First, I am aware that I have works published that exist solely as e-books and files on my computer. They are a tremendously useful platform for information in the new publishing world and allow writers to bring back ‘dead’ narrative forms like the novella, short story, and story collection. I love being able to read books on my phone; during a long car trip I read The Outsider by Colin Wilson, a book no Barnes and Noble or my small-town library would have. Amazon’s e-book selection has a lot of more obscure works that would have been out of print a decade ago (except for Wyndham Lewis‘ later work, much to my chagrin).
In the virtual realm, everything is up for manipulation and easy destruction. You don’t even really own the books on your Kindle-see this post, this 2012 Wired article, and then there was the infamous 2009 wiping of Orwell’s 1984 from Kindle devices. To be fair, the last occasion was a result of the publisher pulling the e-book; however, the point is that Kindle library can easily be manipulated. The Wired article contains excerpts from the Kindle terms of service. The short version is that you simply buy a license for the content meaning you do not actually own a copy of the book like you would a hardcover on your shelf. E-books are great for certain applications, but they should not be the only form for transmitting books. Many people read e-books, yes, but the sales have declined in 2015. Another analysis states the sales may be leveling off in the long term. We will have to wait and see if the second is true.
The implications of an e-book only market for books is frightening. Material deemed double-plus-undgood could easily be censored and removed off of e-readers and wiped from the retailers. It’s an extreme outlook, but it’s a concern I’ve had. Digital infrastructure is weak and, again, easily manipulated. I don’t foresee a total conversion to e-books. Radio and movie theaters still exist even though people have television and internet streaming services. Traditional stage plays still exist. These art forms have adapted, and print books will too. But my point in writing this is to draw attention to the weak infrastructure of e-books.
Amazon gives more authors a platform, but those authors are easy to censor. Legacy publishing de facto censored many writers, and still does. My concern is that an author could have his books removed by Amazon because of an internet lynch mob. Since Amazon sells Mein Kampf, I do not think they would do that. They stock a truly diverse number of titles spanning a range of ideologies-but only because it’s good for business.
The same reasoning extends to what books sell. Bestseller status is no guarantee of artistic quality. Only time proves what has staying power; even then what’s venerated often appeals to the tastes of academia, at odds with traditional artistic standards. E-books might turn literary art into another commodity, just a product read for pleasure. All to often classic novels are judged by simple gut reactions of “I like it” or “I hate it.” I’ve read a number of books I didn’t find pleasurable reading but I cannot say they were bad books. I found Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana boring on a surface level, but there are a great many insights into espionage and Cold War spy culture (he worked for MI6). Greene called these books entertainments compared to his Catholic themed novels.
We cannot predict the future, but if e-books become the dominant format fiction may very become only cheap entertainment, with traditional publishers churning out more postmodern garbage. This forces the new writer into a false choice. They must either become a writer of pure entertainment or become an literary writer with a certificate of approval. It does not have to be an either or proposition. I can only hope self-publishing and e-books are used as a tool to get good stories out, not as a platform for churning out cheap entertainment.