Ebooks conundrum

When I first bought a Kindle I was sceptical whether I would enjoy reading books on an electronic device, but I soon became a convert.

Apart from being light to carry and convenient to use, I particularly found the dictionary useful for all those difficult words or obscure references, especially when reading US novels. It particularly came in handy when reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl as it had a number of American references I didn’t understand.

But despite the benefits of this relatively new delivery system for text, many in the publishing trade do not share such positive views. They fear that the various forms of digital transmission of words to readers could spell the end of the printed book being the primary medium of literature. It could ring the death knell for small independent bookstores and local libraries.

The printed book is still a wonderful possession to have in the house. But so were LPs, until CDs replaced them, and now music downloads are replacing CDs. The ebook market is still far from reaching maturity, but last year the consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers  forecast that the ebook could overtake the physical book by 2018 when the electronic market is expected to reach £1bn.

Nothing ever stands still and the prospect of a future with a permanently stable equilibrium is wishful thinking. David Lodge suggested in the Financial Times last week that the electronic era in music and TV has only helped to spur more interest in live concert and theatre performances by artists. He wonders whether the literary festivals could provide the same opportunity by providing that live connection with the reader.

In the same week the award-winning author Fay Weldon gave a different piece of advice at the Independent Bath Literature Festival to literary novelists.

She was following up on a blog she wrote last September in which she said the books that sell best in electronic form are mostly commercial fiction.

The 83-year old writer told the festival that literary novelists should swallow their pride and write two versions of their book – one with all the hard contemplative bits for print and an easier page-turning version for ebooks. Weldon says that writers can’t expect the same version of their book to serve both markets. They should consider catering for the busy ebook reader constantly on the move with little time for contemplation and reflection.

I think what she is advising elite writers to do is akin to the “film director’s cut” – the extended version of the film that represents the filmmaker’s own approved edit. Using the same analogy, the shorter theatrical release of the film would be the equivalent of the ebook. It’s anyone’s guess whether this would bolster sales for high-brow authors, some of whom tend to look down on commercial fiction, such as the mystery novel, as if it were an inferior genre.

The debate on literary vs popular fiction is an endless one. A thriller may not be art, but it can be artful. It might very well be written clumsily, but it can nevertheless be absorbing.

Good writing, according to Weldon, is “so much to do with an aesthetic, with a resonance of language which is apparent on paper but not on a screen. The e-novel is aesthetic free, resonance free, concerns itself rightly with happenings, cliff-hangers, suspense – all the crude elements the aspiring literary writer is encouraged to play down.”

Yet Weldon openly admits that she simply does not get along with ebooks. She says that she finds the electronic form tiring to read, no matter who the author is.

No doubt that screen awareness differs from person to person in the same way that people recently couldn’t agree whether a dress was white and gold or blue and black.

But ebooks are very much a boon to those readers that enjoy the flexibility of being able to read two or three books on the go, switching from one to the other with a mere tap of the screen.

However, my favourite reason for using an ebook has nothing to do with the content that I have downloaded. It has a lot to do with the sheer comfort of being able to sit on a sofa with a whisky in one hand and crisps in the other while reading the device balanced on my lap. Try doing that with a printed book.

Keep up to date with Tom Claver at www.tomclaver.co.uk’.