People familiar with this blog already might think that all I do all day is sit around thinking of things to make authors feel depressed.
They’d be right, but that’s not important.
What is important is that late last night, I suddenly found a new way of expressing an old complaint. I think we can all agree that this is a red-letter day indeed.
The latest villain on the scene – according to yet another of my incontrovertibly and scientifically accurate studies of myself – is here as a result of e-books, but is not in itself the e-book. Neither is it the cheap e-book, which has been maligned from here to the outer reaches of the internet (i.e. newspapers) and back.
Just Who Is This Dastardly Foe?
Over the past year or so, I’ve been reading old blockbusters. And can I just say, it’s been mighty. Readers who have been hanging around this parish for a while are familiar with my constant moaning about not being able to get book heroin in the current market, which translates roughly as a genre-defying literary stew which transports me somewhere else entirely (metaphorically, of course. Literally would be stupid).
As a result, I’ve been retreating into the old book market instead, mining old bestseller lists, from back in the days when bestseller lists were full of actual books which actually sold lots of copies. This has unearthed gems which might have escaped me previously, due to a minor issue of my being born in the wrong decade, or too impoverished to buy books (or too much of a lush to forgo a social life in order to do so).
It’s been brilliant. But the sad fact is that 90% of the book heroin I’ve been mainlining recently has come from another era. I’ve been dancing from the 1940s right up to the early noughties with as many wordy partners as an aspirationally wholesome Irishwoman could reasonably expect to get away with.
The flip side to my fun is what it means for authors today.
Back In Ye Olden Days
Once upon a time, in the era before e-books, there was a big bible in every bookshop called Books in Print. This bible listed every book it was possible to get – and where it could be got from. So if you went into a bookshop looking for a book which was out of print, you would probably have bought something else instead. Probably something more current.
If you went in looking for Fly Fishing by J.R. Hartley, and Books In Print said it was only available in Antarctica, the bookshop might have pointed out that it would be too expensive to ship from Antarctica, and so might have recommended you Fishing With Flies by R.J. Leyhart instead.
All in all, the book universe was a finite one. Many great books were no longer available, because stock turned over, rotated, and performed various other acrobatic moves in order to make way for newer books, written by new authors.
This may well have been unfortunate for old authors, but in the majority of cases, they had already been far better paid for their initial print runs than anybody today could even dream of, so let’s park the sympathy for that one in the cynical bay instead.
Enter The Villain (Cue Ominous Music)
And then came the e-book. Much has been written about the e-book in terms of sensory deprivation, or prices so low they don’t even belong in a bargain basement – a bargain borehole would be more apt – but it’s only occurred to me recently that the reason I buy so many e-books, is because I want back catalogue stuff I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to get in a shop.
Once an e-book has been put into that format, it’s around forever. It will never be taken off a shelf and pulped. It will never fall off the Books In Print list. It will never have to make way for anything newer and shinier. And more to the point, it’s endlessly available. If it sees a sudden surge in popularity because of transformation into a movie or TV series, celebrity endorsement, inexplicable notoriety, or political upheaval, it can sell two million copies in a week, without a single muscle being moved to dispatch it.
Many of the e-books I’ve read this year were also part of a series, meaning that once I finished one, I was able to hop straight online and buy another. Some of them were ridiculously large tomes too, being from an era when being over 800 pages long was not considered a crime against marketing. The e-book format therefore suited me on the double.
But every single one of those books meant I wasn’t buying a book which was published in this decade. And I’m sorry for it. No matter how much I give out about marketing fads and homogeneous genres, I would rather support authors from today, than yesterday. But with the way things are now, the pull of those old blockbusters is just too strong.
It’s undeniably depressing that not only are today’s authors competing with the thousands of other authors fighting for shelf space, they’re also having to contend with the heavyweights of yesteryear while they’re at it.
And it’s not that these older books are even classics. Most of them aren’t. Perhaps in another 100 years they might be; but for now, they’re the equivalent of Charles Dickens in 1840 – popular potboilers, which perhaps in other circumstances would have fallen off the shelf, fading from the list into obscurity.
And So To Victim-Blaming Anonymous
Which brings me, finally, to the other villain of the piece: Me. My dangerous addiction to data means I have in my possession various bestseller list data dating back to the 1960s. I find myself returning to them again and again, to look for what I haven’t been able to find on the market today.
But the fact is that bookish folk now have up to ten decades of super writing to choose from. And much as I mourn the better old days for authors, I can’t help but feel it’s a disconcerting win for another group: Readers.
UNCHARACTERISTICALLY POSITIVE POST-SCRIPT (U.P.P.S.)
I’m in the final of the Irish blog awards again this year, and I didn’t even have to prostitute myself for votes this time! All of this is splendid. Because I get to thank you for reading and commenting this year, rather than voting. After all, the interaction on this blog makes it what it is.
I might still have to ban people here for being funnier than me, though. Just sayin’.