The Grand Conversation on ebooks: Peter Tennant

STOP PRESS! I’ve had a couple of last minute guest posts, so the Grand Conversation continues! (for another day or two, anyway).

Peter Tennant is the book reviewer and a contributing editor to the UK’s Black Static magazine, for whom he also writes the Case Notes blog. His personal blog can be found at trumpetville.wordpress.com.

Pete is one of the most respected and prolific reviewers out there. If you don’t believe me, check out his Wikipedia entry.  As such, Pete’s opinion in this debate is important, nay, imperative!


“Random Thoughts by a Random Reviewer”

Shane said he was canvassing opinions from all sides of the fence, including those who’ve had nothing to do with ebooks, and that describes me to a T, so forgive any ignorance in what follows, or if you have to blame somebody, then blame Shane for not being selective enough in who he invites to blog.

I’m part of a generation for which reading from a screen almost always denoted work, while books and magazines were for pleasure. As a reviewer, often with deadlines to meet, I will read works of fiction in e-format when needs must, but I don’t like it and it’s not my preference. At the end of the day, given the choice between staying in the coldest room of the house and reading fiction from the same screen I’ve been looking at all day or going into the front room and curling up in a comfortable chair with a good book in front of a cosy fire, the latter wins out every time.

Of course, e-readers have changed all that. I’ve never actually seen one that I know of – I see the young ‘uns holding all sorts of high tech toys and have no idea what they are, so I might have seen a Kindle or one of its kin, I just don’t know – but I’ve heard the arguments and am pretty much convinced by them, not least by the benefits to the environment, even if I do cringe every time I hear somebody use the phrase ‘dead tree publishing’, and of being able to own a significantly large library without the fear of turning your home into a fire trap, and of course, I’m beguiled by the idea of books never going out of print when a particular edition is sold out. I’d really like to own an e-reader, and if I win the Lottery tomorrow then a Kindle will be on my wish list of things to buy, right after new central heating, plumbing that works, and a night out on the town with two Kylie Minogue look-alikes (I’m a man who has priorities).

And yet I find that I still have very mixed feelings about this whole e-publishing lark, even if it now seems to have passed the tipping point and has about it a sense of inevitability, barring a cosmic radiation storm that wipes out all electronic media and turns us into a race of green-skinned behemoths. Intellectually, I’m sold on the idea, but when it comes to the matter of the heart, that’s a whole other thing, and I have this 13-Step internal dialogue going on between head and heart that goes something like this:

  1. Well an ebook is not a book, is it? It’s a file, a PDF or something similar, and I can’t crack it open and read it just like I would a book. Instead, I have to get special equipment, a Kindle or Sony e-reader or … And I have to get batteries, and there’ll probably be other expenses. Already, there are barriers going up, and this wonderful thing called reading becomes more problematic, with those who can’t afford one of these new fangled pieces of kit facing disenfranchisement. And of course there’ll be new and better pieces of kit coming along in the future. We live in a consumer culture and the technology can’t stand still in case we stop spending.
  2. There’s nothing especially new here, and the technology will get cheaper. Our enjoyment of things like music and films has always hinged on the possession of new fangled pieces of kit in one form or another, stereo systems and VCR/DVD players, Blu-Ray and iPlayers, and nobody has ever suggested that progress should be halted and the future put on hold simply because not everyone can pay the entry fee. So add literature to the list and boot up the day after tomorrow.
  3. People on low income probably wouldn’t spend money on books anyway, but in that scenario, there’s always the library, so I guess one of the things I want to know is how the library system is going to work in this brave new world we’re fashioning for ourselves. What safety net is there for those who can’t afford the kit?
  4. Books have been around for so long that they’ve become synonymous with literature. When people describe themselves as ‘book lovers’, usually what they mean is that they’re infatuated with fiction, with the end result of this business of making things up. The book is just the delivery mechanism, and if a new, better delivery system comes along, then inevitably it will and should supplant the book, just as the book took the place of the illuminated manuscript, or whatever else we had before books. Anyone know?
  5. But books aren’t simply a delivery mechanism, the means by which words get put in front of the eyes. They have value as a thing in themselves. I can get excited at the idea of being given a book as a present, the physicality of the thing, its feel and smell and texture, the colour. The idea of being given a file to download just fills me with indifference. A book is a thing of beauty, but an ebook is just words on a screen.
  6. Books aren’t going away any time soon. They will survive in one form or another. Probably at the bottom end of the scale – the mass market, high appeal titles by best-selling writers and celebrities – and at the top end of the market, the realm of the coffee table book, the limited edition targeted at collectors, books as a way to diversify the investment portfolio, books as luxury items, fetish artefacts and objets d’art. The effects of the switchover to ebooks will be felt most in the middle of the market.
  7. There are tremendous opportunities for writers here, a chance to bypass the stranglehold of the publishing houses with their emphasis on profit over quality, on shifting the greatest volume, a chance for new talent to flourish without the restrictions of the past and for old talent to enjoy a greater share of the profits from their labour through taking the self-publishing route. If the publishing houses lose out and fade away, it’s an obsolescence they will largely have brought on themselves through putting accountants and business graduates in charge of an endeavour that should never have been solely about the money.
  8. Contrariwise, in this brave new world, with many intent on doing away with the old gatekeepers, how are we to ensure that standards are maintained? How can we sort the wheat from the chaff? The point is moot as that particular genie has already been let out of the bottle thanks to PoD and easy access to publishing software. It’s already possible to bypass the gatekeepers: only the scale on which it happens will change.
  9. Regardless, in a world where everything can be published without anybody’s by-your-leave if you have a computer and an internet connection, the question remains as to how we are to separate the good from the bad, and not find ourselves awash in a sea of self-published mediocrity? The answer would seem to be exactly as we do now – through reviews and the web version of word of mouth: readers finding people whose opinions are roughly in accord with their own and who can be relied on to zero in on the stuff that’s worth bothering with, people who will give praise where praise is genuinely due and not just spout hyperbole to beat the band.
  10. The economics of e-publishing continue to give me pause. Where the old school publishers have also purchased electronic rights how can they justify charging the same for an ebook as a book? Yes, there’s the same element of editing, proofreading etc, but no payments to printers or for transport costs, and the ebook is of less value to me as a consumer than a book would be – I can’t loan it to a friend unless I also loan them my e-reader and I can’t sell it on to a second-hand store, or give it to a charity shop when I’m done. It’s disposable in all but name, use once and destroy, ‘destroy’ being a euphemism for file and forget.
  11. Staying with the financial side of things, I’m wondering how authors are to earn a crust? Yes, some writers appear to be making a living, but the technology is in its early days as yet and so too are the ways to circumvent it. Some authors have argued that e-piracy has increased sales of their physical books, but while that might be true at the moment, in a world where ebooks become the norm, what incentive is there to buy an ‘authorised’ version over a much cheaper pirate?
  12. My worst fear concerns the malleability of ebooks, that words on a screen can be changed so much easier than those on a page. Illusory as the idea probably is, the printed word seems to have a permanency to it that eludes its electronic counterpart, where just one touch of a delete button can change everything. We’ve already had the example of Amazon deleting works by Orwell from their Kindle, so who is to say that other, less obvious alterations can’t be effected? Not much of a problem where fiction is concerned perhaps, and indeed the ability to remotely correct typos and the like might be a boon of the new technology, but when it comes to other texts I’m not so sure. Have we moved a bit closer to Orwell’s 1984 where history is not only written by the victors but revised by them to accommodate new facts? Yes, I know I’m sounding paranoid, but I write for a horror magazine, and worst case scenario is my default setting, and any attempt to assure me those fears are groundless will only make me think you’re part of the conspiracy too.
  13. Best case scenario – a world where ebooks and books fruitfully co-exist, where PoD offers a bridge between the two. A while back in a London bookshop. they installed a machine which could print your book for you. From memory, I don’t think the experiment was a success, but with the will it could be made to work. Imagine now a world where you buy an ebook and if you wish to do so for a fee you can trade up to a book. Not only that, but you can select your own print size and font, pick a cover illustration you like, choose whether it’s paperback or hardback, get everything just how you want it to be. Imagine a world of customised books, a world where each and every book is a work of art. Now did that idea come from the head or the heart?

You can read Peter Tennant’s insightful reviews on his Black Static magazine Case Notes blog. Throughout February, Pete has been profiling female horror writers as part of Women in Horror Recognition Month.

2 Comments

  1. […] input from people who know pretty much nothing about ebooks, and that pretty much describes me. Check it out. And check out some of the posts by sensible people as well. Lots of food for thought going […]

  2. […] about ebooks and e-readers after last weekend’s generally positive and upbeat post over at Shane Jiraiya Cumming’s blog. Mid-week one of my email providers changed its format to a ‘New Style’, and the result […]

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