Delete, Baby, Delete - The Digital Publishing Dilemma

Category: Writing

He is making a list and checking it twice. Well these days he checks a spreadsheet, and many of those in the "nice" column are getting an iPad or a Kindle.

This Christmas is set to be the tipping point for digital books. Sales of e-books on Amazon overtook hardbacks in 2010. It is quite possible that with all the devices currently waiting to emerge from the wrapping paper, 2011 will see digital sales overtake paperbacks too. The reader in me is happy about this but the writer is panicking.

As an emerging author whose work develops slowly, I’m beginning to worry that printed books will disappear before I get my face on the back of one. Reader George would be delighted with a Kindle in his stocking, but writer George won’t really feel he has made it until his name is on a chunk of dead tree.

My work has already appeared in anthologies, so I know the thrill of loitering in hope near the shelf or subtly manoevering acquaintances into shops so I can exclaim in surprise, "Oh would you look at that - one of my stories." Am I to be denied these treats if I finally get a major release all to myself? And what about signing copies? How does that work on Kindle?

One of the measures I have set for my success as a writer is that I should offend some bigots. But what are the poor dears in Tennessee or Tehran going to do in response if there is nothing solid to burn? Hitting delete just won’t be the same. Virtual book burning - Is there an app for that?

There will be an impact on collectors too. Will virtual first editions have the same appeal? It is hard to fathom collectors though. With The Beatles finally on iTunes it wouldn’t surprise me if there were folks who bought all their downloads twice, so they could keep the second set unplayed and in mint condition.

It is hilarious to hear the Luddite tendency deny the earthquake that is about to hit publishing. The same sort of thing you heard in the music world when the iPod appeared, or when the CD replaced vinyl, or when the shellac disc replaced the wax cylinder.

"It'll never catch on", they said in 1920, 1980 and 2000.

It did.

When Patti Smith accepted an American National Book Award in November she said: "There is nothing more beautiful than the book, the paper, the font, the cloth…..Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please never abandon the book."

I disagree. There are lots of physically unattractive books, with ugly fonts printed on nasty paper. They aren't made to last. The stitching is rubbish and the cheap glue dries and cracks after a few years. I know. I have a room full of them.

Books are surely about ideas. We shouldn't get hung up so much on the mode of transmission. But the digital idea is the unburnable idea. That's a good thing. That's why the reader in me is all for this bright digital future. But the writer in me would like to notch up at least one dust jacket of his own. After that Progress, you may proceed with my blessing.



George Anderson

George Anderson received a New Writers Award in 2008