Monday, 6 February 2012

Perspective: Antonia Senior and The Fear

This post is my first direct response to something someone else has put on the internet. I feel I have somehow graduated to the next level of bloggerdom in writing it.

Some of you may have been unfortunate enough to stumble across an unforgiving article by Antonia Senior entitled 'Ebook sales are being driven by downmarket genre fiction' (The Guardian). I was bombarded by a whole host of angry tweets about it at work, and understandably so.

In about as patronising and snobbish a tone as she could muster, Senior points out the "absence of industry-wide data on ebook sales", while simultaneously generalising on the types of books ebook readers read. She completely dismisses figures regarding high literary fiction sales, saying that "Most new Kindle owners buy an avalanche of classics in their initial excitement. All of Trollope for £1.99! All of Dickens for £3!", proceeding to question whether any of it is actually read.

She gives herself away here, as any ebook reader knows that you don't have to pay a penny to download Charles Dickens, or Anthony Trollope (both are available on Project Gutenberg for free). And if she is not an ebook reader, does she really have a leg to stand on?

I confess to being a new ereader owner, and since receiving it, I have read 'Great Expectations' and 'Shark', Wes Brown's debut novel (as well as several paper books). I have friends and family with ereaders who have them merely to access the classics free of charge. For instance, my Dad has become better versed than me (a literature graduate) on authors such as Dickens, Trollope, and Wilkie Collins since purchasing his ereader a couple of years ago.

I'm not denying that the digital revolution in publishing does have the potential to impact the quality of literature available for people to read and download with ease. Self-publishing is on the increase, and Apple's new iBook app allows users to create an illustrated book experience (I don't own any Apple products and can't claim to be an expert on what these iBooks end up looking like).

However, to dismiss all digital readers as Senior does- "I'm not so sure it is wise to underestimate the boundless idiocy of the unobserved reading public." is to emphasise the overwhelming fear digital books hold for some people. If anything this wealth of literature should encourage people to be more discerning: with more choice, comes greater pressure to choose well.

I work for the literature development agency for the South West, and as such, have a developing list of literature contacts; publishers, literature development officers, and agents. One thing I have been particularly glad to see is that there are a lot of people interested in presenting high-quality literature in new formats.

Dead Ink Publications is one such organisation:

DEAD INK publishes the best new poetry and prose by contemporary authors across the UK.

We are supported by Arts Council England, and distribute literature through apps, E-Books and our website. Our ambition is to further a great tradition of writing by embracing the most innovative ways of reading.

A pretty good ethos, I'm sure you'll agree.

However, to suggest ebooks only serve to encourage people to read poor quality literature is virtually unfounded and only shows that Senior has a deep seated fear of progress and little knowledge of the digital publishing landscape.


  1. This a first for me: Posting on a blog. E-reading has opened to me a whole new world. At the same time it has transported me to a new world of traditional books.

    Surely I am not alone; eread one of the old classics, then track down a first edition of a book by an author, new to me, who was writing over 150 years ago. Two hobbies in one encompassing totally different technologies. This leads to the combined pleasure of reading a chapter from a real piece of history, then continuing the pleasure using a modern classic of technology when taking a fragile piece of history would not be practical to read the next few chapters.

    Why do so many people fear this change which can take one forward, whilst at the same time can open a door to the past?

    I am reminded of a key principle of the first year of my degree course, studying Geology nearly four decades ago: The present is the key to the past. The ability to interpret modern landscapes from an understanding of many millions of years geological history has been with me for many years.

    I now find myself in a converse situation. I was put off many kinds of literature during my school days. The mixture of the practicality of new technology alongside the pleasure of exploring items which have a history is so exciting.

    To me it seems a shame that Luddite attitudes seem to be brought to the fore when one mentions the term book or reader. To conclude, I have read some great and some very mediocre literature both in traditional books and on my reader. It seems sad to blame the modern technology. Can the present still be the key to the past?

  2. The fear of E-books is borderline hysterical. People hated paperbacks when they first came out too. And other mass-market stuff like dime books. So far, it looks as though E-books sales have been driven by low-brow titles. This just means 'literary' publishers need to get their arses in gear. E-reading is a revolution in distribution. All that's happened to books, is that you read them on a screen, not necessarily a page. We should be singing the praises of incredible access to new and old writing. Thanks for mentioning Dead Ink. Wes

  3. Her's my low-brow tuppenceworth: we're not all as small minded as Antonia appears to be in this article. Just because she's into trashy/smutty fiction and assumes people only read "intellectual" stuff for effect, doesn't mean we're all that way inclined. Her article says more about her than about anyone or anything else.


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