Thursday, 10 October 2013

Erasmus, father of the ebook?

Ever since some bright spark from Mesopotamia in 3200 BC invented a system of writing, we have used the written word to express ourselves. For centuries, across different civilisations, authors and poets have acted on an innate need to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Quite apart from artistic expression, we owe our advance as a species to our inclination to record and share knowledge. Last Sunday this desire to write became part of our debate at the Henley Literary Festival during a session on ebooks and self-publishing.
Lucy Cavendish, Emma Clark Lam and Clive Limpkin at the Henley Literary Festival
Discussing the magic of ebooks:
Lucy Cavendish, Emma Clark Lam and Clive Limpkin

In amidst the feverish talk of marketing and earning commission, my fellow panelist Clive Limpkin reminded us that ebooks provide an opportunity for people to write, just for the sake of writing. Because very little expense is involved in producing an ebook, it can be a vehicle for an autobiography, a specialist text, or that novel you have always wanted to write (but couldn't get published through the traditional channels). 

These kinds of books have always been written, but historically would have sat as manuscripts in a bottom drawer unread by anyone other than the author and a few close relatives. Digital publishing - via distributors such as Amazon, Apple ibooks, Kobo or Barnes & Noble -  now means that independent writers can reach a massive pool of readers who might be interested in their work.

Clive, author of a Fleet Street memoir, Lost in the Reptile House, talked of the "magic" of getting his work out there, as "a record of a life". Equally, one of the biggest thrills for me, after I published my novel, A Sister for Margot, was hearing the reactions from readers. Their responses to my story instantly made it feel like a proper book. At another festival session, Rachel Joyce, author of the bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry, told us how her novels didn't become real for her until a reader came on board. In other words, a book doesn't fulfill its function until it is read.

Just as the printing presses of the 15th century ushered in the modern age, so ebooks (and the online distributors) promise us a new kind of modernity. Some may argue we have gone from Erasmusmedieval bestsellers to Fifty Shades of Grey, but at least literary self-expression is no longer confined to the establishment. Like any gold rush, the ebook revolution may yet unearth a few treasures worthy of Mesopotamia. 

The Henley Literary Festival session on ebooks and self-publishing took place on Sunday, 6 October. It featured interviewer Lucy Cavendish and ebook writers Clive Limpkin, Angela Levin and Emma Clark Lam.

[See Clive Limpkin's take on the same ebooks session]