Literature in a digital world - Are ebooks the enemies or allies of printed literature?

E-readers and ebooks have been widely heralded as the apocalypse for printed books, though things might not be as gloomy as they first seemed. What does the future hold for literature in an increasingly digital world?

Many people believe that a choice has to be made between ebooks and the traditional printed format that has been survived relatively uncontested since Gutenberg invented the printing press. Is this the case though? There are certainly problems that need to be addressed but these might not necessarily be impossible to overcome.

Ebook Scepticism

Sceptics of the genre often point to the aesthetics of a printed book as a vital part of what makes them important. When marketing a book, a lot of work goes into designing how it will look on a shelf. This, some say, makes the look of a book just as much a part of the piece of art as the words on the page. Whilst devices like the iPad and the Kindle Fire do make use of digital bookshelves, it seems to be an afterthought rather than a marketing strategy.


The current forms of distributing ebooks, through services such as the Kindle store, do not make so much use of visual aesthetics. Instead, they rely more heavily on user ratings to push up sales.

'Fifty Shades of Grey' is a good example of how online book-selling currently works. It is unlikely that the book would have made it onto the shelves of Britain's bookshops had it not been for positive customer feedback on ebook stores or the sales figures that this lead to.

Rise of the self-published writer?

The 'Fifty Shades of Grey' phenomenon also highlights another aspect of how the publishing world might be about to change. Instead of going through the traditional rigmarole of finding an agent, sending off hundreds of queries to publishers and hoping against hope that maybe one would accept it, E.L. James self-published her book online. Gone are the days when self-publishing was akin to accepting that your work wasn't worth reading. The openness of the internet allows anybody with a connection to publish material online and market in whatever way they see fit through services such as Ether Books or the Kindle store.


With the ability to bypass publishing houses completely, the possibilities for first time writers are increasingly varied. Many writer's who would never have got a look in a decade ago because of their passions for what publishing companies might consider to be controversial themes are now able to find their audiences and gain success. Could we see a day where it becomes the norm for publishing companies approach writers to publish printed versions of an already best-selling ebook? If 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is any indication, this may well be the case.

Co-existence a possibility?

Towards the beginning of the year, results showed that ebook sales had finally overtakenhardcover sales. More recent statistics now suggest that ebook sales are slowing whilst hardcover sales are staying relatively strong. Why might this be?

You cannot show off your favourite ebooks in the same way that you can a well stocked bookshelf. It is, however, undeniably more convenient to carry an ebook around with you than a 590,000 word behemoth such as War and Peace.

The kind of books that one might once have purchased in a cheap paperback format, your holiday reading perhaps, are the ones that it is more sensible to purchase as ebooks. If it turns out that you really enjoyed one of these books then there is no reason why you couldn't then by a hardcover collector's edition as a physical record of what you've read.

A symbiosis along these lines could give rise to several new ways of selling books. Companies like Amazon might start to give customers the option of purchasing both a hard copy and digital copy of the same book with a discount, perhaps for ordering the two together? They have already started to do this with music.

Over the next few years the publishing industry will have to work out how it is going to adapt to new technological advances. Nobody knows how exactly this will play out but what we do know is that it will be interesting to watch.