Winter 2016

Authors are driving the book's evolution

James McConnachie

I’ve been disappointed by digital technology for a while now. It was 1981 and my big brother rushed in from school. Stephen Corcoran’s got a Home Computer! I could just see it. He’d climb into a pilot’s chair, gaze into a dark and starry screen and the Computer would reply sonorously to his breathless questions: How big is space? What is reality? How do you do long division?

Stephen turned up with a Sinclair ZX81.

A quarter of a century on, I’m still disappointed. I don’t even use a smartphone. (It’s a long story – but to me they seem to take more than they give.) It is ebooks though that are the biggest let-down. The paper book is a superbly immersive thing. Opening one is like putting on goggles and diving into the water: it’s another world, and you’re in it. An e-reader – still worse, an iPad – jostles with competing possibilities. (Or they have done since the original Kindle was ‘upgraded’ with a web browser.) Your music, email and latest box-set are all now just a swipe away.

Even when ebooks seek to take advantage of the creative possibilities of the medium, they risk diluting the message, or even poisoning it. I don’t want alternative storylines; I want the author to have done that work for me. I don’t want background music or chirpy interjections or pop-up notes. I don’t want anything to interpolate between words and brain.

It is curious that the ebook’s greatest success has been to deliver relatively disposable kinds of fiction when the greatest possibilities for writers, surely, are in non-fiction. Novels rarely need apparatus, while works of non-fiction properly come scaffolded with introductions, plate sections, footnotes, bibliographical essays, indices and so on. (Giulio Lorenzetti’s magnificent guide to Venice and Her Lagoon even has an index of indices.)

Digital technology could do it all better. I know, I know: negotiating the technical and rights problems of ebook illustrations is as straightforward as driving down a Helmand highway. But the potential for digital indexing is thrilling. (If you like that kind of thing; and I do.) Authors could experiment with layers of factual or narrative detail. The text could even be updated remotely. Useful reviews could be appended. Notes and corrections added. Regrets tabled.

I’ve never yet seen more than glimpses of what I might want in an ebook. But as more than one writer in this Winter issue of The Author points out, the medium is still evolving. Authors, notably and tellingly, are driving that evolution as much as, if not more than, traditional publishers. I still wait, excitedly, to be confounded.

James McConnachie | @j_mcconnachie

In this issue...

The mind

Rules and rule-breaking

  • Stories of sexual violence - Elizabeth-Anne Wheal
  • The rise of political correctness - Mark McCrum
  • Dickens the rule breaker - John Mullan
  • Daring and exuberant language - Annabel Abbs

The medium and the message

  • The evolution of the book - Keith Houston
  • What ebooks could be - Richard Mason
  • The whale's mantra - Caroline Carver

The writer at work

  • How did Shakespeare make his money? - William J. Humphries
  • Inspired by Shakespeare - Nell Leyshon
  • Relieving authors since 1790 - Tracy Chevalier
  • International authors - Nicola Solomon & Katie Webb
  • A week at Arvon - Charlotte Buckley


  • Quarterly news
  • Out and about - Steve Toase
  • Grub Street - Andrew Taylor
  • To the Editor 
  • Booktrade news
  • Broadcasting 
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