None More Greyer

Published June 14, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

So what is the future for eBooks?

This topic was discussed at the recent Forest For the Trees Seminar (#SWF2012, @writersNSW). One panelist predicted that

“Anyone who thinks ebooks will be around in 5 years is in for a rude surprise”.

Not what I would have predicted but, but what does this statement mean?

It has always been my assertion that the stories themselves don’t change, but the vessel does. To quote the statement which inspired the post title the current status of eBooks is not very exciting – “dark grey on light grey”, consumers accept the “ok” presentation of eBooks because that’s where the technology is today, but will it always be so?

Apparently not. Publishers are currently developing much more interactive, interesting and exciting digital narrative devices such as embedded videos, contrived blog and social media posts. Now that sounds contemporary and engaging.

Of course there must be a place for the grey on grey. Information literacy expert James Herring suggested (Herring, 2004) that high school students needed explicit instruction on the skills of skimming and scanning for information. But a lot has changed in the intervening 8 years. If my own experience and that of panelist _____ (Name escapes me and evil internet won’t let me access #Forrestfortrees program to double check) is anything to go by not skimming and scanning is the current challenge. _____ said that when she reads an eBook she skims, but if the same text is presented in hardcopy she will engage more deeply with what is on the page.

It is hard to see through the mists of time to the future and industry insiders are making all sorts of predictions about everything to do with eBooks and the future of publishing. Let’s think about book covers themselves. We might even call them traditional book covers, but for how long have the loud, brash book covers of today been the norm. Kyle Zenchyson pondered the cover conundrum on a recent blog post from a not completely grey on grey skewed perspective, but still assuming that the artwork is the outside of the book, a sort of digital dust cover if you will..

I think the relevance of the book cover debate is in a point made by Catherine Keenan in her 2011 SMH article When Fiction Becomes a Work of Art

Before the late 19th century, no-one bothered much with book covers. Dust jackets were simply a way of keeping the dirt off during transportation, and while printers might have written on them basic information about a book, it was thought vulgar to include anything else. To the educated mind, a book spoke for itself.

”Keeping the jacket on a book,” Alan Powers wrote in Great Book Jacket and Cover Design, was like ”storing clothes in the carrier bag from the shop where they had been bought.”

But how different the visual appearance of books today, and what an industry has grown to supply the lovely covers we have today. I can’t imagine that in our visual world we will go back to letting the book speak for itself. There are simply too many of them around for that to be a feasible option.

I have just finished reading 9 fantasy novels (ie reasonably large books) back to back and this leads me to reflect on my earlier comment about skimming v deep reading. I was completely mesmerised by the words on the page which engaged my brain in active imagination and image building. Would I have had the same experience if I was given the option of reading the same story, discovering the same characters witnessing the same events in a multi-level digital edition. Perhaps in the future I will get that opportunity.

During the #Forestforthetrees seminar the question was raised as to why do eBooks still cost as much as traditional books. Basically the answer is that they cost customers the same because they cost publishers the same. The most popular ebook to have been sold in Australia at the time of the 2012 Sydney Writer’s Festival was John Howard’s Lazaras Rising.

Well, that answers the question of who is currently reading eBooks and why grey-on-grey is acceptable. But the point is, this book only sold 9000 eCopies. Not quite enough to run off to the Bahamas with. And why would we buy more eBooks when basically they are just the same as paperbacks, but weigh less and can honestly be a total pain in the butt to download?

I believe that the answer must lie in the multi-level factor. However, one articulate #Forestforthetrees panellist described our expectations as movie style effects on a book budget. That’s a big obstacle to get around. Books can’t become movies, movies are movies. Books are already pretty good, but with this technology that is constantly developing we all agree there has to be something in between, and it can’t just be “bovies”. I like vegemite. I like ice-cream. I don’t like vegemite-flavoured ice-cream.

Here’s another little analogy. I have moved house quite a number of times in my life, each time the new house was a completely different size and shape. I was always so keen to put everything away and call myself settled in, pretending I wouldn’t be moving again for a very long time. The time before last that I moved I had 2 very small children so I adopted a new philosophy. Let my stuff settle itself. The hardest thing about unpacking into a new house is the constant shuffling and re-shuffling that continues for months, or in my experience, until I move house again. By allowing my stuff to self-settle I discovered how it organically and practically fitted into the new environment, what was unnecessary, and what more needed to be purchased.

So here is my advice to all ye digitali – let your storytelling settle itself amongst the new media environment. Elements will find their natural relationship to each other. Focus always on the story and use new media authentically.

For more information about creating digital stories come along to the NSW Writers’ Centre’s Storytelling in the Digital Age
When: Thursday 26 July, 6:30 – 9:30pm


Herring, J. (2004). The Internet and Information Skills: A Guide For Teachers and School Librarians. London: Facet Publishing.

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