Here’s my straight up disclaimer: I do not intend this to be a snobby hate fest for ebooks supposed inferiority in comparison to print/physical books. This is intended to be an exploration of my reasons, as well as a thesis on what makes ebooks lack a certain appeal for readers like me. Disclaimer ended.
There are probably several reasons that need to be addressed first before I get to my thesis.
First of all, despite being a smack-dab-in-the-middle millennial, I was a late adopter to smartphones, having only transitioned from my flip phone that had battery power that would last a goddamn week, to a smartphone about one and a half years ago in summer 2016. For reasons of monetary frugality. Which is the same reason why I never had a tablet or ereading device before that point. It’s not that I’m a luddite, but my favorite piece of technology is not my phone but will always be laptop computers, recently being my wonderfully portable chromebook. As a writer, having a qwerty keyboard is a necessity for a useable piece of tech. All this to illustrate the point that (although you can read ebooks on computers), I never owned one of the portable devices used for ereading until fairly recently.
Second of all, I’ve worked consistently in the public library since I graduated from college in 2012, meaning I’ve always had free and easy access to every book I could think of without even having to drive out of my way to pick them up.
Third of all, I must consider my book buying habits. See my point above: public library and free books. I am a giant library user, and a giant reader, and a giant book lover, but also frugal and have limited space. I don’t buy every book I read or want to read. I buy books I know I want to reread, to pick up again, skim favorite parts, and put sticky notes in. I buy books for aesthetic reasons: for the cover art, for anniversary editions, for complete sets. I have multiple copies of the Harry Potter series, the Lord of the Rings, and The Outsiders entirely for aesthetic and collector reasons. I also buy strange and interesting finds in used book stores for discounted prices, although that experience tends to be more like a search through a thrift shop or antique shop for hidden treasures than a trip to Barnes and Noble.
As you can see, the discounted price for ebooks does very little for me when I can free books from a library and want to buy physical copies of my favorite books and of the prettiest books.
Someone: “But what if you want to pack several books for a trip?”
Me: “I just make room to pack several books. No seriously, I packed like four books for a weeklong beach trip. Reading on my phone at the beach while wearing sunglasses doesn’t sound like it is going to work so well anyway, does it?”
Since getting my phone (and before then, using a computer), I have borrowed several ebooks via library services and purchased a few as well. (Let me make clear right now that I’m differentiating here between ebooks and eaudiobooks. eAudiobooks are the bomb, but that’s apples and oranges. Audiobooks, whether on cassette tape, CD, or digital are essentially the same end product on different types of devices.) The reading experience has never really clicked for me.
But here’s the strange thing… the problem is not reading on a device that I find troubling. I read a lot on my devices, computer and phone. From blogs to news sites to even lots and lots of fanfiction. I’m comfortable reading on a device. My excuse cannot be eye strain or the distractions of the internet that is just a touch away when I have a device in my hand (which are the common issues I’ve heard.)
So to my thesis: I propose that the problem with ebooks is their format. In their desperation to get the reluctant to convert, they decided to format ebooks ike codex books. (Unfamiliar with the term codex book, just think books as you know them, sheets of paper held together by a spaine as opposed to say… scrolls).
They have artificial page flips and print book formatting. While the user is given control over the size of the text and even have a few font options, ebooks are trying to look like print books. And I don’t like it. Like I said, I read a lot online, and reading on a screen is a different experience than reading a physical book.
For example, the page flips. Everywhere else online, we read by scrolling down, not by flipping pages. Having read fanfiction for many years before the ebook boom, that is more natural to me than the page flips, and is a more natural reading experience than flipping a page. We (in the west) are taught to read left to right, top to bottom, and we just want our ears to keep going down. Flipping the page is a necessity of the codex. There is no need for it on a screen. Furthermore, repeating many people who have said the same thing, it is a lot easier to flip through the pages of a print book than an ebook. Let us scroll. Let us use search and find features like internet browsers have casually built in.
No, I’m am not proposing we have endless scrolling 80,000 word novels. Again, I hail to the formatting decisions of fanfiction sites like fanfiction.net and AO3.org. Let the read scroll and read for the length of a chapter, and then have a next and previous buttons. That is also how blogs and sometimes longer news stories do it too.
Another nitpick, the spacing of the words on the ebooks page. Again, they emulate book formatting which is standard English practice: indented paragraphs with no spaces between. Perhaps you have noticed the unspoken rules of internet writing and publishing. (Maybe they are spoken somewhere, but I’ve just picked it up by observation.) Look at my blog post. Go look at a news article on the New York Times website. Notice something? No paragraph indents. Instead, there is a line space between paragraphs. I believe this is done probably because it is easy to format as well as easier to read on a screen. (Additionally, I believe that serif fonts are easier to read in print, and san serif fonts are easier to read on the screen, but New York Times haven’t caught up with this one yet).
I think ebooks would be a more enjoyable experience if they emulated the way every other field is publishing online, and how online readers usually read. And it definitely would for me.
Back in 2015, I wrote a short story titled “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things,” approximately 1500 words then, and approximately 1500 words now. I had a very clear inspiration, vision, and shape for this story almost from the get go.
It was about a mystical pawn shop, one where you could trade in intangibles such as emotion, memories, and ideas. The vibe I wanted to impart was something a la Twilight Zone and Welcome to Nightvale. Despite knowing how polarizing it was, I knew it had to be in second-person. Yes, second-person, where the pronoun of the story’s protagonist was the vague and strange and damning ‘you.’
I’ve always believed in the possibilities of second power narration.
I did edit that first draft, mostly to make the beginning hook better and the ending clearer, with the core middle of the story, the part with the main character in the pawn shop, staying mostly untouched save for a few nips and tucks of language.
A deadline for a lit mag that I believed the story would be a good for had a looming deadline, so I sent it off. I also sent it to my closest friend for feedback. The feedback bantered back and forth, and more from my own insecurities than my friend’s suggestion, I rewrote “Pawn Shop” in a much safer, more conventional third person perspective.
I sent that third person draft off to a number of lit mags.
Form rejections poured in.
Then, that first magazine I applied to, the one where I had sent my rough, second-person draft, responded. They really liked it. The editors didn’t have room for it in the nearest issues, but they would like to consider for a future issue in 6 months’ time.
I learned something in that moment about trusting my storytelling instincts. In the case of “The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things” third person could never catch the vibe, the aura, the strange-twilight-zone otherworldliness I was aiming for. All that spark, that clear-sighted inspiration I had the beginning of the project had been sanitized away for a version of a story that might tick off the correct checkmarks of conventional writing wisdom (don’t write in second person!), but lose everything that made it unique.
While that initial interest and hold for further consideration from the first magazine didn’t pan out, I started sending out my second person draft again. I received plenty of form rejections, but I also received a number of personalized recognitions, more than I was getting for my other circulating stories and way more than I ever received for my third person draft of “Pawn Shop.” There were some almosts and some ‘we really liked it but it wasn’t the right fit for our magazine and/or issue at this time but we’re going to list it as an honorable mention.’ (No lie.)
Two years later, in June 2017, I submitted said story to Baltimore Science Fiction Society’s Amateur Writing Contest. In August I received notification my story was a finalist. In September I learned I had won second place. On October 7, I got to go to a real life awards ceremony where I was invited on stage and had people shaking my hand afterwards like I was super important.
The award from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society is not attached to publication when it comes to second and third place (but it had come with a nice monetary prize), meaning ‘The Pawn Shop of Intangible Things’ had yet to find a home to be published.
However, it’s a winner. While second-person might be polarizing, might not be mainstream or conventional, and while I primarily write in third and sometimes in first, it was the right choice for telling this particular story. And winning, and getting those ‘almost’ personal rejections meant that there are people out there who are getting it, appreciating it, liking it.
The moral of this story is… do not give up after a few rejections, or a few years of rejections. Taken feedback in consideration, but make sure that you are staying true to your instincts and be willing to take the unconventional risks. Ultimately the vision of a story is yours, and sometimes success and finding the people who ‘get it’ takes time, but taking time is worth.
And while you’re waiting, keep writing.
Insights from the life of an aspiring, struggling writer; a passionate reader, and a working librarian.
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