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The Old Game of Telephone – Alive and Well on the Internet

Karin Kallmaker Business of Books

writing-gold-pensAs a lurker on a few blogs, for personal and professional reasons, I often run across mention of my work or me in surprising contexts. One of the reasons I lurk is that readers are perfectly free to have a public discussion of the writer “Karin Kallmaker” and their comments I know are directed at the books or the writer, not the person. I lurk because I don’t want to interfere in whatever it is that readers want to discuss. (Though of course, it bears repeating that a “private” conversation doesn’t exist on the Internet.)

I recently came across a third or fourth misrepresentation of a comment I made in November of last year – no doubt each of these statements stems from the first time someone was told incorrectly what I’d said. The comment is that I am opposed to e-publishing and think it is inferior in some way; the statement is completely unfounded.

To my knowledge I have mentioned e-publishing exactly once, on a discussion list for a professional organization. The question was what people thought about the new Kindle and Sony reader formats for e-Books, which can cost up to $400. My answer was directed solely to that question. This is what I said, in its entirety, in late November 2007:

Will e-books ever be a best seller? Probably, maybe, who knows? Digital format is slowly making inroads to more and more of our lives and the tide does seem unstoppable. Maybe they’ll be the mainstream format about the time gays can get married throughout the U.S. *G*

But the real question is what about these new readers that are being released to read a new format of e-books? Thinking about my readers, these are the questions I’m asking myself:

  • will the format cannibalize of my existing base or will the device/medium find me new readers?
  • does the medium increase profits to the writer?
  • has the technology really shaken out or are these unitaskers more betamaxes?
  • will lesbians be early or late adopters of the technology/format?

It’s the last question that I think I can answer, at least for myself – lesbians will be among the later adopters. Of course some of us are totally hooked in and will be out front with the newest gadgets, but I’m already well aware that for many of my readers, buying one of my books costs 1-2 hours pay. Aside from the issues of the sensual, physical reality of a book, the choice needs to make economic sense for a great many of my readers.

Please understand that my comments are as a veteran writer with a readership base. A new writer looking to find a base may feel quite differently and have a very different experience should they venture into any non-book format.

And there’s always the off chance that I could be wrong. It’s been known to happen! After all, I bought a Betamax.

I’m not sure how, from those statements, anyone could conclude that I have a negative opinion about the e-publishing industry, e-publishers, e-writers, that I don’t believe e-books sell or the format isn’t “real” publishing, etc.

It reminds me of the old game of Telephone, where a statement is whispered from ear to ear down a line of people to see how it has changed by the time the last person repeats it. Having come across another recounting of an opinion I have never expressed – and in at least two cases, my opinion was stated to represent my publisher’s as well – I thought it best to put the record, well, straight, if you will.

E-publishing, to me, is a format of creative work. It has its own hallmarks and artifacts, processes, etc., just as a stonemason’s workshop, pricing, process, methodology and so on differs from that of a pen-and-ink artist. From papyrus to oratory to serialized newsprint to electronic readers to audio books, the format of literature says nothing about the quality of the work it contains. My own work recently joined the ranks of e-book format, by the way.

To make any kind of qualitative judgment about a work, one must perceive it through eyes or ears. A book with two covers has no more guarantee of having been through any kind of qualitative editing and production process than one on a memory chip, and vice versa. You can’t judge of book by its cover–how long have we known that? You can judge a book by its contents, or, over time, begin to trust that a publisher or writer puts quality work into the marketplace.

These many months later, I can offer an update to my original opinion. But it’s important to separate the hardware device and the book product when discussing their possible value. The hardware Kindle has many cool features that a technophile will like, no doubt about it, and no doubt future updates to the hardware will solve some limitations, like formats that can be read and being able to use it on an airplane. An owner might want to turn off the instant buy feature; a significant part of the engineering is about instant gratification via your ready and willing credit card. When the bugs are worked out, and the inevitable competition ala VHS vs. Beta is won, readers might end up with a handheld device that works just dandy, and allows them access to the world of books, not just those a given seller has decided to market.

Again, as I said in the post I quoted above, my opinion is that of a veteran writer with a base. A new writer might feel quite differently. Also, since in the interim I have joined Bella Books as a staff member, I also want to be clear that I am speaking for myself as a writer, and my opinion does not necessarily reflect that held by anyone else at Bella. Like it says in the disclaimer at the bottom of the page, it’s just me talking.

There is no telling what the future holds, of course. New generations of handheld readers will pose new dilemmas for publishers and writers. While I believe that writers will continue to produce the work they need to express, and they feel their readers want to enjoy, the format and production of that work is about economics, and it will be what makes sense, at the time, to those who control those decisions.

I hope there will always be the original handheld readers available, however. They still work everywhere there is some kind of light, hold numerous bookmarks and instantaneous back-forward features. For me, there will always be something about a good book in hand…

Comments 1

  1. In answer to a question sent via e-mail, I’m adding this comment:The format a work is packaged in has its own set of criteria for judgment that is separate from the work itself. Do the covers fall off? Does the voice of the reader suit the listener? Does the visual set up of the e-book please the eye? Whle the author wants to know the judgment a buyer may have about the quality of the format, in many cases they have little say over it. Knowing allows them to talk to the publisher/producer about it, however.

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