Aspiring Writers & eBooks

There is a line of thought that’s been on my mind for the last day or so that I need to get some outside perspective on. As I am aware that this blog has some very intelligent and talented readership (it’s not flattery if it is true), I want to run this by my readers for input and feedback. So, without further ado…

One of the biggest and best pieces of advice that aspiring writers are given is that they should read. And not just read, but read everything they can get their hands on. A cursory Google search yields website after website repeating the same sort of advice; while it is not academic proof, I consider it to be excellent anecdotal evidence for the case. It makes sense to me in that the more writing a person experiences the better command of story, character, sentence structure, style, and/or substance they will adapt in their own reading. It is a textbook case of learning through example and then doing.

What really gets me wondering is how this could change due to the rise of eBooks in the market. Here is a format that is readily available for distribution, ships online or over cell data networks as quickly as the connection will allow, and stored in a computer or e-reader device. It is not limited by store hours or being sold out, but by the discretionary funds of the purchaser.

For a voracious reader and aspiring writer, it means that there has never been a better time for instant gratification when it comes to reading. Combined with the generally lower price point, it means that aspiring writers can purchase more books while doing so quickly and conveniently. This works towards the advice they are generally given above.

The overall question I’m driving toward is this: if the price of eBooks came down, information networks expanded (and narrowed the digital divide overall), and the barriers to content and content creation overall are lowered, would this lead to a greater number of writers overall? In my mind, it would lead to a greater number of top tier writers and an even larger number of midlist authors. That, if publishers worked towards these kinds of ideas, they would be creating larger talent pools to draw from.

I fully realize that I have no direct causation evidence; I cannot say for certain that the creation of those conditions would lead to more authors. But I can’t help feeling that I’m on the road to being right. What I’m wondering is if someone out there has something they can add or rebut to my points to make it a bit clearer. Would making eBooks cheap and abundant be the conditions to creating more writers in the future?

I’m waiting to hear your thoughts!

16 thoughts on “Aspiring Writers & eBooks

  1. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I’m probably reading more good stuff now than at other times since I graduated from college. The difference? I know near live an amazing public library system. I’ve always been a big user of the my own academic libraries and local public libraries, but at my current public library, I can easily put books on hold even when they are still just an order in the library system; I can add myself to the waitlist for up to 15 books at a time, and use the OPAC’s ‘list’ feature to keep track of more; I can consult my reading history to remember books I’ve read before; I can have any book in the system delivered to my local branch. I’ve also benefited from the serendipity of browsing both my small local branch and some of the larger branches in the county, to discover books I never would have searched out otherwise. They also have “Lucky Day” books, which I love: books that are bestsellers/top circulators, but they have a few copies which no one can hold. So you pop in and see if they happen to be there instead of waiting two months til it’s my turn on the waitlist.

    Ebooks from the library could certainly do all of this–if the local library has a big enough collection. You might still have to wait your turn.

    But, frankly, there’s no way I could keep my household in books (we’re all big readers, all four of us) if we had to buy them. We also take more risks in borrowing, which leads to us reading more diverse materials. I wouldn’t take risks if I was spending my dollars rather than borrowing. I get lots of books for myself and my kids that I’m not sure if we’ll read; some are busts, but some inspire a whole new world of reading.

    And if my kids are inclined to write now, it’s no doubt because of all the books they read. And I’m not seeing how ebooks can substitute for picture books. Maybe graphic novels. But not board books and the kind of stuff little ones adore.

    And I guess I think people start reading a lot as kids, and that’s where the reading and writing habit grows. Libraries are perfectly situated to supply these budding writers.

    • And in all this rambling, I never got to the concluding question: why does format seem so important in this to you? Do ebooks really enable reading and access that people didn’t have through, say, Amazon print?

  2. I suspect it would lead to more authors, but what I know for sure is that the ebook phenomenon has revived the whole concept of “midlist”; it was a dying one, too, as many authors (some of whom I know personally) found they had trouble shopping second or third books, or having contracts renewed, despite decent sales. In addition, midlist authors who have strong backlists they could not get published to save their lives are putting their older books out as ebooks and gaining a lot of sales. The death of the midlist was no nefarious thing, it was because it really was a money-losing proposition for legacy publishers to publish books with relatively low sales due to rising costs of printing and marketing support.

    Personally I think we’ll see a few years of “boom” as a bunch of writers who previously were snubbed (for good reason or no) by the legacy system push work out themselves or via epublishing houses. Then market forces will come to bear as distribution methods streamline, and readers become more comfortable with their roles as “gatekeepers” — good will rise, bad will sink, and things will stabilize.

    However, the monopoly of the legacy publishing paradigm is well and truly broken. That chokehold on writers is gone for good, IMHO. And, good riddance.

    • Excellent points, Kim. I think you bring up the excellent point about the midlist. It makes me wonder if publishers will be looking to focus on people they think are going to break through rather than develop the talent in-house; as in, let the market choose who looks good and take it from there.

      • I think that’s already happening in a lot of genre markets; epublishers are basically flooding the market to see what sticks. On one hand, it’s allowing a lot of writers who never had a chance before to get published; on the other, it’s putting some terrible books out there.

        As for the legacy publishing system, they stopped focusing on developing talent in-house over a decade ago; the push has been to find the next best seller, not create a stable of writers with dependable sales. It’s why decent writers with good books can’t get contracts renewed: if their second book did not sell more than their first, then they are simply dumped.

        One aspect that will serve as a way to separate wheat from chaff is that now, because publishers are mostly sitting back to see who sells before they commit to them, writers are having to bear the bulk of marketing themselves. Some writers hate that, and I don’t blame them, but it certainly takes those who aren’t serious about writing out of the pool.

        Whatever else that can be said or prognosticated, it is certainly an era of change. *sigh*

  3. I agree with Kimboosan, pretty much. I read both print and kindle. Print, I get a few ARC, but mostly read from to-read lists that I make from my day job. Kindle, I’m cheap, since I’m used to getting books for free, so I don’t pay for books, which means that I spend a lot of time surfing kindle’s free ebook lists. I have read about 25 of these free ebooks, and have downloaded about 75 others. The quality, for the most part, just isn’t there. Maybe part of it is my fault, since I might be more likely to download a title if it’s free, just to try it out, where if I were paying for it, or even if I had to make the effort to get it at the library, I’d only get a book I really wanted to read. But I also think that ebooks are making it easier to get published, and I’ve read some cruddy stuff that would have never made it to print.

  4. Interesting analogy, but I don’t know if I understand the logic. This reader/aspiring writer only has two eyes and X amount of time in the day. An eReader is not going to change those two key elements.

    You also posit that said reader/writer has the money to purchase an eReader and the books. Most writers I know struggle to make ends meet if that is their primary income. Other than Project Gutenberg, which does supply free classics (always good for any writer to read), the PL still cannot be beat, especially for translated, esoteric works.

    Actually, there is just as much rhetoric these days stating that the digitization of the page will cause for a rash of substandard writers, not top tier. We are starting to write in a more cryptic, less elegant way. Our thought processes are functioning different in the way that we are consuming information. Although it is the same words on an eReader as it is a book, the condensed format leads to a different read.

    Along the same vane (though I believe this could be researched for an answer) did the creation of VHS/DVD increase the quality and number of film writers? If yes, then, perhaps my response is null and void. ~

    • As to your last point, I’d guess that the movie industry is bigger than it was before; people can make their own films (think Clerks, Blair Witch, and Paranormal Activity) which can then find mainstream audiences. The reduction of cost of video technology and editing software has made it so that it is more readily accessible. Does that turn every person into a Spielberg or Attenborough? No, but I would say that it increases the potential for those people to emerge if they are given the chance to explore their curiosity.

      I left out the PL in this because I wanted to address it from the market viewpoint. As much as I love to relate it back to libraries (and I do a lot on here), I just wanted to leave it as an aside for now.

  5. I believe that the ebook revolution will produce many more published writers. A product that’s cheaper to produce than it used to be tends to survive. As with any market pool, there will be a huge layer of sludge at the bottom (consider YouTube as a subset of the video industry). Ultimately, market forces (driven to an extent by the intelligence of readers) will determine who the bottom feeders will be and who will swim in the sun.

    From the standpoint of an (as yet) little-published author, the ubiquity of ebooks is both encouraging and discouraging. There’s sooooo much crap being produced. You don’t want to be embarrassed by the competition that’s beating you out! At the same time, it’s a promising outlet. A short story of mine that’s available from an epublisher has an indefinite shelf life. The others languish on shelves, unread.

    I found Libraryscene’s comment about ebooks’ affect on writing style very interesting. Yeah–writing is becoming ‘more cryptic, less elegant.’ So much for my well-polished sentences!

  6. Greater number of writers? Absolutely. Greater number of good/competent writers? I suppose so. Greater number of not-so-good writers? Oh dear God yes.

    I think that though self publishing will increase something will happen to help filter out what should actually be published. What that filter is, other than lack of sales of each individual author, I do not know.

    • The filter is the market, really. It buys, it shares, it knows. The lesser filter is DRM in that it can create barriers to content. If an eBook is too much hassle to download or read, then it’s not going to get widely circulated.

      I’m wondering if it will turn the literary pyramid into more of a literary speed bump; yes there will be more authors at the top, but a fatter midlist and an even larger bottom.

  7. This is an interesting point to consider but I wonder if authors are even less likely to get paid what they deserve for what they produce. With the rise of so many instant, free or very inexpensive, sources and changes in the way books are made, how does an author make money? And if it is more difficult to make a living at your craft, then will there be even fewer writers (or fewer works) because they can’t quit their day jobs?

    • I’m wary of the term “get paid what they deserve”. I’m not denying that they should get paid, but it is a matter of what the market values. Higher caliber writers can demand higher prices as people will pay for quality; mid-list can fiddle with prices that work; and as for the rest, it’s a scramble.

      It will be a time of fine tuning as people have preconceived notions about the eBook market and what they will pay for value and what they may look to pirate.

      Personally, to answer your question, I think it will be an easier time as people are able to feel like they can connect with the author through their websites and social media. It will create a bond that marketing can’t; it’s a matter of figuring out how these people break through and what works and what doesn’t.

      • Maybe this is a little…oversensitive…but will it be only “higher caliber” WRITERS who are paid/noticed/read? With increased opportunities comes increased competition, and savvy online marketer/writers are the most likely to prevail. As far as I know, those very valuable promotion skills don’t have a lot to do with writing ability. There’s a story about Herman Melville travelling some distance to petition Abraham Lincoln about a job, but falling into awed silence at the moment of meeting–never mentioning why he’d made the trip.

        • I say higher caliber because there seems to be no problem defining the lower tier (aka awful) writers; it’s that other natural end of that spectrum. No, I don’t think it will only be higher caliber writers who are the only ones who will get paid/noticed/read. As you point out yourself, it is a matter of having writers take on their own promotion; with a new market, it’s a matter of learning new skills.

  8. I think that eBooks are giving new authors unprecedented opportunity. I mean, Amanda Hocking is the poster child for this, making like a few million dollars on sales of teen paranormal romance novels via Kindle at 99 cents a pop. It’s unreal.

    But I think that the massive writing revolution began before eBooks. Blogs opened up platforms for public writing where before we had only print journalism. The hot new things is freelance writing and publishing via independent apps. There was a great conversation on the BoingBoing Gweek podcast where they talked with Joel Johnson from Kotaku about the iPad “app” “The Final Hours of Portal 2.” It’s basically a long form article, kind of what you used to find in magazines like Rolling Stone or The Atlantic.

    Anything that gives people more of an opportunity to write, share that writing, and receive feedback is an opportunity that they didn’t have before. So, yeah, I think it will increase writing, and hopefully encourage better, more advanced writing.

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