As part of our engagement with contemporary writings, C21 Literature felt it was important to launch our journal in both print and e-formats. E-readers and e-books enjoy an increasing influence over the ways we consume literature in the twenty first century. Recently, the panel of the Booker Prize were offered e-readers to help them transport and digest the long list. Dubbed by some critics the ‘E-Booker’ Prize as a result, this decision highlighted the number of publishers who are moving towards dual release in both print and e-formats. Reader can now choose between a Sony Reader, a Kindle, a new Kindle Fire (showing text and images), Ipads, a kobo e-reader...the list is endless. A recent advert for one of these new devices claims that the e-reader comes with free access to around one hundred thousand books whose copyrights have expired. We all know classics can be found cheaply and that Amazon marketplace is a great source of low-cost seconds, but can anything ever compete with free? E-books offer multi-media content, hyperlinks to other e-resources, cut and paste facilities, regularly updated content and interactivity which printed books are simply unable to match. In a world where popular texts such as newspapers, blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates are read online, e-books speak to a generation for whom instant access and ease of use are key factors in contemporary cultural encounters. Women, often considered the gender most reluctant to take up new forms of technology, constitute the highest percentage of e-book owners and are fuelling a surge in online book clubs. A recent report even highlighted that the anonymous cover of the e-book is enabling readers to indulge in less literary titles, with romance and erotic fiction seeing a significant increase in download sales.
If the printed book is ‘old skool’, the e-book is simply too cool for school. With changeable covers and slim travel-friendly sizes, the e-reader is the supermodel of the publishing world. For many, this weight issue is key. In my own days as a student, I dreamt of a lighter alternative to the (literally) weighty tome that is the Norton Anthology of English Literature. As both an academic aid and domestic door stop of choice, the Norton Anthology was unceremoniously dragged from one lecture to the next until curvature of the spine kicked in. Today, students simply snap open their laptops, MacBooks, Smartphones and e-readers to hunt down paragraphs and search for key words from the exact same text, but in e-book form. With no traditional allegiance to print, this younger generation are making the change to e books far more easily than their elders, many of whom already possess print copies of their favourite books and are reluctant to purchase them again. With the much maligned decline of the high street book seller and the dominance of Amazon, the shift to electronic formats - which can be produced and distributed rapidly - is creating a growing market worthy of serious attention. Amid talk of a Spotify for books and book apps overtaking games apps in download charts, publishers have begun investing in advertising for e-books and building exclusive content to motivate readers to take up this new format. The e-book of Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Monroe recently captured press attention for its exclusive social networking links, enhancements including audio of author readings and lyrics that sit alongside the traditional text. Changing the way we engage with as well as consume fiction, the e reader and e-books are altering our cultural landscape, creating multi-layered dialogic literary experiences.
Light, fast, clear and easy to navigate, the e-reader is in many ways the ideal companion of the twenty-first century book lover. But at what cost to the printed word? In their infancy, the e-reader and e-book have experienced some teething problems. Authors like Stephen King, whose new texts have been leaked as e-books prior to publication, have proved the strength of demand for the format but have also highlighted its pitfalls. Piracy is the one dark cloud on the e-horizon and many publishers are currently working on plans to avoid their own e-books falling victim to file sharing websites like PirateBay. Issues relating to royalties, copyright and ownership continue to loom large over the development of this technology. And for many, the e-book is simply another gadget to add to our already over-filled bags. Jammed alongside our laptop, smartphone and IPod, the need to integrate rather than propagate technology is cited as a major factor by those who choose to stay with the printed form. Readers can also find it hard to accept price levelling across print and e-formats. Given the choice, would you pay the same price for a hardback, paperback or e-book? Should e-books be cheaper, since the printing cost of production and distribution is so much smaller? And should readers be given the choice of both printed and electronic formats – or is the book set to become the vinyl of the twenty-first century? Whether we turn to technology to disguise our secret Mills and Boon habit or to display our technological cool, these new forms have already changed the ways in which we consume and experience literature. In dialogue with the printed book, the e-book has been instrumental in generating debate, new writings and innovative content and has enriched our literary experience in the twenty-first century. At present the two co-exist, but how long until the e coup?
Dr Katy Shaw