Reading On the Screen

On my last trip, I did something unthinkable. I didn’t take any books. Print books, that is. I did have a number of ebooks on my tablet, including two that I acquired especially to read on this trip. One I borrowed from the library’s ebook catalog; the other I purchased.

My conversion to ebooks has been gradual. Except in cases when it’s the only way I can obtain a book I’m interested in, I seldom read ebooks except when traveling. Then the convenience is hard to beat. A slim, lightweight tablet versus pounds of books. The ability to enlarge the print when the lighting is poor, and to read without using those horrible glaring lights they have on airplanes. By syncing my tablet with my phone, I can continue to read on it during the twenty minutes of takeoff and immediately after when laptops and tablets must be stowed away.

Another advantage to ebooks is obvious. It cost me $13.99 to buy an ebook copy of the literary bestseller I took on the trip. If I’d sprung for print it would have cost me seven dollars more. And unless I wanted to take a chance that I could find a copy in an airport bookstore, I would have had order the book a few days ahead of my trip so it could be shipped to me.

On the downside, you are dependent on electricity to charge your device, while print is always there. Which why it’s good to have a back-up print book for emergencies, like when you leave your charging cord in the hotel and don’t have time to shop for a new one right away.

And there are other disadvantages. Reading an ebook is more tiring, since even though the print on the screen appears crisp and sharp, in fact your brain is smoothing out the uneven edges of the pixelated letters to make them appear that way. Also, for reading at night, the bright light of the device decreases the production of melatonin in the brain, so reading an ebook before bed is more likely to cause insomnia.

And even though the device shows you on every page what percentage of the book you’ve already read, going back to re-read a few pages in an ebook is much more cumbersome and tedious than flipping through the pages in a print book. If you’re reading a complex story with lots of characters, that can be frustrating. It’s like everything you’ve already read falls off into a void and disappears, and the only part of the book that is real is the page in front of you.

As a writer, I find this aspect of ebooks troubling. Many of my books are no longer available in print, unless you can find a yellowed copy in a used bookstore. Which means from now on, almost everyone who reads my books will be doing so in the digital format. It makes my stories that I spent hours and hours of my life creating seem like any other consumer product—a bag of potato chips or a cup of coffee—to be consumed and then forgotten. My story, my words, are just ephemera.

Although from another perspective, exactly the opposite is true. My print books will eventually crumble to dust, while my ebooks could potentially live on and on forever in the digital realm.

But this potential advantage is canceled out by another aspect of ebooks. According to studies, they don’t have quite the same impact and influence that print books do. This is because print is tactile, which helps our brains create a stronger memory of what we’ve read. The physical act of turning pages, the sensation of the number of pages held in your left hand versus those in your right, the location of the words on the page—all those things help your brain store the information you’ve read more effectively. My digital stories will last longer, but they have less meaning to the people who read them.

And finally, the ease of producing ebooks means that my stories are no longer competing for readers’ attention with thousands of other books, but with literally millions. My story and vision is drowned in an endless sea of ebooks.

Ebooks are like so many things in this rapidly-changing, breathlessly expanding technological world. All these innovations have made the exchange of information easier and faster, but now the sheer volume of what we’re exposed to threatens to render the actual content meaningless.

I leave you with a quote from Jim Morrison’s Lords and New Creatures: “We have metamorphosed from a mad body dancing on the hillside to a pair of eyes staring in the dark.” He was referring to people living through TV and film instead of experiencing life. Now we live through the reality of our handheld devices.

THE SALE: Then and Now

By Mary Gillgannon

I just contracted for the sale of my twelfth book. (I’ve published three independently.) The experience was very different from when I sold my first book over twenty years ago. Including the “signing”, which consisted of creating an electronic signature with a password.

How have things changed?

Submission: Back then, I didn’t yet have a computer, so when an editor at the Colorado Gold (yay, RMFW) asked me to send her “the whole manuscript”, I had to print it out, which involved inserting 400+ individual sheets of paper in my word processor, basically a typewriter with a memory, and then patiently waiting as the machine typed it out page by page. I then boxed it up, took it to the post office and paid a substantial chunk to mail it.

This time I sent my manuscript as an email attachment, not quite a one-click process but pretty close.

Response: Back then, I got a letter with an offer in six months. That actually wasn’t an atypical response time. I once got a rejection letter for a manuscript I’d submitted eighteen months earlier.

This time, an editor responded to my query within a week, and two weeks later I got the offer.

The money: When I sold my first book, my editor had just started acquiring for a new line and I had a tough, hard-nosed agent who knew how to negotiate. She managed to get me an advance just barely in the five figures. Given that the first offer was for $2,500, I was over the moon.

This time the advance is… nothing. These days, lots of small publishers don’t offer advances. Instead, I get 40% of the download price of ebooks and 7% of print. So, unless I’m very lucky (and suspect I used up all my luck on my first sale), it will take me years (or never) to make as much on this book as I did twenty-some years ago.

Distribution: My publisher back then printed about 70,000 copies. That sounds very impressive, but be aware that my book was only readily available in stores for about five weeks (“The shelf-life of a banana,” my editor used to say.) For another year or so it was available to order, but after that the only copies anyone can buy are used copies, for which I get no royalties.

Today, my book will be available until… who knows. Unless there’s some internet catastrophe and/or the world ends, my story will be out there indefinitely. On the other hand, every ebook is like that, so in a few years, there will be millions and millions of them available. How do you stand out or get noticed in those circumstances?

Sales: I sold about half of my print-run back then. Not enough to earn out my advance, which did not endear me to my publisher.

This time, I can keep earning money for years and years. Even so, unless the book really catches on, it will take me a long while to earn as much as I did with my first book twenty years ago.

Marketing: My first publisher didn’t do a lot of marketing and promotion for new authors, other than sending out ARC’s to the two romance magazines around at the time. But they did give me great covers, and because they had good relationships with dozens of small distributors all over the country, my books were available at supermarkets and discounts stores as well as most bookstores.

Today, most smaller publishers expect authors to do much of their own marketing. Since I suck at social media, my only hope is that because I have thirteen other ebooks available, all under the same name, some readers will stumble onto this one. Sheer quantity does seem to help sales.

The joy: Back then, I really thought I’d made it. Now I know that unless you’re a top bestseller, there’s no way you can ever feel secure about your career. Fads and trends move quickly and what’s popular one month may not be the next. But after twenty-plus years, I appreciate more than ever how fortunate I am to make money doing something I love and having my stories read by readers.