In 1999 when Online Originals, the respected British online literary press, published my novella, Alice Miller’s Room, the media consensus which, as the poet Percy Shelley said of criticism, is often the measure of contemporary ignorance, held that e-books were a fad. Even now the critical establishment ignores original e-books on the arguable ground that they are vanity publications, the same argument it makes for dismissing print-on-demand books. This argument holds just enough truth to enable its purveyors to fob it off as axiomatic.
But technology is relentless, paying little attention to rear-guard reactions. The printed book industry is not chauvinist, it is protecting a huge investment, trying to milk it for all it is worth, fully aware that technology is reshaping our reading habits. The issue has never been about quality of technology or merit in writing. It has always been about money. But it suits the purposes of the old industry to couch the discussion in terms of quality.
Take newspapers. When we read them online they still look like their print originals, but it is now an interim look. There is no reason why it should last. The technology that dictated the appearance of today’s newspapers is antique. Hot lead gave way a long time ago to offset. That should have enabled newspapers to radically re-examine their appearance, but instead they merely tinkered with it, using the new technology to add color and improve appearances, but failing to make the big advances they now had the ability to make. You can make book on the fact that cutting-edge designers are hard at work shaping the look of tomorrow’s news on your iPhones, Nokias and even your laptops. It will look very different, and so it should. Today’s look is strictly transitional.
Books too will look different, because there is no reason not to take advantage of cyberspace’s hyperkinetic environment. There is no reason for static text and freeze-frame images, used merely to break up text, in the 21st Century.