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Little e, Big B: Books and EBooks and Love and War
c is for cat

Here’s the thing. I’m sick to death of talking about ebooks.

In the current economic and publishing climate, that is a shocking thing to say. Posts about epublishing regularly get the most comments and pingbacks, I’m constantly asked to give talks about my own experiments in that arena, and I usually agree to do them. It is the topic of conversation among authors, agents and publishers alike. How we’re going to adapt, how it will change the publishing environment, how, most importantly, to make money with ebooks.

But I’ve had it. Because something seems to get lost all the time in these endless conversational loops that make me want to embed something in Data’s wrist so that I know how to break the cycle.

And that something is, you know, books.

My interest in ebooks is a tiny percentage of my interest in books. I didn’t dream of being a writer so I could spend my time discussing file formats and what Author X (even if X= me) did to sell a whole bunch of copies. Maybe it’s stupid and romantic, but I got into this because I loved books. Because stories were the most important things in the world to me, and I had so many of them to tell. Don’t get me wrong, there are vital and important things to talk about with regards to ebooks, and it is changing the industry. But when we discuss writing these days, we almost always end up talking about self-publishing and ebooks. And then any other conversation is over.

I and you and everyone has heard a lot about Amanda Hocking in the last year. But no one has ever said to me: Amanda Hocking’s books moved me and spoke to my life, I love them and I read them over and over because they mean so much to me. They say: Amanda Hocking sold a million ebooks. Frankly, I couldn’t tell you one of her titles without Googling if you paid me. And this gets repeated over and over. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s in the ebook as much as that it’s an ebook. I hear about so-and-so and how they charge 99 cents for their ebooks and make money hand over fist. And that’s the topic for an hour in some con bar, and it might not even get mentioned what the book in question is about.

I understand that we’re all just trying to get by in an industry that was always brutally tough. But remember how when we were all kids and wanted to be writers and a big part of that was sitting around with other bookish people and talking about literature? Yeah, me too. Nowhere in there was a deep longing to talk about epub vs MOBI until I can’t remember which one makes techno music.

Even this post (forgive me, Paul, it’s a good and important post, but it feeds my thesis) about why Amazon has become a gatekeeper just as much and in fact more than those evil NY publishers, which is a topic you guys know I feel strongly about, falls into the trap. It lists four reasons people want to be writers, and none of them has anything to do with “I want to tell stories.” They are, instead, status and financially-related reasons. And the sad thing is I believe he is probably right about those reasons for a lot of people who cheer Amazon and sneer at us “dinosaurs.” (Though now that Amazon is breaking into the traditional publishing business, I suspect things will get dicey in Whoville.) Being a Writer has tremendous cultural cache, and it’s part of why everyone and their cat wants to be one.

But it seems to me that ebooks are now a subject almost wholly unrelated to books. It’s about money and it’s about “the industry” and it’s about form, but not content. And not infrequently, it’s about scoring status points by being more plugged in to the new system than thou. And the great conversation has started to accrue a kind of inertia–someone says the Kindle is the future and “trad” publishing is dead, someone else defends traditional publishing and points out Amazon’s robber baron tactics, someone else brings up Smashwords and other indie options, someone else sides with Apple. So-and-so sold a million ebooks. So-and-so turned down a print contract to self-publish. So on and so forth.

Now, obviously, I have been experimenting with publishing on the internet for a long time. This may be coloring my experience, because I am asked to talk about the brave new world of ebooks far more often than if I had never written serial novels online or started mailing wax-sealed stories to people around the world out of my dining room. But the fact is, I would, a thousand times over, rather talk about what I wrote than how I published it. And I feel like stories–you know, those things we’re all fighting for?–are getting lost in the rush to be the one who knows the score, who says the definitive thing about the new tech, or the one who needs the knowledge to be able to launch their own million ebooks empire. Honestly, you’d think there was a prize for the first one to call time of death on traditional publishing, given how popular that headline has become.

It’s a land rush right now. I get it. Boy, do I get it. I’m sure that back in the day every music conference was obsessively buzzing about mp3s. But if you put a penny in a jar for every article you read about ebooks, and took one out for every book review or book discussion you read, I’m willing to bet, for most of us, the jar would never go dry. And I’m guilty of that, too.

So I guess this is a call to arms. I do that from time to time. It’s a habit left over from college. We don’t have to stop talking about ebooks–that’s putting one’s finger in a dyke that has already blown. But let’s talk about books. Let’s allow the fact that our obsession over ebooks stems from a deep and abiding love of books shine through. Let’s take just a cup or two of that excitement about our Star Trek Future!Tablets and use it to get geekyhappythrilled about the actual stories it lets us read with ease. No more namechecking “hot” things we haven’t even looked at because they came in a new business package. When we talk about an electronic publishing success, let’s try reading the books, and then talking about them. We might even learn something about writing and publishing and commercial appeal, something about telling stories, that we couldn’t learn from a hundred tech blogs. That may sound naive, but after being an editor for 18 months I can tell you that even the worst derivative vampire love triangle tale can be what the kids call a “teaching moment” if you let it. And I think we have forgotten to let stories teach us as much as trends do.

Maybe this isn’t a problem for you. Maybe you post every day on GoodReads and tweet about books and giddily talk to your friends about them all the time. Maybe for every post about ebook tech you post two book reviews. Maybe you read every ebook you post about. If so, you are my hero. No joke, my hero. Like Superman, but with books. But it’s been a problem for me. I’m as guilty as anyone else. And I want to be better.

Books are not going away. That much is abundantly clear. There is an incredible hunger for stories out there. And eventually the tech will reach a plateau, until the next revolution. I want to focus on the food that sates that hunger, not the plate it comes on. Read the books, and then talk about them. Read the books, and then talk about them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go look at the first chapter of one of Amanda Hocking’s books. I think I owe her that.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

You totally rock, Cat. Thank you for this post. I'm the guy who's waiting anxiously yet patiently for his 25th-anniversary edition of Little, Big because I want to see exactly how Crowley wanted things laid out and the style of illustration he wanted. Because, mainly, I want a big, gorgeous, permanent edition of my favorite BOOK. The text is critical; no one's disputing that. However, bookmaking is an artform in and of its own right, and that seems to be getting lost in the charge to ebooks.

I've started to think of you as the anti-Cory Doctorow, and I really, really love you for that. :-)

OMG- I haven't heard about this book yet! I must get that copy- Little, Big is one of those books that helped me define what I wanted to write.

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Oddly enough the minute after I posted that article, I posted a follow up one about how I'm sick of talking about all this. I'm actually sick of talking about business itself, all of it.

I miss the time in my twenties were I knew a ton of weird writers in RL, and we would spend hours just talking about writing and reading and never once did we talk about business or "writing as a craft" or any of that stuff.

God, I know. Maybe we should have a club. It could float form con to con.

Dude. THis is why you're Cat Valente and I'm not. Well written and well said. I can't believe that no one else has thought this, this analog to the "Yes, dear, but is it art?" Damn. Just... Damn...

One thing I can't get around is how much reading is a tactile thing for me. Getting my hands on a book is so key while reading it on an ipad is kind of like watching bad porn. I don't feel as if I've fully completed the experience. I'll keep buying paper books and ebooks but, dino-me or no, the former will always have something voer the latter.

The only thing I can add is that both Kirk and Picard has dead tree books in their quarters so there's still that in our future.

And Picard reads Attic Greek!

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*nods approvingly*

One reason why I haven't got an e-book reader yet is that I'm sick of the format wars and the discussions and having to browse what restrictions are here and what format can be converted there... I just want to read the books, dammit, stop making this difficult!

One of the wonderful things about working in an independent bookstore (where "ebook" is something of a dirty word, though we do sell them on our website) is that we booksellers spend a lot of time talking about books. :) Every day. All the time. With customers, yes, but even more so with each other. It's glorious.

With becoming a Kindle millionaire, it's the same as becoming any other form of author millionaire—write boring thrillers, priced cheaply to start. There's no discussion to even have once that fact is articulated. So we're all done, yay!

Also, "finger in a dyke that has already blown"—teeheehee!

And here I was thinking only I was so shallow as to titter at that line. Apparently I keep good intellectual company.

My only real care about format is when things are only available electronically, for the simple reason that I *don't* sit at my computer to read large amounts of text. Nor do I do a lot of reading on my thumb computer, nor do I want an e-reader or a tablet computer.

I like my physical books, and I want to keep them around, thankyouverymuch. Maybe I need to write more about what I read.

I kinda wrote my Master's dissertation on this subject. I took some Rolande Barthes, some hypertext theory, mixed in some reader response criticism, it was fun. Well, for me. To oversimplify, I came to the conclusion that it's kinda like when film came along --- it didn't destroy theater. It's just different. Digital fiction (as I like to call it) can do some amazing things --- I always refer people to http://www.dreamingmethods.com/ if you want to see some mind-blowing stuff. But I still prefer paper books myself, because as so many people point out, there's qualities intrinsic to the medium that ebooks and digital fiction can't duplicate or replace. Personally, I think they'll exist side by side, like film and theater do today.

This is my view exactly. TV did not kill film, or theatre. Books and e-books will exist side by side.

Although, as a librarian, shelving e-books is easier, but much less satisfying.

My main worry is that certain market forces and gatekeepers (I'm looking at you,Amazon), will try to make e-books the default, because it's a bit cheaper to produce and they make a bigger profit.

In terms of preservation of knowledge, while books can be destroyed, you will be amazed what a well designed book can survive. Try flooding, drying out, and repressing a Kindle.

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I do the same thing...anything I want to keep around I'll buy a physical copy of...there's just something about holding a book, and the smell of a book...

But when I read, or write about reading...I don't think I've ever once mentioned format. It's not terribly important how I get the book...it's only important that I have the book and it entertains me, takes me to a new world, shows me a new perspective.

I so agree with this that I had to blog over at my press blog:


Because WORD.

Thank you, Cat. Let us please return to talking about BOOKS, regardless of format.

Thanks for this post, Cat. Once more I find a writer saying something that also concerts musicians (such as me) much more passionately and to the point than I've seen any musicians do it. The thing is, in music the problem manifests itself on another level: that of production. You're right: The format discussions are largely over and will become obsolete once storage space and bandwidth is not an issue anymore. (Copyright issues are highly debated, though.) Time to talk about the music, you might think. But the truth is that every blog talks about the newest music app, software or interface, and none take a critical stance at what people do with them. Haptic control of sound, yay - but what music do you do you create with that flashy touch screen interface? What about the impact your music has on listeners who don't give a hoot about whether it was made on your phone or in your studio, but listen to music for the emotional and intellectual resonance it has for them? What about form, style, conceptual uniqueness, aesthetics? The existential NEED to listen to this tune over and over again, to get lost in and drunk on whatever piece of music does that for you? In that regard, as hinted at at the beginning of my post, I'm happy to read mostly the blogs of my favourite writers as they often seem to have the will and ability to reflect much more deeply and elaborately on their craft: the art of creating artifacts that aim to engage us deeply as human beings.

Re: same thing in sound

Have you heard Barbra Streisand's version of Stephen Sondheim's "Putting It Together?" Marvelous Sondheimy way of saying what you just said about music. :)


I an interested in and excited by the changes that ebookery is bringing to the world of books, but ultimately I want to read the books.

Thank you for this, and especially for this:

Nowhere in there was a deep longing to talk about epub vs MOBI until I can’t remember which one makes techno music.

That made me laugh until I snorted satay sauce, and while my sinuses don't thank you, I do.

Because I spent 2.5 hours rejiggering an eBook into a better ePub-compliant format and then converting it for Kindle the other night, time that should have been spent editing another novel. Time I would've liked to spend editing another novel.

Books - and eBooks - are containers for stories. And that is the important bit. Stories are the reason I founded a damn publishing house, for heaven's sake, and I need to remember that instead of growling about stupid compliance checks and metadata and formatting. It makes the time i do have to spend on the technical stuff more bearable, and makes it a lot easier to read stories about how such-and-such is the future of publishing (completely ignoring those of us who are making said future but do not have Big Names or Great Connections) without getting stressed and upset.

So yes. Thank you.

GAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ebooks, man. Ebooks. :: shakes head :: I appreciate the format, I DO! I see the use both in pure weight of books one carries about, to the saving of environmental sources (though that is a debatable point), to keeping people reading into the new century on whatever format they are most comfortable with...and as a librarian, I am able to help people figure out their GD e-readers and am not a snark about it.

But here is what pisses me off, conversations like this:

-"I just got this Kindle."
-"Great! We have a downloadable service at the library for you."
-"Good, cause I looked at Amazon and why would I pay 7.99 for a digital book. That's stupid."

Uh. No, not it's not. You pay for a book because someone spent POSSIBLY YEARS writing it for you. I am a librarian. We give a lot away for free - and I think free books can be a useful and appropriate way to spread the love of books, but seriously people, you entitled assholes...stop thinking that everything you want JUST MAGICALLY APPEARS, instead of realizing that someone put hard work into it. It seems like more and more everyone wants everything Right Now and no one wants to pay for anything.

Last gripe: I stare at a computer screen for work. I stare at a computer screen when I write. I want a book in my hands when I read. And you can't damn well fill your living room with beautiful e-books, eh?

Did you happen to see the discussion on Chuck Wendig's blog Terrible Minds where he called out self-publishing ( and by extension ebooks) for putting the publishing cart before the storytelling cart?

I realize it's not the same argument that you are making but a parallel one.

J.A. Kornath and Chuck mixed it up in the comments over DIY and traditional publishing


Well, that is what JAK does. ;)

we will always have storytellers, if they sit around a fire and tell the oral histories of creation, make lumps of clay or reeds into written records, or scribe them on pixels, we will always have them, no matter their sound, shape, form, or texture.


Yes! Thank you, Cat.

And I find it a delight that the very first comments were about a new edition of a book. More Yes!

Dr. Phil

I read a mixture of both formats, I do it for convenience sake. I really don't save that much on ebooks, so it's not of any great importance to me. I don't even bother to mention in reviews whether I read the eversion or the paper version. I don't think books will ever die out overall. I have a for instance here which involves Cat and that's The Girl Who Circummavigated Fairyland In A Shop Of Her Own Making. I adore that book! I think it's the best thing I've read in a very long time. Part of what made it such a great experience was the way it was presented. You just can't do that with an ebook.

Personally I am not interested in e-books and don't talk about them because I find them harder to read and enjoy. I have heard that some of the new devices make it easier, but I generally prefer paper for anything of length.

One thing that has been getting frustrating for me, as a professor, is that many publishers are starting to only give e-books out as examination copies. This just doesn't work for me. When I am judging whether or not to use a text for a class, I want a hard copy. I certainly understand that there can be a lot nifty features in e-texts, but, for me, the primary concern should be the textual content itself.

Gah. This makes me glad I'm not in the industry or trying to break in.

All I want is a nook color, primarily to read books on. Because I cannot handle hardcover books weight if they're over about 150 pages, and black print on a white/off white page gives me headaches and eyestrain. If I need to root the nook to be able to buy some of the formats I want, so be it; the 10" tablets are too heavy/big and expensive.

The nook color rocks.
The nook color plus the Hugo package? Pure awesome. This was the first year I read every single novel up for the Hugo, plus all of the short fiction, and all of the graphic novels. Some I read as paper books, some as e-books. But, the important thing is that all of them were accessible, and I read them all. They didn't just sit on my shelf or on my hard drive. That makes them real for me, that I read them.

Speaking strictly as a reader (I am also occasionally a writer, but that's not the way I think most of the time), I don't actually see a difference between books and ebooks. That is to say, when I read, or think about what I read, or talk about what I read, what I'm thinking about or discussing is the content, the material. The story. I don't care whether I'm reading it in a paperback or reading it on my Nook or my Kindle. (Yes, I have both; it's complicated.) I happen to do most of my reading on the e-readers, but the useful thing to me about them is precisely that they're simple enough that I don't actually have to think about them. I think about what the author has said to me, and if (s)he said it by whispering personally in my ear, it couldn't be more important. Form doesn't matter. Content matters.

Form is the wrapper in which you hold the sandwich.


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