coup
It was because of potential big-brand monopoly that JK Rowling, the most famous of the digital dissenters, withheld the ebook rights for the Harry Potter series until 2012. She eventually released the series on Pottermore, an interactive website for all things Hogwartian, which was designed to sell the digital version of the fantasy series in all possible eformats.

In a coup that only a writer as popular as Rowling could pull off, she forced Amazon to carry the titles as third-party holders; when shoppers try to buy a Harry Potter title on Amazon they are redirected to Pottermore. Amazon gets a small fee, but Rowling retains most of the profit.

She was at the centre of Amazon’s most recent controversy, however, when the company removed the preorder button from her latest book, The Silkworm, published under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym, as part of the dispute between Amazon and Rowling’s publisher, Hachette. The dispute centres on ebook prices and Amazon’s aggressive discounting. It is selling To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, at a 75 per cent discount.

Most authors who are critical of the epublishing industry rarely mention the economic argument. But ultimately it is the writers – and those that publish them – who lose out. If their books are unavailable digitally, they alienate a growing readership, and the readership of the future. If they succumb, they are potentially pillaging their own profits. And at least Amazon is an enemy they can identify. The pirates who reproduce their work on the internet regardless of their wishes are far more insidious adversaries.

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