The Expendability of Electronica

I’m currently re-reading Bryan Wigmore’s wonderful debut The Goddess Project (my review of it is here), and a passage in Chapter 11 struck me with its lyrical, majestic prose. It’s a passage related by the main character Orc in the second person singular. Here’s a taste.

“When your famished body had been eaten and shed as tears by the greatest monster, all became stars. You saw the wheel of the stars, and they formed the pattern you’d been trying to draw since you were born: the serpents’ dance of the great wheel of stars and the great wheel of earth that was one and the same. The serpents’ dance of the great wheel of life and the great wheel of death that was one and the same. The serpents’ dance that was the great wheel of You and the great wheel of All that was one and the same.”

And so it goes. The whole passage adds up to a powerful song of self by the lost Orc as he tries to identify the blurry fragments of memory, which stubbornly refuse to be brought into focus in his chopped-up mind. But here’s the thing. I read my review copy of TGP on my e-reader almost a couple of years ago, and didn’t recall this passage one little bit. At best I skimmed over it the first time around. This time around, I’m reading the paperback version.*

Why was this, and I why have I paid so much attention to it (the attention it deserves) this time around?

It made me wonder whether the way we digest words is influenced by the way they’re presented to us. Now I have the book in paperback, I find myself drawn into many more of the details of the world, being hooked on the particular qualities of the prose, and understanding a lot more of what is going on. The e-copy of TGP still presented me with a great book, but I was more focused upon the actual plot rather than the layered depth of the book. An electronic book isn’t the same product as a tangible book, a paper or hardback, and the differences go beyond the obvious digital versus analogue contrast.

There is a throwaway quality to ebooks, a digital dispensability that is anchored around three particular characteristics:

  • It’s not tactile. You can’t flick through it, touch the cover and feel its matte or glossy finish
  • Details and intricacies of design are lost, or approximated. Maps, illustrations and other decorative elements cannot be seen or accessed easily
  • Ebooks are cheap, both literally and figuratively. The low cost of production and storage (the price for digital storage is pennies for kilobytes, if that) steers the very low cost of ebooks, which then becomes the business model for the vast majority of self-published authors.

It’s that cheapness has a psychological impact upon the reader, that makes one consider the product somehow less important than a “real” book. That might not be right, but I’ve certainly noticed how much more attention and appreciation I’m giving TGP this time around, when I’m holding it in my hands. I’ve also noticed how I’m pretty much over my “e-phase” of reading. If I buy a book now, I buy a paperback or, occasionally, a hardback. I haven’t bought an e-book for over a year now (unless there was no alternative paper edition). That might be because, as somebody with a hardback out later this year, I now have a stake in the industry and want to support that.

But it goes deeper than that. I met my friend Nick Lloyd, author of the excellent SF Emergence and the forthcoming Disconnected, at LBF, and he lamented the fact that, as an SP author, he has to sell the fruits of his labours for less than a quid. Is that all the effort and sweat and headaches are worth? Less than a cup of tea at a café? Funnily enough, the royalties an author earns doesn’t vary that much, whether an £18 hardback is sold, or a £3 e-book, but the experience is completely different. A cheap product is a devalued product, and both creators and consumers of the written word (especially when it’s as fabulous as Wigmore’s) deserve the best experience they can get. The cheapness of digital books undermines that, and makes the words therein seem less valuable, less worthwhile, than a beautiful book that costs £8 for the paperback, or £20 for the hardback. I’ll certainly be holding out for the hard copy of Disconnected, so that I can get the proper, immersive experience.

And I’d urge others to do so too, whichever books they’re next intending to buy. Yes, it’s more expensive, but the experience is so much better.

*Incidentally, I think TGP is the only book I’ve read in both formats, which made me think of this point of difference. Am I noticing new passages, and discovering new appreciations for the text because I’ve read it before?

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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