I love books. I love the musk of a secondhand bookshop. The friends standing eager in my shelves. The osteopathic crack as I break a hardback’s spine. So you might imagine I hate the way ebooks are beeping out the death-knell of the printed page.
Actually, I believe digital publishing may save what’s most important about books: the words, the stories – the art. And, with your help, this might herald a golden age of literature. But more of that in a moment…
A dozen years ago, I wrote The Human Script, a work of literary fiction. It had bold ideas, a moving story and encouragement from the likes of Martin Amis, W. G. Sebald and Ian McEwan. Top literary agents competed to represent me. Surely a publishing deal and glittering prizes could only be a matter of months away?
That sort of hubris deserved what happened next: nothing.
Those were low-risk, self-doubting days for publishing. Publishers wanted shock and schlock. Big celebs and big sellers. They didn’t want me.
The Human Script went under the bed. Meanwhile, the ereaders arrived. People started taking the tablets and Kindle ignited.
Then I happened to meet two eager and experienced publishing folk, striking out on their own with a new digital venture called Red Button. Their theory was that ebooks, far from being the nail in the coffin of quality literature, may actually resurrect it.
As mainstream publishers, newspaper critics and the retailers of ‘dead tree’ publishing become ever more inward-looking in search of the next bestseller, the small, independent publisher can once more take a chance on an unknown work. The outlay is modest, the (electronic) retailers’ doors are open, and the brightest recommendations don’t shine in the literary pages of the Sundays but in the blogosphere.
Red Button’s model is to discover the great books the rest of the world would ignore and give them electronic oxygen. If their novels thrive, they hope to make their money from selling the rights to mainstream publishers and moving on. It’s an interesting proposition and one that flies in the face of the common perception of digital publishing as the home of vanity presses, fan fiction and Fifty Shades rip-offs.
I decided to let my debut novel be theirs too. What clinched it for me was the question: would Ulysses be published today? It’s impossible to imagine that a mainstream publisher would give it a second glance. As it happens, that’s exactly how it was for James Joyce back in the 1920s. He turned to Sylvia Beach, a woman with a passion for innovative literature, outside the mainstream (in Paris), with a route to market (a bookshop), and Ulysses became her first publication.
She went on to lose money. But Ulysses went on to become possibly the greatest novel ever written. I’m not comparing myself to Joyce, but I’d like to think that my book is worth reading, even though it may not be commercial.
And what can you do to usher in the golden age? Books – whether paper or electronic – are like plants. They need air and cultivation. So let us start the germination.
Recommend your favourite here – now – in the comments box below and on Amazon, Kobo, Goodreads or at your book club.
There’s just one rule: only the undiscovered gems, the great books unnoticed by the mainstream, but noticed by you. Sheer quality should be their only selling point.