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The E-Book Revolution: Reading and Writing in the Digital Age

Novels and journalism meant to be read digitally are reviving old forms of writing, inventing new ones, and flooding the online e-book market. How can the modern reader respond?



Read this article at the Washington Independent Review of Books.


On February 15 of this year, Borders filed for bankruptcy and announced the closing of 226 stores. On May 19, Amazon.com announced that e-books were outselling print books. On June 21, Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch revealed that digital books outsold their traditional counterparts three to one. Whether or not the print book industry is near death, e-books have certainly arrived.


A new phenomenon has started to take hold in the book industry: texts published only or primarily as e-books. The Dead Man, a series of short action adventure novels produced by authors Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, capitalizes on this newly popular medium. The books star Matthew Cahill, an ordinary man leading a simple life until a freak accident allows him to see a nightmarish netherworld that no one else does, setting him on a quest to find the answers to who he is and why he has survived.


The Dead Man books are print-on-demand for those readers who don’t have Kindles, but Goldberg and Rabkin created the series to be read on an e-reader. “I’ve already had a lot of success releasing my out-of-print backlist as e-books on the Kindle,” says Goldberg, two-time Edgar Award nominee and author of over thirty novels and non-fiction books, “and I thought that maybe there’s a way to take advantage of features the Kindle has to offer and resurrect a genre that has died in paperback but could thrive as an e-book.”


Each book has a different author, but Goldberg and Rabkin maintain executive artistic control over the series as a whole, much in the style of episodic television or series of action and horror novels hundreds of installments long, written under a “house name” but in reality penned by dozens of ghost writers. This blending of episodic and traditional book formats is nothing new, but is rather a well-known formula for the action adventure novels of the 1950s.


What has changed in this generation of digital readers is the audience, and how e-books fulfill the new needs of modern readers. No longer simply reading material for young men available in gas stations for $2.99 apiece, Goldberg’s reboot of the action adventure novel has been enjoyed and praised by diverse audiences. “I’ve been getting emails from women, and from kids, and from men, an extraordinary cross-section,” he says, “but I can’t believe how many old women are reading The Dead Man.”


Without any scientific data on the matter, the author conjectures that the wide array of people who use e-readers has led to this widening of demographic; Kindles and Nooks, staples of airplane, subway, and beach reading, attract busy people on the go as well as longtime book-lovers. With each book in the series no more than 30,000 words and packed full of thrills and excitement, Goldberg and Rabkin’s books are quick and easy reads that cater to that new audience of casual readers.


E-publishing doesn’t just invite more readers, though; it allows for all sorts of writers, especially newer, lesser-known authors whose works have slipped through the cracks in the print market, to make their writing available to anyone who wants to buy it, without the often arduous process of working with a traditional publishing house. The speed and simplicity of making a book available online has brought out millions of writers, but unfortunately, not all of them are of the caliber of The Dead Man and its myriad of talented authors.


The “tsunami of swill,” as Goldberg calls it, is often a reader’s greatest fear when searching for books online, particularly those that are self-published. If putting your work online is as easy as a click of a mouse, and no gatekeeper exists in the form of a print publisher to weed out the good from the mediocre, how does the modern reader know where to look for the next great book? At the moment, readers can rely on the credentials of authors previously published in print, such as Rabkin’s Psych novels and Goldberg’s Diagnosis Murder and Monk books, but such a system does not allow for younger, newer writers to garner audiences or publicize their works.


Instead, a solution appears in the form of cross-promotion; find one author that you like, and then find the writers that they admire. The Top Suspense Group, for instance, is a collection of a dozen award-winning authors, including Goldberg and three other writers for The Dead Man series, who publish their suspense novels as e-books. Each author puts the Top Suspense logo on all of the books they write to let readers know what other quality e-books they should look for. Such a symbol in some ways resembles the emblem of a traditional publishing house, but Top Suspense provides no editors, contracts, or restrictions for its members, only a way to collectively identify their books as quality works.


If such cooperatives of self-publishers are one answer to the question of how to find the best e-books, then websites like Byliner.com provide another. Specializing in non-fiction, Byliner provides a database of thousands of high-quality magazine features, some published an hour before, some written decades ago, all collected in one convenient place. It provides a place for long-form journalism of all sorts, whether written by nonfiction literary greats of the past hundred years and pulled from the archives of such publications as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Outside or by lesser-known authors who have submitted their work to Byliner’s editors along with a cover letter.


The site also serves as the distribution platform for Byliner Originals, a digital publisher of medium-length nonfiction works, written to be read in one sitting but not necessarily a good fit for other publishing options. “Some stories aren’t suited to either books or magazines, because of length or timing,” says founder and CEO John Tayman. “Byliner was created to allow writers to get those sorts of stories to readers. These aren’t articles, and they’re not books. They’re something in-between. It’s an entirely new category, which is why we call them Originals.”


While Byliner has only been in beta since June 21, the site has been in development since before the advent of iPads and Kindles. As a platform for publicizing these sorts of works, both older articles and Originals, Byliner helps to perform the same task as e-readers have done so well the past few years: “finding users something good to read,” as Tayman says.


As a service built from scratch to be a digital publishing company, Byliner maintains the ease and swiftness of e-publishing that so appeals to modern writers. The service allows them to get their work out to readers while it is still very current, without some of the hazards of self-publishing that writers like William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg faced, such as finding one’s own copy editor and cover artist or trying to publicize one’s own writing.


This streamlined process carries over to the readers’ side as well, where unique social networking features allow users to follow their favorite authors, explore those writers’ suggestions, and see what writers their friends are following. With detailed author pages for hundreds of great writers and reader pages full of personalized recommendations, readers no longer have to hunt through news and magazine websites looking for stories to read. Instead, those articles now come to them.


With e-readers and websites like Byliner making reading and finding the next great book so simple, what will happen to the print book market? Lee Goldberg has a prediction: “It’s a lot like radio when TV came along. We still have radio, we’ve had radio since the fifties when television exploded, but it’s not really the same as it once was. We still have candles even though there’s electricity; candles aren’t used the way they once were. I believe we’ll always have print, but I think the print book is going to become relatively obscure compared to the e-book.”


Readers will always be reading as long as there are quality books to be read, certainly, but will print books go the way of candles, radios, and video rental stores, leaving a veritable Twitter of e-books to take their place? For that answer, only time will tell.