It took me a while to realize that readers of ebooks think they are about the device or the formatting software. In fact, they are about the infrastructure. Two kinds of manuscripts exist: one is down-loaded to the reader’s hard drive on whatever gizmo in whatever format, and the other remains in the “cloud” of information. The “cloud” is only a metaphor for huge databanks -- and I mean on the dimension of Bonneville Dam power plants -- where everything ever sent on the Internet is stored “forever,” whatever that means in a world where those places are vulnerable which is why their locations are kept secret. They are not the “cloud.” They are the “matrix.” They generate the “cloud.” If the sun sends out a really powerful electromagnetic burst, it could possibly take out the satellite links among these places plus the places themselves. Electronics are tiny delicate IO tracings in electromagnetic form.
The ebook that is actually still safely in the cloud can be interrupted by the canceling of the link between the book file and the reader. This could happen for physical reasons (both my internet and telephone were off-line for an hour yesterday evening) or for legal reasons (the book publisher is being sued or the contract with the author is re-negotiated or censorship laws have been imposed or you only had permission to read the book for a certain period of time). It could happen for political reasons. Anything that shuts down the internet, which is only links and not normally controlled by individuals. If you live in the hinterlands, you know that support for fancy gizmos is not always dependable. (Can you hear me now?) Mostly they are meant for urban people.
Readers have still not really figured out how to “consume” ebooks. In the first place, they are often in the habit of cruising bookstores or libraries to discover what they want to read, but they don’t know how to “cruise” ebooks. They often went by the covers or blurbs, but those are missing. It is an entirely unwarranted assumption that all people have computer gizmos or want them, much less to read print on them or fish around looking for book reviews.
But ebooks are great for people who read three or more “immersive” novels a week, never buy the books but only borrow them from the library, and know about them because they hear from friends. They are the modern equivalent of the original little paperbacks that fit into pockets and could be discarded or given away once they were read, because they only cost fifty cents or a dollar. Ebooks are not so good for people who would have to print out the file in order to use them the way they want to: for study, for rereading, for keeping.
An ebook is a challenge to the author to be media-inclusive. Video? Sound? Links? Persons who are good at those modes (photography, composing) might not be the most powerful writers so might want a partner. At present many authors or formatters simply grab images or music from other sources and introduce them to manuscripts.
Format has not settled down. There is no universal format. Each format serves books that can only be seen on its related gizmos and there are wars between publishers over who gets access to which books. Format is crucial when print meaning is often managed by line-breaks (poetry) or spacing (episodes). On paper the way a book looks has been determined by the paper’s dimensions and the printer’s capacities, but now it is not. Beyond consideration of fonts and margins is the possibility of making the words writhe like snakes or blink or change color. Do you really want your book to tell all your friends what you are reading and what page you are on? There are “books” now that can detect where your eyes are looking and supply sound track. Do you want a book that reads you while you read it?
Here’s a crass one: what about batteries? The constant consciousness of their state, the need to dispose of them ecologically, and -- indeed -- the impact of mining the rare materials -- are a lot to think about. And then there’s the need to keep track of the gizmo at all times, not to drop it, not to put it on a cushy surface that will suffocate it, not to leave it behind or allow the dog to chew on it. (Some of this is true of paper books, too, but people are not so inclined to steal a simple cheap book. They WILL steal an ebook file.)
The most amazing change has been the enormously diminished cost of publishing. I am “publishing” this blog right now at no cost but electricity, my Internet access, and I suppose, the depreciation of my computer. What this has done is to dump out the need for venture capitalism, which was the role of the publisher and also his/her/its leverage. But what I’m doing here is not really publishing in a complete sense. It is only public printing, not much different from having a printing press and then posting what I’ve printed on walls or poles.
Publishing includes curation (deciding what is worthy), research, editing, formatting, illustrating, publicizing and distribution. Google is doing much of this for me by providing a template for this blog, posting my writing in an accessible way, and even listing it on Google, which is a sort of combined distribution/advertising. I could do most of this for a book myself through a service like lulu.com, which will create a file of my manuscript and store it, then print copies on demand. “Doing it yourself” puts the writer in direct contact with the reader (disintermediation) IF the reader can find the writer. If the latter is already “famous” and followed by the media, this will not be a problem. If the writer is unknown and the reader doesn’t have the skills or motivation to find the writer, it’s the same as not being printed or published, either one. So now the crucial issue is “discovery” -- how the writer and reader can find each other. Write that software program and you’ll have enough money to write for the rest of your life.
What has happened (take a look at Lulu.com) is a shattering of what was publishing houses into “services” who will contract to format, proof, distribute, promote. The difference is that the writer must manage them, hound them to meet deadlines, pay them. So why not also hire an agent to do that for you?
The other solution has been a different kind of shattering: a million little publishers, each small entity specializing in region, subject, or kind of writing. Poets have been doing this all along with chapbooks, which value beautiful printing -- not many copies. No money in it until years later when collectors may take notice. Poets love find printing, but they might also have enough sense of adventure to publish cross-media.
What is needed (besides the software) is the romanticization and honoring of the people who can be in the middle in a constructive way, not by buying their way with venture capital but by putting their hearts and minds into the effort. A conductor for the orchestra that produces the symphony. (That’s the book, in case you’re not following the metaphor.) When we esteem a writer’s support person -- whatever name we give him or her -- then maybe some of the people who want to be writers but aren't that great at it will turn their attention to the support of fine authors without feeling as though they're failing or compromising. The way editors used to do.