The Invisible Library

I have one. Lots of people do, nowadays. One little device, a thousand books…

I was an early adopter of ebooks – I had a PalmPilot device that ran flat after an hour of reading, so you pretty much had to sit with it in the charging cradle if you wanted to settle in for a nice evening with a book. The selection of ebooks wasn’t much to write home about either, because most of the big authors were still available only in paper.

It’s different now – so many devices on the market. eBooks are here to stay. You can tell, if you travel by public transport. I used to see lots of paperbacks, and it was quite fun trying to see what everyone else was reading, without being noticed. And then you’d spot someone else with a book reader, and you’d have a feeling of instant kinship with another early adopter, another bold adventurer into the world of science-fiction-made-real.

Nowadays, there’s a lot more book readers on the train. One of the advantages, of course, is that you can read trashy romances without feeling that the person sitting across from you is sniggering at you in between pages of their copy of Beyond Good and Evil.  Opponents of ebooks have even used this as a reason why ebook readers are a Bad Thing – you can’t rubberneck and see what other people are reading! Last gasp of someone losing the argument, if you ask me. Most people don’t read in order to provide their fellow travellers with gratification for their nosiness.

Where book readers win out for me, though, is space. Not only for travelling – no more standing in front of the book shelf wondering what I’m going to feel like reading in a week’s time, or wondering how to fit a fantasy novel the size of a housebrick into a handbag – but in the house. Last time we moved house, the removal company incautiously gave us a quote based on the standard price for a three-bedroom semi. Then they turned up, and the foreman was heard to mutter: “This isn’t a house, this is a *&%$ing library…” And that was before he’d seen the piano…

With a book reader, I don’t have to get rid of books, or not buy them because I don’t think I’ve got the required inch of shelf-space. I can buy as many books as I like… forever! But that, of course, has brought its own problem. I like to file things, and I like my bookshelves neatly categorised, and books ordered by author surname within category. (Neat-freak, me? Not at all…) While you can this with a book reader, the relatively slow page-turns makes it really hard to scroll through a thousand books if you want to virtually browse. That’s really the major disadvantage of a book reader – practically speaking, you need to know which book you want to read. Browsing just isn’t going to happen.

But where there is a problem, you just know that some clever person somewhere will be working on the solution. My solution was the BookCollector software, and it really is clever. And quite fun, because you can add books by barcode, and with another thousand dead tree books to catalogue, being able to zap them was a major time-saver. Plus, you can get an iPhone app so you can take your catalogue wherever you go to prevent those awkward bookshop moments (“Do I have a copy of that already… or not?”).

eBooks have changed the reading landscape. You can read whatever you like on the train without getting funny looks; you can buy as many as you like without worrying about shelf space. If you go around to someone’s house, all you see is that smug little plastic rectangle; no more examining their bookshelves out of the corner of your eye, trying to build a picture of your host’s personality out of paper and other people’s words. No more hurrying around before visitors come, making sure that Fifty Shades of Grey is safely hidden under the bed and the complete works of Shakespeare are in the living room.

Publishers are bemoaning the fact that people don’t buy books ‘just in case’, for those emergencies when, oh my god, you’ve run out of books, because you can download another book instantly to quell the symptoms of word-withdrawal. On the other hand, other publishers are celebrating the fact that people can buy a book with a click of the mouse, or a tap of the finger, and it’s all just so easy that you can buy five or six books before you even realise you’ve done it.

And of course, anybody can publish a book. Publishers are no longer the gatekeepers of literature, for the first time since the written word replaced the oral tradition. Of course, this does mean one has to wade through a certain amount of utter garbage in order to find the gems, but the worst of it is usually recognisable. Unlike the fool’s gold (well-disguised utter garbage) that regular publishers are putting out, in some cases.

Have you noticed that? As an urban fantasy fan, I’m seeing a certain cookie-cutter sameness about the new offerings. Sexy, kick-ass heroine (with no social skills); at least two hot male main characters (with no personality, or with a personality that should earn him/them a kicking from any self-respecting young woman); tortured pasts all over the place. Plot is decidedly optional, but there should be sex all over the place. Sometimes literally.

The point being that one can imagine a List. In order to get published, an author must tick various points off the List. If you don’t score high enough on the List, you might have written the next Pride and Prejudice, and it wouldn’t matter.

Angels, for example. Angels are ‘in’ at the moment. I’ve spotted at least a couple of authors who’ve suddenly made a swift left turn to start writing about angels, in one case someone who had no previous ‘form’ for urban fantasy. Before that, it was zombies (which didn’t last long because, let’s face it, zombies are kind of icky and not suited for being protagonists).

The advantage of independent publishing is that there is no List. The author can write whatever they like, and push their poor baby out into the cold world to take its chances. We, the readers, should welcome the independent publisher. Here is a chance for new thoughts to see the light of day, new ideas, new plotlines.

This is reading freedom. Let’s embrace it. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

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