The Sum of the Parts by A J Dalton
When I’m doing a signing event, one of the most common questions I get asked is ‘what do you think of e-books and e-readers?’ Well, when you’re selling a signed hard copy to someone, you have to be fairly pro-hard copy, don’t you? However, there’s also the reality for the author that they get 25-70% royalty on the e-book (depending on if it’s self-published or not), whereas they only get a paltry 7.5-10% on the hard copy (not enough to buy cat food). Why such a difference? Well, with the e-book, there’s no need to pay the book shop a hefty percentage (at least 35%), no production cost, no distribution cost, no rent for premises, no air-con bills, no shop staff to pay and (drumroll) hardly a need for a publisher (and their myriad staff)!
Okay, let’s slow it down before I start getting hate mail from diehard fans of hard copy books, and book shops, and publishers... in fact, the entire book industry except other authors and e-geeks. So, a hard copy book has no real competition. It is unique unto itself. It can be read in more places than an e-reader, I would argue. I like to read in the bath, and I just wouldn’t want to take an e-reader there (unless I wanted to electrocute myself). As a physical object, the hard copy book also has a ‘living archaeology’ (my own term, but I put it in apostrophes because I know it’s a bit poncy and self-indulgent). We know if the book’s been read before. It has a particular smell. Sometimes it’s signed by the author. It has a feel, a shape, something that demands accommodation... something that is significant. On a shelf with other books, it says everything about you. When people visit your home (even if it’s just a cleaner or burglar), they will glean something about you from the physical books you have selected for your physical shelf. Through physical books, you express yourself. It’s art, not a science. Hard copy books are usable objects of art. They are artefacts.
Why bother going to see Lord Byron’s poems in the original? So that you can see the graphology of his handwriting, and see the stains from the bottom of the wine glass that he’d put down on the paper on which he was composing. You begin to glimpse the state of mind of the genius. It transports you. It is so much more than typed words on a non-physical page.
All that being said, what’s the argument for e-books? Well, like an MP3 player meaning you don’t need racks of CDs in your house anymore (you’ve given them all to charity shops), an e-reader means you no longer need to maintain the health and safety hazard of teetering piles of books in your home. In these austere times, less is more. E-books are cheaper. When it comes to holidays, airport baggage allowance means that an e-reader can reach places the latest hardback from A J Dalton cannot.
So where does that leave us? As an author, let me give you a particular perspective. I published Knight of Ages as an e-book only. To date, I’ve sold all of a dozen copies, despite it being my favourite book of all those I’ve written (What? Better than Necromancer’s Gambit? Gateway of the Saviours, even? Yes, even those.) What gives? There’s just something lacking when it comes to a work of literature that is e-book only. Something essential just isn’t there. Something vital. Some ingredient that hasn’t got to do with the words. It’s got something to do with graphology, with wine stains, with the physical. After all, our souls are not virtual. Still, I could be wrong.
A J Dalton is an international author with Gollancz. He has published five novels to date, including the best-selling Necromancer’s Gambit and Empire of the Saviours (longlisted for the David Gemmell Legend Award). There's plenty of writing advice on his website at www.ajdalton.eu & follow him on twitter @AJDalton1