Joe Barlow Writes

Quirky Books for Quirky People–New Thoughts on Writing and Publishing in the Digital Frontier

Category: Publishing

The E-Book Revolution: Does the Writing Still Matter?

Amazon+Kindle+Touch-1024It’s impossible to discuss the state of modern publishing without mentioning the Amazon Kindle, the iPad, the Nook, and the many other handheld e-readers currently flooding the market. E-books have now surpassed hardcovers in numbers of sales, and liberal self-publishing programs through sites like Amazon, Smashwords, and others have allowed authors of all skill levels to release their words into the world, to sink or swim on their own merits, with no interference from editors, agents, or publishers.

The phrase “Kindle millionaire” has been bandied about by the media, first derisively, and then with dawning reverence. Many previously unknown writers, including John Locke and Amanda Hocking, have garnered headlines for selling obscene amounts of digital books, earning fortunes in the process (and, in the case of Hocking, a juicy $2 million, four book traditional publishing contract). Even former mid-list authors like J.A. Konrath and Scott Nicholson have enjoyed rejuvenated sales thanks to e-publishing.

It’s an exciting time for authors, with bold new distribution systems being introduced almost weekly. As I write these words, Amazon has offered many of its e-books for free rental at over 11,000 public libraries (including my own — I just checked). And next week, Amazon is expected to announce its own sub-$250 tablet computer, a potential game changer for e-books.

But with all this talk about massive e-publishing fortunes, the mass acceptance of digital literature, and potential new revenue streams for writers, you know what I haven’t heard much about?

The writing.

Hocking made headlines for her Kindle sales, but are her books any good? Beats me… no one wants to talk about that. Locke is the first self-published author in history to sell over a million Kindle e-books; you can find many articles analyzing his sales figures, but precious little discussion about the literary merits of his Donovan Creed mystery/thrillers.

What gives?

Yes, some authors are making huge money with e-books. But they are outliers, astonishing but rare success stories, sparked by a combination of hard work, excellent marketing, crowd-pleasing narratives (one assumes), and a certain amount of luck. Anyone who thinks that vomiting out sub-standard content and uploading it to Amazon will fund a lavish new lifestyle is going to be sorely disappointed.

I’m a technology buff, and I get it: the novelty of e-books is strong, and it’s exciting to see what some authors have achieved without the backing of a corporate publisher. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that e-books aren’t widgets. They’re books, even if they aren’t printed on paper. Can’t we discuss them the way we discuss other books? By talking about their strengths and weaknesses, rather than their sales figures and financial aspects?

If I were Locke or Hocking, I’d be insulted.

For the record, let me state that I’m a complete convert to e-books, and will probably never buy another paper book as long as I live. I absolutely love having adjustable font sizes and the ability to carry my entire book collection with me everywhere I go. But as with paper books, e-books are worthless to me if they’re not well-written, regardless of how many copies they’ve sold.

I wish all these “journalists” would remember that too.

How about you? What do you think of digital publishing and the e-book boom? Are we living in a golden age of self-publishing, as some have claimed?

[NOTE: This post originally appeared on my old writing blog, The Coffee House Wordsmith, on September 23, 2011.]