by Magnus Shaw
If you read my columns with any regularity, you'll have noticed a little ad in the footer inviting you to buy "ADVICE" - a collection of my writing on advertising (it's very good, by the way). Those kind enough to have clicked through to Amazon will have spotted that "ADVICE" isn't a book which arrives in the post and fights for space on your shelves, but an eBook to be read on the Kindle. In slightly old fashioned terms, it's a 'virtual' book. Perhaps that makes me a "cyber author" - or maybe just virtually an author. Either way, it's rather exciting and certainly a process I'm enjoying. So what does the brave new world of eBooks hold in store for the ambitious copywriter or novelist?
We should really begin by looking at the technology. The Kindle isn't the only eBook reader available, there are Nooks and Kobos too (crazy names, crazy devices). But the Kindle pretty much rules the roost. I suppose it's the iPhone of digital literature and, as a newly published e-Author, I thought I'd better acquire one. I have the Kindle Touch and I am pretty impressed. When Amazon, makers of the Kindle, hit on the idea of an electronic book, the obvious route must have been to build something like a little portrait laptop. That would have been easy, as most of the kit already existed and would simply have needed tweaking for reading. Cleverly and bravely, what Amazon actually did was to create a completely different and unique handheld device. Using e-ink (yes, I'm afraid everything has an 'e' prefix in the digital age), the Kindle is capable of reproducing something very similar to a printed paper page. I'm told there is actually ink within the screen and a tiny electrical charge determines where it places the characters. This has the added benefit of a very generous battery life (between two and six weeks). Very, very clever.
In truth, the genius of the Kindle lies in the decision not to re-invent the book. Quite the opposite. Amazon have realised that people enjoy the physical action of reading, as well as the intellectual stimulation. So the Kindle mirrors the sensation as closely as possible. If you haven't had the pleasure, it takes about a minute to forget you're using an electrical gadget rather than traditional paper pages. Very smart indeed.
So, briefly, that's the user experience - or more accurately, the reader experience. But, as you'd expect, the Kindle also impacts writers.
Until the advent of the eBook (which was no longer ago than 2006), the aspiring writer's lot was not a happy one. Yes, there were very successful, established authors - Stephen King, Ben Elton, Arthur C. Clarke - but the door between these professionals and those hoping to join their ranks always appeared heavy, thick and locked. For the struggling writer, rejection slips arrived with the morning coffee and disappointment tailed you like a shadow. Publishing houses were all-powerful and were prepared to sign-up only a tiny percentage of the writing population. Potential and competence were no guarantee of acceptance either. JK Rowling's first Harry Potter novel was passed over twelve times. Had the daughter of the CEO of Bloomsbury not loved it, she may never have found a publisher at all. Let's not forget, Rowling is now Britain's richest woman and the first person in history to make a $billion from writing.
Fortunately, that model is finished for ever. Just as record companies held far too much power for far too long, forcing musicians to release their own material to retain their copyrights and the bulk of their revenues, so large publishers now watch nervously as creative writers publish their own books. A technically minded author can have a book for sale on Amazon (and many other retail platforms), within 24-hours of placing the final full-stop on their tome. Even those writers with little or no knowledge of the web and its ways can publish rapidly for a small fee to one of the independent businesses set up to do the tricky bits. And they'll keep up to 90% of the revenue. A powerful feeling of democracy, freedom and excitement is growing amongst writers' groups and anyone with a manuscript to be read.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of downsides to this revolution. By opening that obstructive door, discrimination has evaporated. We're not far from the point where anybody can write anything and publish it somewhere. Amazon and other reputable platforms will reject works of bigotry, gratuitous sexual violence and horrible nastiness. They'll reject files which are incorrectly formatted and they won't allow an author to sell two paragraphs for a tenner (the "value-for-money" test). However, they will not reject a piece because it's boring, trite or badly written. There is no creative filter. All bets are off, and just like self-released music, this is a genuinely free market. Let the buyer beware.
What's more, the eBook market is rapidly flooding with new authors. As there is no gate-keeper, every hopeful Tom Clancy, Dick Francis and Harry Harrison can join the party. Which means competition and lots of it. Fortunately, eBooks are now outselling paperbacks in some territories, so there's every chance the cream will rise to the top.
The good news? If you've spent months scratching at a pad or thumping at a keyboard to produce your autobiography, novel or revolutionary poetry collection, publication has never been easier and your work has never had a better chance of finding an audience. Just make sure it's very, very good.