Ebooks: kindling our affections

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 13 May 2016.

I recently started reading a novel. I’ve been reading it on a tablet, actually. It’s called Newtons Sleep (and no, that’s not a typo), by a writer called Daniel O’Mahony. It’s about… well, I’m still figuring that out, but from what I gather so far it’s about England in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, and the interventions of a mysterious time-travelling cult known only as Faction Paradox. The novel is disturbing and meandering, happily skipping between time periods, frequently launching into tangents and dragging out its action with reflections on the nature of language and Restoration politics. No major publisher would ever touch it. It’s dense, weird, and deliberately difficult. And it is brilliant. What’s more, it’s something that could only reach its audience in the age of ebook publishing, which, as the headline may have hinted, is the actual subject of this article.

Ebooks have gotten something of a bad rap in recent years. Derided by literary snobs as cold, remorseless slabs of data, lacking the warmth and personality of printed, decaying wood pulp, many literary types see ebooks as cheap imitations of the real thing. There will never be a Facebook group dedicated to ebook marginalia, such people harrumph. What often gets glossed over in such debates is the fact that several publications, if not for ebook publishing, would never see the light of day at all. This doesn’t just apply to weird sci-fi/historical mashups, though it is particularly relevant in the world of genre fiction. There are lots of exciting things being published right now that would be next to impossible without the ebook. We have, for instance, Tor.com’s acclaimed series of novellas, championed for bringing diverse and daring new types of genre fiction into the mainstream space. We have publications like Apex and Uncanny Magazine, bringing shocking and surreal new short fiction to the market. Smaller than that, there are tiny independent zines like Fever Dreams Magazine, publishing new and untested writers from the UK, and great media critics like Philip Sandifer and Andrew Hickey publishing their own ebooks. In the face of so much new and exciting content, it’s hard to choose the side of Nook-burning Luddites.

But more than that, there are important consumer-facing reasons why ebooks are worth paying attention to. Thanks in part to the disinterest of a large section of the market, Amazon has been able to grab an enormous share of the ebook market, as well as an effective monopoly on the digital distribution of audiobooks. This is a problem, because the degree of control Amazon wields over the electronic book market is likely to mean bad things long-term. A monopoly is more likely to charge extortionate prices, as well as to gouge the publishers and authors with which it works, and Amazon’s business practices are sharkish to say the least. If the mainstream literary world were a bit more clued-up about ebooks, Amazon might be incentivised to offer a better deal to both its readers and the publishing world at large. If they faced a bit more competition from we literary snobs flocking to alternative ebook distributors like Smashwords or Lulu, the ebook market, and the publishing world in which it is increasingly important, would be far better off.

It’s easy to distrust ebooks. I’ve certainly done so in the past. But the fact of the matter is that they are an increasingly big part of what publishing is now, and it would behoove us to pay more attention. We don’t have to abandon the physical book, of course, but we cannot afford to let this exciting (and potentially dangerous) new publishing venture pass us by.

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