Watching Books

By Richard Curtis

Book editors are not famous for being early adopters of technological innovation. But at long last, a decade after the introduction of the Rocket Book and Print On Demand, mainstream publishing has joined the Digital Revolution. A generation of mouse-clicking youngsters has swept into editorial cubicles and even old-timers who only a few years ago couldn’t distinguish between ROM and RAM are now fully wired.

Manuscript Submissions via E-mail

One of the most significant reflections of editors’ comfort level with digital technology is their growing acceptance of email submissions of manuscripts. Until a couple of years ago the practice was discouraged and it still is, except for material solicited by literary agents and professional authors. But as editors recognize the competitive advantage of instant transmission of potentially hot projects, submission of emailed documents is becoming commonplace.

What do editors do with these documents? In many instances they print them. But the high cost and environmental wastefulness of printing manuscripts motivated editors to try reading books on desktop or laptop computer screens. Unfortunately, that didn’t prove very satisfactory. Though they became used to editing manuscripts on computer screens, they found that reading at length on desktop monitors or laptop screens was hard on the eyes.

Enter E-Book Readers

Happily, e-book technology matured just in time to solve these problems. Not long ago an editor told me she’d discovered that the Sony Reader was so perfectly suited to reviewing manuscript submissions that her boss purchased them for everyone on the division’s editorial staff. She simply uploads manuscript files and reads the book at home or on her commute to and from work. Recently I have heard many an editor rave about the virtues of the Sony (and to a lesser extent Amazon’s Kindle) as an editorial tool. They also speak of the “green” benefits of paperless transmission of texts. Authors and agents benefit too, thanks to savings on photocopy, printing, and mailing costs.

What’s Missing from this Book?

The blessings of submitting books by email are so obvious that it’s hard to imagine a downside. But indeed there are drawbacks and unintended side effects of this technological shift, and we need to acknowledge them. For instance, Word for Windows (the format of choice for most authors) displays typographical and grammatical errors in the form of glaring red and green underlines on text pages. This can be a serious distraction for editors hoping for a “page-flipping” experience (as your pitch promised). Conditioned as they are to spot and correct errors in manuscripts, they may find their eyes lurching from one red or green flag to another, requiring them to stop reading and ponder some solecism beckoning for attention on their screen. Too many lurches could make a critical difference in the decision to buy or reject a book. (Although current models of the Sony Reader and Kindle don’t yet employ spell- and grammar-check features, it’s a good bet they eventually will.)

Of far greater significance is the vast difference between reading text printed on paper and text displayed on a screen. The visionary Marshall McLuhan made us aware of the different temperatures of various media, and though he originally described television as a cool medium, if he were alive today I think he would agree that our society has become conditioned to think of screens as hot compared to print media. Thanks to television, the Internet, video games and computers, we have come to expect color, interactivity, instant gratification and a complete immersion of the senses from our screens.

Is That All There Is?

Reading text on a screen without sound, color, or movement, one develops the uneasy feeling that something is missing. We wonder, Is that all there is? I’m not a psychologist but it seems more than likely that we are bringing to text viewed on screens the same expectations we bring to television, movie and computer screens. Indeed, something is missing! How can we not be disappointed - even, God help us, bored - when these blocks of words fail to stimulate the same intense response as a YouTube video? We are trying to extract a linear experience out of a nonlinear medium.

The fundamental appeal of books is their ability to transport us to the author’s world. The best books immerse us so deeply in that world that we become almost immune to distraction. But screens are breeders of distraction from the sort of commitment to thinking, reflecting, and imagining that books demand. Books are vehicles for ideas; one can set a book down and ruminate and process. Computer monitors, television sets, and e-book screens discourage reflection. Thinkers simply live in a different time zone from watchers.

It is not unreasonable to speculate that a lifetime of exposure (if not addiction) to media - indeed, to multimedia - may have compromised editors’ ability to judge books on their own merits. Rather it is tempting for editors to judge them in a context of entertaining audiovisual displays. As successive generations accustomed to being diverted by watching, rather than by reading, enter the editorial workforce, impatience with printed text is demonstrably increasing, as we can see in the sharp decline of newspapers and magazines. Books require a commitment of time and attention that we either don’t have or aren’t willing to give. The temptation to skip or skimp is strong. One editor confessed to me, “I tend to scan manuscripts on screen rather than read them the way I do a printed text.”

We must therefore ask ourselves whether instead of reading books on screen, we are watching them.

The Click of Fingernails on Keyboard

Agents pitching projects over the phone routinely hear in the background the click of fingernails on a keyboard. That’s the sound of the editor googling the author and surfing his or her website, amazon.com rankings, and BookScan sales figures. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if the editor’s first exposure to a book is on a screen, he or she may unconsciously rely on extrinsic factors when making acquisition decisions? If so, it places on authors and their agents the burden of making submissions more entertaining, and that is exactly what many are doing. To make sure that the editor’s first impression is a favorable one, a growing number of authors are enhancing submissions with such colorful embellishments as author photos and audio and video clips, websites festooned with hotlinks to amazon.com pages, sales spreadsheets, screen captures, review quotes, celebrity endorsements and other flourishes designed to stimulate editors’ audiovisual responses.

It never hurts for authors to be attractive and promotable, and no one in publishing is so na├»ve as to deny that publishing decisions are influenced by an author’s sex appeal, charm, showmanship, and other extrinsic factors. To utilize the mighty resources of the Internet in order to play up those factors is by no means deplorable as long we keep things in proportion. Which means that, ultimately, it’s all about the book. But as the publishing industry’s drift into the rapids of show business accelerates, we should not be surprised to see computerized pyrotechnics become significant if not decisive factors in the acquisition of books.

Nor will we be surprised to discover authors writing not to be read but to be watched.

Copyright © 2008 Richard Curtis. This article is an expansion of one that originally appeared in the summer 2008 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin under the title "Watched Any Good Books Lately?"

For an interesting piece about literacy and media, click on Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? by Mokoto Rich in the July 27, 2008
New York Times.


  1. I think Kindles and eReaders are fine. They are great for storing manuscripts. Lots of books in a small place.

    However, I'm not convinced they are a "green" solution. To equate the lack of paper making and tree harvesting as green may be too narrow of a view and is certainly one-sided...considering the petroleum-based plastics, corrosives cleaners, non-renewable metals, energy, etc needed to manufacture such devices.

    In the Journal of Biogeography, a paper The illusion of preservation, argues that more needs to be considered than just one side of the equation. Though they are talking about construction materials, the idea of creation of other products from wood applies:
    "Lumber is the least
    energy intensive construction material and its production
    releases significantly less carbon dioxide and toxic products
    than substitutes (Table 1). In addition, wood is renewable
    and forest growth may contribute to carbon sequestration,
    thereby yielding even greater trade-offs."

    By the way, according to the paper, "Pulp constitutes about 30% of US
    wood consumption."

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