Impact of e-readers and audiobooks the decade’s biggest legacy

Here we are at the end of another decade, and we still haven’t decided what to call it. The teens? The twenty-tens? The lost decade? You’d think that book people would be good with titles. Yet the publishing world has always been a slow-moving thing, more a zeppelin than a drone: it’s still typically a year or so between an author finishing a book and the end product appearing on the shelves.

Still, it seems like a good time to look at what has changed in the world of books both in Ireland and further afield in (how about this?) the Tenties.

First, how we read. Once upon a time reading was a simple affair and a book was made of paper. Then in late 2009 Ireland, among other countries, had its first sight of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, which had been launched in the US two years previously. The delay might have been intended to build up sufficient appetite that we primitive Europeans would gather round the grey plastic slabs stroking them deferentially like the apes around the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (or launch day in an Apple store).

Kindles have indeed been hugely popular, sending other e-readers into a tailspin. They make it easy to search a novel for a favourite line, enlarge the text for tired eyes, and accumulate a library of unread books in a way that would previously have required a large house and an understanding spouse.

They have also created a thriving subculture of the fiction reading market. Amazon’s self-publishing programme enables writers to bypass traditional publishers (and those year-long lead times) and find a hungry readership, often for genre fiction.

You can even, with a monthly subscription, read as many Kindle ebooks as you like without keeping them. Yes, Amazon, with its unerring capacity for monetising the everyday, has invented the library you have to pay for.

Amazon is also behind the growth of another way of reading in the last decade: the audiobook. In 2010, if you wanted to listen to one, you had to invest in a box of CDs and were restricted to bestsellers. Now, Amazon-owned Audible has more than 400,000 books in its catalogue, mostly accessed by streaming. Audible believes itself to be the single biggest employer of actors in New York, and listening to an audiobook read professionally is a world away from the days of the Kindle’s text-to-speech service, which made it sound like every novel’s central character was Stephen Hawking.

Books, in other words, have joined music, films and cars over the last decade as something we are increasingly likely to rent as to buy. This seems less a millennial move away from the baggage of ownership than a forced choice from technology companies to tie us into subscription services for life.

But unlike the DVD or CD, paper books haven’t slumped with the rise of ebooks. There is something about the analogue pleasure of reading a physical book – it says, this object in my hand represents only this character’s story, only this author’s thoughts – that an ebook can’t replace.

In fact, dedication to – or fetishisation of – the physical book now has its own market, as my local bookshop has a separate section headed Beautiful Books, full of cheaply-bound, awkwardly-sized hardbacks of modern classics with nice cover designs and sewn-in ribbons, selling for twice the price of the paperback just across the way.

If you buy enough of them, you can post photos on Instagram to show how you enjoy your books: set on carefully rumpled bedlinen and accompanied by vintage china, church candles and old vanilla pods you had lying around. It’s another new way we read our books at the end of the decade: like a time-pressed tourist, we take a photograph now and look at it later.

Waves of themes

If the way we read is different from the start of the decade, have the books we read changed? Well, some things haven’t: the bestseller list of 2010 shows a series of familiar names: Jamie Oliver, Lee Child and Dan Brown are as popular now as they were then.

But there have been waves of themes in new books over the last decade. We have seen, in Ireland particularly, a strong run of serious fiction dealing with the aftermath of the financial crash. Hard times often drive writers and artists to produce their best work in response – and in protest.

These books tended to come a few years after the crash because fiction needs time to develop and find its form. Among the best crash-lit are Anne Enright’s brittle romance The Forgotten Waltz, Claire Kilroy’s furious satire The Devil I Know, Julian Gough’s overflowing bran tub Jude in London and Donal Ryan’s masterpiece of ventriloquism The Spinning Heart.

These books show not just Ireland’s continued eminence in literature as a response to the world, but also the wisdom of allowing that slow percolation to take place before writing the novel. Less advised – perhaps because they’re so famous no one is willing to tell them to stop – are prominent British and American novelists who have been rushing out thin satires on this decade’s feverish politics. Nobody will be talking about Howard Jacobson’s Pussy, Ian McEwan’s The Cockroach or Dave Eggers’ The Captain and the Glory in our next 10-year round-up.

How political leaders interact with literature has changed too. At the end of the last decade, Barack Obama’s books The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from My Father were bestsellers. Now the US has a semi-literate president whose rhetoric makes George W Bush sound like Cicero, and it’s not Donald Trump’s own ghost-written books but exposés about his presidency that are big news, the general thrust of which can be had by looking at the titles: Fire and Fury, A Warning, Fear, Unhinged.

More nutritious, and perhaps a more valuable response to the apocalyptic feel of our political times, are the surprise bestsellers this decade that came in the form of long, meaty books that give us one person’s thinking on a big topic, and seek to help us understand the world, that might have something in common with the growth this decade of online long reads.

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens kicked off this trend in 2014, and since then the books have only got bigger and more brow-furrowing, from Thomas Piketty’s economics primer Capital in the 21st Century to Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which takes on the tech companies who want to run our world, and to a large extent already do.

The problem with surprise bestsellers is that they give rise to a lot of unsurprising copycats. Rushing to cash in is not a new trend, but some tides that have risen particularly high in the last 10 years. At the start of the decade, a novel whose title starts with The Girl would have been by Stieg Larsson – a grim and gritty crime series about misogyny – whereas now all girls in the title of a book are the offspring of Paula Hawkins’ runaway bestseller The Girl on the Train.

You can read about The Girl in the Letter, The Girl in the Ice, The Girl in the Mustard Coat and even, when time has passed, The Woman in the Window. And despite their copycat genesis, these books do represent change: writing built on domestic anxieties rather than macho thriller fodder, a move away from the male focus of some genre fiction.

Stratospheric hit

In lighter non-fiction, the supreme text is Adam Kay’s This is Going to Hurt, his memoir of his time as a junior doctor in the British National Health Service. It has been a stratospheric hit, selling more than two million copies in Britain and Ireland since it was published two years ago. Since then, publishers have been ambulance-chasing all the way to A&E to find doctors whose handwriting they can read clearly enough to put together a memoir.

So now you can read memoirs by a prison doctor, a war doctor, a forensic pathologist, a cardiac surgeon – everyone really, except for the therapists that publishers probably need help from to deal with their addiction to medical memoirs. But the success of Kay’s book was due to the fact that it’s 80 per cent very funny – he’s a professional comedian – and 20 per cent angry at the state of the NHS. It will take more than luck to replicate that.

The end of a decade is also a time to think of who and what we’ve lost – but also what we’ve gained. Numerous popular and beloved Irish writers have left us in the last 10 years, including Maeve Binchy, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson, all central to their areas of literary culture.

But the Irish world of books remains in rude health, with numerous innovative publishers appearing and giving new Irish writers a voice. Many of these publishers are small but punching far above their weight, such as Tramp Press, which has given us Sara Baume, Emilie Pine and others.

The Stinging Fly, which has been publishing books since 2005, has entered a new league in the last 10 years, with writers such as Mary Costello, Claire Louise-Bennett, Wendy Erskine and Nicole Flattery making an impact both in Ireland and on the world stage. And our reputation for staying at the front of literary imagination is intact: in the seven years since the launch of the UK’s Goldsmiths Prize for “fiction that breaks the mould”, three of the winners – Eimear McBride, Mike McCormack and Kevin Barry – have been Irish.

More recently, Irish writers such as Sinéad Gleeson and Emilie Pine have been at the forefront in taking control of the narrative on women’s bodies with their essay collections. Whatever the next 10 years holds for the world, we can be sure that risk-taking and innovation by Irish writers and publishers will continue to feed into the mainstream, just as the innovations of Joyce and Beckett did almost a century ago.