Is it too soon to move to ‘planet e’?

by Marie Marshall

I have been part of the editorial team on a poetry-publishing project for some time. It has been hard, slow, but rewarding work, and I have persevered in the knowledge that two volumes of international poetry – the very best of a particular poetry genre – were being steadily accumulated. It has been in most respects a labour of love.

Recently the owner and Editor-in-Chief made the decision that the finished work would be available only as an e-book*. He had several good reasons for this, not least of which was that electronic books are the future, are already replacing the conventional hardback and paperback, and will be the principal if not the sole mode of consuming literature very, very soon. We appear to be on the eve of that cultural state.

But is this the case? I know many people who have either had their poetry and prose published, or who aspire to, and amongst them the great majority see the measure of success of that endeavour in terms of print. Still. I am also led to believe that at this time the e-book and printed book markets are exclusive. People who buy e-books do not buy paper, and people who buy printed books do not buy e-books, with the result that if a writer or publisher concentrates on one medium alone then a portion of the potential readership will not be reached with the product.

I can recall science fiction stories of the past where people spoke of ‘viewing a book’, by which they meant consuming literature on a screen rather than picking up a book in their hands. For decades we have smiled at the idea. A book, after all, is so much more than the sum of the words in it. It is the weight, the texture, the smell, the flip of the pages when you run your fingers over it. It is the size and shape, it is the component of the library shelf, it is the masterpiece lost in the fire at Alexandria, it is the icon. It is the apotheosis of the invention of moveable type. In that science fiction genre the utopia of electronic literacy was balanced by the dystopia of a world devoid of the physicality of the book that burned at Fahrenheit 451. The loss of the book seemed like something that would never happen.

The other day I was given a Kindle to examine. It was an interesting and powerful tool. It had a custom cover with a little light on an extendable stalk, it had a ‘book’ right there on the screen and I could do all the things with it that I could do with a real live book. I could hold it close (magnify the screen image), I could make pencil notes in the margin (annotate), I could put an old bus ticket between two pages (bookmark). It was a totally neat gadget. So why didn’t it hold my attention? Why did it feel as though I was being sold short? Am I simply an old stick-in-the-mud, a Luddite? Should literature go the same way as music – wholly from a physical to an electronic and virtual method of distribution?

I would like to know what other people think, so this is an invitation to people to contact me. Please feel free to leave a comment below, if you have a WordPress account, or to email me at Ms_Marie_Marshall{a}, or (now here’s a thought!) write me a letter. The object of this is not to prove somehow that I am right and the Editor-in-chief is wrong – this is not an exercise in leverage – nor do I imagine that your answers will have the validity of a professional poll. But what you say will inform me and will enlarge the picture that I see from here.

Thank you in advance.


* Amendment 24th Feb. The Editor-in-chief later reversed the decision. When he came to read this particular blog entry he got in touch (on 23rd February) and asked me to replace the sentence above. I was reluctant to do so as it was my understanding at the time and agreed with my recollection of what he had said. I did undertake to post separately that the decision had been reversed. To be scrupulously fair I am reproducing here the words that the Editor-in-chief would have preferred to see originally: “Recently the owner and Editor-in-Chief made the decision that the finished work would be available in print and and as an e-book, perhaps possibly only as an e-book, though nothing is firm for the time being.”