You’ll ruin your eyes!

There’s a lot of discussion around the web on the issue of e-publishing and its role in the romance industry. I feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and if you have not become overwhelmed yet and are interested in future trends of the publishing business and literacy, start here.

So I thought I’d talk about the issue of living in an age of rapidly-changing technology with mind-boggling choices of receiving and disseminating information and finding entertainment. I’m talking, of course, about the Regency.

Georgian England was known for its high literacy level. There was an audience for reading and paper prices dropped at the end of the eighteenth century; at a guess, it’s because the amount of cotton manufacturing rose, and in an era where everything had its price, there were more rags around to convert into paper. By 1800, every town had its own printing press and there were 250 periodicals in print. Periodicals and newspapers were handed on to other readers an average of seven times per copy.

The first circulating library opened in Bath in 1725; this specifically English phenomenon for the well-heeled, with membership costing about 1 gn., had expanded by 1800 to 122 circulating libraries in London, and 268 in the provinces.Libraries accounted for 400 copies of a book’s average print run of 1,000.

To give an idea of the print life of a best seller of the Georgian era, this book (probably not in the genteel circulating libraries) was first published as a pamphlet between 1710 and 1716, and was in its fourth edition by 1718. Between 1718 and 1788, it had gone through eighteen editions, with the eighth and ninth printings selling more than 12,000 copies in a few months. Each edition grew, with additional salacious material: testimonials, requests for advice, and the author’s response to print rivals and attacks. The fourth edition contained 88 pages; the 15th edition (1730) had quadrupled in size.

This evolving conversation in print clearly struck a chord with the eighteenth-century reading public, an audience that both delighted in the moral instruction and refinement available in The Tatler and The Spectator and made sexy or scandalous fiction like Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis (1709) and Love in Excess by Eliza Haywood (1719) early best-sellers–and that continued to read Onania long after popular tastes in fiction changed to favor more refined novels like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1) and Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751). The early eighteenth-century reading audience was one that seemed eager to both read and write back to the literary marketplace, to both absorb and influence the products that marketplace had to offer them. Read more here.

Of course, fiction was suspect from the beginning. It encouraged its audience, predominantly female, to lounge around and daydream, beguiled by narrative seduction. If you weren’t careful, your womenfolk’s experiences might end up as anonymous contributors to the next edition of the bestseller of the 1700s; in 1792, Bon Ton Magazine warned that readers of novels really couldn’t distinguish between reality and fantasy: women of little experience are apt to mistake the urgency of bodily wants with the violence of a delicate passion.

Oliver Goldsmith commented in similar vein: How delusive, how destructive, are those pictures of consummate bliss. They teach the youthful mind to sigh after beauty and happiness which never existed, that despise that little good which fortune has mixed up in our cup, by expecting more than she ever gave.

In 1773, The Lady’s Magazine agonized, There is scarce a young lady in the kingdom who has not read with avidity a great number of romances and novels, which tend to vitiate the taste.

A fictional mother in The Lady’s Monthly Museum complained that her daughter reads nothing in the world but novels—nothing but novels, Madam, from morning to night… The maid is generally dispatched to the library two or three times in the day, to change books. One week she will read in the following order: Excessive Sensibility, Refined Delicacy, Disinterested Love, Sentimental Beauty, etc.

It’s particularly appropriate that we discuss the issues of mass literacy and mass market fiction today, because it’s the birthday of George Orwell, one of my literary heroes, a passionate, clear-sighted defender of clarity and good language use. So I’m ending this long and rambling post with Orwell’s six rules for good writing from his essay Politics and the English Language:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Many questions possible here–do you think, as I do, that we’re a reading audience, to borrow from my quote above, that is eager to both read and write back to the literary marketplace, to both absorb and influence the products that marketplace had to offer them?

If you’re a writer, what do you think of Orwell’s rules?

Do you own an e-reader? How do you feel about it? Do you prefer it to tree products? What do you think of print vs. digital?

Obligatory SSP: Contest on my site. Enter now!

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Jane Austen
13 years ago

I’m a librarian and I was completely against e-book readers. I thought they were the end of everything as we know it. They were horrible and I wanted to have my own version of the Boston Tea Party only with e-readers.

Then I thought about it. I am a librarian and as a librarian I need to have a handle on the publishing world as well as technology. I checked out e-readers and after careful research asked my parents if they would buy me a Kindle for Christmas. They agreed.

While I was waiting for my Kindle, it was back ordered until March, the Kindle 2 came out and Amazon kindly upgraded my order to a Kindle 2 free of charge. A week later my Kindle came.

I LOVE it. Seriously, his name is Dmitri and we’re planning a small, but elegant marriage ceremony at St. Peter’s Church in Carmarthen, Wales to which you are all invited.

The other day I went to read a printed book and I hated it. I was surprised at how quickly I became a Kindle snob. The book was heavier and I needed to hands to operate it and the pages were stiff and I will not break spines. That is stuff of nightmares for me.

Are there things I don’t like about my Kindle? Sure. I wish I could flag books that I have already read. Mark them in a way just so I know. I own a lot of books by the same authors and sometimes it’s hard to remember which one you were reading. This is especially true with the late great Edith Layton’s C series…I never remember which C I’m on.

But for the most part I’m happy. And I still buy print books. I’m fascinated by art theft and read everything I can about it fiction and non-fiction. The non-fiction normally have beautiful color prints which don’t show up in color on my Kindle. So I buy the print copy and stare lovingly at art that only has an 11% chance of coming back to us.

I think librarians need to embrace e-readers and not fear them. They will not end the lending library and in fact they can really help some of our clients. The baby boomers are starting to become senior citizens and their eyes aren’t quite what they used to be. I had this one Latin teacher who was an amazing teacher. She is now retired, but she and her husband read out loud to each other, which I think is totally adorable. The only problem is she has macular degeneration and is slowly going blind. When I got my Kindle I called her right away and went to her house to show it to her. The font size can become really big and it reads to you. She cried and had her husband order her one while I was still at the house. It felt great to be able to help her like that. Most books that come in large print are the popular ones and I’ve always been a girl to read outside the lines of popularity. Now any book can become a large print book without the hiked up price.

They may not be for everyone and I don’t care if you hate them or if you love. I do, however, care that you read no matter how you do it or what you read.

Megan Frampton
13 years ago

I wish I had an e-reader, but haven’t gotten there yet. Soon, I think, esp. since my b-day is in August.

As for Orwell, excellent advice. I break his rules, but still, excellent advice.

Thanks for the informative topic, Janet.

13 years ago

I do prefer books that I can hold in my hand to read, I do have a few e-books downloaded onto my PC but I prefer to read in the compfort of my recliner or in bed and seeing as how I don’t have an e-book reader I stick to paper books.

I have seen a couple of the e-book readers and they seem very easy to handle but I do love also to see the books on my bookshelf there is nothing better for me.

Have Fun

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

I tried out Diane’s Kindle on the bus ride last month, and now I want one of my own! It would be wonderful for travel and carrying to work for breaks. But I still want my paper books for research (I tend to underline and put in sticky notes, which makes it all much easier to find the info when I need it), and also for reading in bed and curled up by the fire. (if I took a Kindle to the beach, would I have to worry about it getting wet???)

And LOL on the old quotes about how reading romantic novels will give women Unrealistic Expectations since we are plainly too stupid to tell the difference between fiction and reality. Not much has changed 🙂

Ms. Lucy
13 years ago

I think that I’m slowly getting geared towards kindle…but I just love books, especially old ones, the paper, the scent, everything so..

As for George’s rules- I think they still stand for me. Thanks:)

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Love George’s rules! Almost as much as I love printed books. I hate the idea of killing trees, but I know we are close to creating a synthetic paper that will eliminate the need for tree carnage. I love the feel of a book in my hand and even though my eyes are NOT what they used to be I just love to see the words on the page. I have a number of really old research books and there is just something magical about opening them and seeing those words over and over again. My favorite smell in the world is that of an old library full of even older research books.

Not to mention that I am a complete techno IDIOT!! It took me forever to learn to operate my cell phone!

Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Hi, Ms Lucy. Nice to see a new face here.

Jane Austen, I’m with you. I LOVE my Kindle. Amanda can tell you, my husband and I have almost every gadget known to man, so we have that gizmo mindset, but I love my Kindle even more than I thought I would.

One feature I love is the ability to sample a book. Kindle will send a chapter or so, and I can decide if it is what I want or not.

I totally understand the love of print books, the feel of them, the smell, turning pages, but I think this is because our memories of wonderful stories are associated with print books. This is not going to be the case with the generations who follow us. Kids have grown up with hand-held devices = gameboys, cell phones, etc. Their relationship with print books will be different.

I get annoyed now when a book I want doesn’t come in Kindle format!

What I do worry about is, what happens to electronic books 100 years from now. Will all this information, literature, genre fiction be lost because the devices no longer exist to read them? (think BETA tapes and floppy disks). We know so much about the Regency because of the books and magazines that survived.

I think RWA has always tried to do its best about decisions like how to accomodate epublished authors and epublishers. But RWA are just people like us. They might not get it totally right, but they(we) try to.

13 years ago

I was sure I wouldn’t like reading books on a tiny screen. But then I got an iPhone and since the Stanza app was free, I figured what the heck.

The world changed under my feet. I was astonished to discover that even with the small screen and my aging eyes, I liked reading on the iPhone. And then Meljean Brook sent me a word doc of Demon Bound and it was ridiculously easy to get that into Stanza and read it. Oh my gosh.

Then Amazon released the Kindle App for the iPhone and the world changed again.

I can have a book on my phone about 10 seconds after I click buy. Instead of waiting because I don’t want to buy the expensive hard cover version of a book, I pay $10 for the Kindle version and then I buy the paper one when it comes out. I did this with the Sookie Stackhouse books.

I’ve downloaded a number of free books that got me hooked on the author, starting with Charlaine Harris. The first Sookie book was a free download…

As for the RWA hooha, I think they’re right to be cautious. But they’re wrong about other issues. I need to do some more thinking before I say any more. Emotions are running too high for a really productive dialogue just now.

But at least RWA is having the discussion. I don’t see other writer’s orgs having the discussion at all.

Delle Jacobs
13 years ago

I first encountered Orwell’s rules when I was in college- or they could have been my English professor’s rules but were pretty much the same. Since I’ve always loved long, extravagant, elegant words, and ‘d been raised to be an intellectual, I felt a bit offended. It took a long time for me to realize there’s a lot of difference between writing a great story well and showing off how much I know.

Yes I own an e-reader, and I’d rather buy the digital version than the print one of any book. But I still prefer reading on my laptop or even better, my mini laptop, which slips right into my purse and has a bright color screen and a 6 hour battery. It was marvelous on my trip to Hawaii for both reading ebooks and editing my manuscript.