Back when I was a kid, whenever I’d get my allowance, I’d rush off to the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of WH Smith, the local bookseller. I’d pore over the titles, scrutinize the artwork, and carefully read the back cover blurbs, as I tried to decide which book I would purchase. If I was in the middle of a series, then it would be a relatively easy choice–I’d only spend a moment or two perusing the other books–but if not, then the deliberations often outlasted my parents’ patience, and they’d come in to hurry me along.
I’d come home with my book in a small, crinkly, book-sized plastic bag, rush off to my room, and start reading. And the world became my oyster–both this world, as well as other, more distant territories. Places like Xanth, Narnia, Middle-Earth, and Amber. In my teens, romances began finding their way into the mix: the demure, witty Regencies; the thick-spined Historicals, with their colourful covers; and the urbane Contemporaries. University added a steadier supply of literary novels to the mix–both the classics and the latest releases that had set the literary world abuzz.
And through it all, right back to those early days, when I’d peruse those shelves, with my weekly allowance burning a hole in my pocket, I dreamed of someday seeing my own name on one–or let’s face it, several–of those spines.
It never happened. I wrote and I wrote. But by the time I sold my first short story to a wide-circulation anthology, the literary world was already changing. The early e-books, downloadable via pdf for reading on your computer, were becoming available.
And the book lovers all said, “But I could never give up on print. I just love the feel of a book in my hand.” I said that, too. I loved the blended smells of the ink and paper of a new book (different for mass market versus hardcover), loved the texture of the pages and the smooth feel of the cover under my fingers, as I curled up in a comfortable chair and gave myself over to the real magic of the process: the point at which the words ceased to be marks on a page, and the story simply began to unfold itself in my mind.
But then came the Kindle. People said, “It’s so expensive–and then on top of that, you have to buy the books.” But the early adopters responded, “Yeah, but I can carry hundreds of books on one of these things, and it’s about the same weight as a single paperback.” It was a strange concept, but the more tech-friendly of the old school book lovers paused thoughtfully, before returning to their paperbacks.
And then came the financial crisis–and the downturn. And the high cost of materials and printing and distribution. And advances in e-reader technologies.
Suddenly, book lovers could be reading a novel moments after they thought about wanting to read it, so long as they didn’t mind doing it on one of a variety of elegant, lightweight devices with enticing, easy to read interfaces.
The sacrifice of paper and ink to such slick little inventions didn’t feel nearly as big. Even I became a convert, when I acquired a new phone and downloaded an app that allowed me to read on it. I went through a good few novels–most of them spontaneous reads, selected from the extensive collection of downloads on my device and started during the spare moments, while I waited for the bus and couldn’t be bothered to dig out my current book-in-progress from the bottom of my stuffed school bag. The magic was still there, mediated though it was by the LED screen, rather than by ink and paper.
And that’s when I knew: it might just be too late for my long-held dream to come to fruition. I might never end up seeing my book on the shelves of bookstores, because the world was changing. The publishing houses, whose attention I had so eagerly vied to gain, didn’t seem to be catching on. If, as McLuhan would have it, the medium is the message, then it seemed that many of the print publishers weren’t checking their email. Instead, they were trying to cut and paste (using actual scissors and paper!) the old model onto the new medium–charging comparable prices for print and digital books, even though the two were vastly different things, with widely divergent margins.
E-publishers were getting it. And so were the self-published authors. They had an understanding of the new book economy that the traditional publishers just weren’t catching onto.
And that’s when I began to understand: dreams change. I had dreamed of the process–of getting the phone call from the agent who loved my book; from the editor who wanted to sign me on; from the publisher, telling me that my sales were up. But more than that, I had dreamed of connecting with the readers–people like me, who feel the call of a bookstore from a good block away, and who answer that call, walking into the shop with their spare (and sometimes not-so-spare) cash burning a book-shaped hole in their wallets, because they love story and narrative so much that having fifty-cent ramen noodles until their next paycheck seems worth it.
The readers are still there. But now they’re turning on their kindles, tapping on the ibookstore app, clicking on links in Amazon. Sure, it’s a little sad to give up the dream of seeing my story on a bookshelf, and of seeing my words in print. But as I power up my own e-reader, I’m starting to realise: it’s not the medium, but the message that counts. And the core of my dream remains intact: the hope of someday connecting as a writer with readers–just as I have connected as a reader, with so many amazing writers–via the magical alchemy that is story.