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You Can’t Judge A Person By Its Cover

This blog is about reading rather than writing. In particular, e-reading. I’m not talking about how e-books are outselling paper books, how you can carry a library in your pocket, or how and why you should be getting your work out there into everyone’s e-device. This is about how e-readers are transforming the basic experience of reading. Those changes are inevitably going to transform what is getting read, and consequently what will get written.

Taking the Content Out of Literary Fashion Accessory

I live in a college town—where you are what you read. Books are literally part of a person’s image. I have known people to conspicuously carry around ‘serious’ books (think Dostoevsky or Nietzche) that they are not really reading so they will ‘look’ smart. E-readers change that game. They display no indication of the book’s literary content, only the material, color, and pattern of the e-reader and its accessorizing cover. This limits the ability of books to stand visually as an expression of individual literary tastes and thoughts. Will this reduce the readership for serious books? Will it generate more conversations, since instead of being able to tell ‘at a glance’ what someone is reading, people might have to ask (or text) each other?

No More Guilt.

E-readers don’t reveal whether they are displaying a romance, a history, a work on philosophy, a radical call to arms, or an idiot’s guide to something technical that every five year old already knows. This privacy, even in public, has an enormous potential to remove the guilt from ‘guilty pleasures.’ That liberation, in turn, will boost sales of any book that fits someone’s definition of ‘guilty’ pleasure—be it erotica, romance, mysteries, thrillers, rightwing or left-wing political material, etc.

No More Covers?

Is a cover archaic advertising—a holdover from the paper industry? Since e-reader devices don’t display a book’s cover, why do e-books even have covers? It’s not like you walk by an e-book store and stop in because a cover caught your eye. ‘Shopping’ for e-books is as freeform as surfing the web– a plain-text hyperlink on the proper website might generate far more traffic than a ritzy cover. Does branding—whether of the author, the publisher, the genre, or even the social media maven (the reviewer/blogger)—become the new ‘cover’, the means of instant identification of each individual book to the consumer? Will future e-books include a banner ‘ad’ across the top of the screen, to replace the lost cover and regain this marketing potential?

No More Aisles—No More Genres?

Bookstores arrange books in aisles by genre categories. Browsing for e-books has no ‘aisles.’ E-books are not simply displayed in genre groups–a link can take the shopper from medical narrative to travel narrative to science fiction with a click, not a trek through a bookstore. This has enormous potential to break down genres, or at least facilitate boundary-crossing. This challenges the existing, genre-based marketing model. How will readers of e-devices answer the question –‘what’ are you reading? With a genre? An author’s name? A book title? Or simply a knowing smile.

Flipping Books, Not Just Pages.

E-readers are often praised for their ability to hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of books. The device even conveniently remembers where the reader left off for each and every book. At the very least this makes for unforgiving readers; little errors (lapses in plot pace, poorly executed scenes, stilted dialogue) aren’t skipped over, they are potential deal-breakers, a reason to flip to another book. This makes it imperative for writers to ensure that every sentence in their work is gripping. EVERY sentence.

Reading Vertically, Horizontally, and Three-Dimensionally—or The Demise of the ‘Book’

In paper books, one page leads to another, and if some readers ‘jump’ between pages, then the assumption is that they are missing something. In e-readers, one page does not have to lead to just one next page. Hyperlinks pose extensive possibilities for meaningful ‘skipping’. Imagine a book that allowed the reader to click on a selection of hyperlinks at the end of a passage—taking them to any number of ‘next’ pages. Can authorial control be flexible enough to accommodate such uncontrolled sequencing? Can the definition of a book expand to encompass other media (music, pictures, mini-movies) as one of the possible ‘next pages?’

Size Doesn’t Matter

Books, the physical items, are the size they are because of human physiology—they are big enough to make a number of words legible; small enough to be manipulated with one hand or two. The physical size of books has limited the length of written works, particularly fiction. E-devices don’t get heavier with more pages, nor does the cost of their production increase directly with their length. Does this justify a return to longer works? Or, as part and parcel of the generation that seems increasingly focused on shorter and quicker, do e-devices lend themselves to shorter works?

What do You Think?

These are the things I’ve been thinking about when it comes to the electronic book revolution. It is a time of great potential, but also of great fear. Will the e-book be as transformative of reading as the printing press? I would love to hear what other writers have been musing on.

artwork “subway girl” [1]courtesy of benlo at deviant art.com

About Jeanne Kisacky [2]

Jeanne Kisacky trained to be an architect before going back to her first love--writing. She studied the history of architecture, has written and published nonfiction, and has taught college courses. She is the author of the recently published book, Rise of the Modern Hospital: An Architectural History of Health and Healing, 1870-1940 [3]. She currently fights valiantly to keep her writing time despite the demands of a day-job, a family, and a very particular cat.