Why and How A Novelist Didn’t Write a Kindle Single

01/12/2011 § 9 Comments

L.A. – based novelist Edan Lepucki just published a thoughtful takedown of electronic self-publishing, at The Millions. An excerpt:

The thought of Amazon being the only place to purchase my novel shivers my timbers. I don’t mind if someone else chooses to read my work electronically, just as I don’t mind if Amazon is one of the places to purchase my work; I’m simply wary of Amazon monopolizing the reading landscape. Self-publishing has certainly offered an alternative path for writers, but it’s naive to believe that a self-published author is “fighting the system” if that self-published book is produced and made available by a single monolithic corporation. In effect, they’ve rejected “The Big 6″ for “The Big 1.”

She’s also concerned that she may not be able to buy her own book (which her publisher sells both as a print edition and as a $5.00 ebook).

She’s right to worry. I can’t buy my latest story. I don’t have an eReader, and my 2007 Macbook tells me it needs its OS updated to support the Kindle Reader App.

The people I wrote about don’t have any idea what I said about them, either. This is a first in my career. I’ve always sent copies of books or articles to the people who share their stories with me. To do that will require more creativity now. My latest story is a dispatch from Libya. The characters, who are real people, read in Arabic.

So it was dismaying when my friend Mohamed ElGohary, an Egyptian journalist, informed me a few days ago that the Kindle screen does not yet support Arabic. (Some models can display PDFs in Arabic. They process the words as images, not as text, constraining usability.)

That’s not just a problem of courtesy for me. It’s also a business handicap. A key question implied by direct digital publishing is the fate of international copyright. Copyright used to end at the water’s edge. Selling publishing rights in other languages was a key business for legacy publishers and a source of income — often considerable — for authors.

That’s not the case for my Kindle Single. I can sell it to whomever can connect to Amazon.com’s Single’s page, and Amazon is expanding throughout the world.

It’s a technical issue, but how fast Kindle supports different alphabets could influence how I distribute long-form dispatches in the future. If hardware support defines this kind of journalism’s expansion more than market support does, an international reporter will be in a bind.

That bind is different for a novelist like Edan Lepucky than it is for a reporter like me. I know that the Arab Spring is an important story. I know too that Arabic speakers are one of the fastest-growing user communities on the internet, and that Arabic readers are enthusiastic customers for electronic devices. And I know, most importantly, that my story takes place in Libya. Social networking is wildly popular in the MENA (“Middle East-North Africa”) region. And Arabic has one of the world’s richest literary traditions. People in the Middle East will absolutely be online buying, talking about, and debating literature, and the biggest story of the year happened in their backyard (and in Libya, the front yard).  I suspect I could find readers in the MENA region to justify the $1000 or so it would cost me to translate my story into Arabic, that part of the world’s lingua franca.

The non-business issue is tied to the business issue. I can’t sell to the people whose lives I’m writing about; for a journalist, this brings up questions of what kind of conversation I’m hoping to provoke. I’m not, in theory, an anthropologist, doing my fieldwork and then carrying that back to another land to discuss with my own people. I’m seeking to occupy a lacuna in an emerging global narrative. The Shores of Tripoli is the result of a baton pass, from the journalists who wrote other, previous stories about the Arab Spring. Then I get my turn. Then I pass to, say, Mohamed ElGohari. And then he passes to the next, who may well be Japanese or Spanish. That is how we understand current events today, I suspect. In aggregate.

But the hardware has to support that narrative chain, or it breaks, and can be pretty taxing to repair. And the Arab world is a huge link this year.

So while I’m still confident I did the right thing bringing The Shores of Tripoli to Amazon and not a traditional magazine, Lepucky’s comments were provocative. Paper reliably accepts ink in whatever shapes one prefers.

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§ 9 Responses to Why and How A Novelist Didn’t Write a Kindle Single

  • There are developments in the way. I’m a poet/ author working with a group on multi language interactive narrative softwear. The computer genius’ tell me diacritics, embedding of arabic chinese and hindi and using a romanization table to create pdfs are to be things of the past. Soon my friend you will be able to translate and publish across all.
    Copyright, now that’s a different problem we may be in the same sunk tug boat as musicians. For me I see live performance… another story

    • marcherman says:

      Thanks Caroline. Apparently students in the middle east use a program that can convert PDFs to Kindle or other eReader documents, to access hard-to-find textbooks. Clearly this is a matter of time, not will. And not much time.

      Regarding performance, I can play a limited amount of banjo. I dance poorly.

  • […] Lepucki, who writes for a magazine called The Millions and is also an author, says while she sees the benefits of self-publishing — the freedom from a traditional book contract, the ability to control the way the book is marketed, that self-publishers typically keep a larger share of the proceeds, and so on — she has decided not to self-publish her first book. In an earlier essay, Lepucki wrote about how she had given up trying to market her work to publishers, but despite a number of authors describing how easy self-publishing is, she says she has decided to continue pursuing a traditional book deal (others have come to different conclusions: despite misgivings about the tradeoffs, Marc Herman says he decided to publish his journalism about the Middle East as a Kindle Single instead of as a tradition…). […]

  • egbutter says:

    Amazon may have little competition now, but that will change with time. The _technology drastically lowers the barrier to entry for self-publishers: printing and binding your own book feels antideluvian now that we can upload books onto the cloud for a couple bucks. Congratulations on a great Kindle Single. :)

  • marcherman says:

    Thanks, Eric. I’m still a romantic about the antedeluvian stuff, but it’s true, there’s a huge appeal to making things more accessible and easier. Aspects of the technology do create problems of the catching-a-tiger-by-the-tail variety. But boring it’s not.

    Thanks again for chiming in.

  • […] a recent blog post, Herman wrote about why he decided to publish a Kindle Single instead of a traditional book — a post that was in response to an essay by author Edan […]

  • […] a recent blog post, Herman wrote about why he decided to publish a Kindle Single instead of a traditional book — a post that was in response to an essay by author Edan Lepucki, […]

  • […] a recent blog post, Herman wrote about why he decided to publish a Kindle Single instead of a traditional book — a post that was in response to an essay by author Edan Lepucki, […]

  • […] a recent blog post, Herman wrote about why he decided to publish a Kindle Single instead of a traditional book — a post that was in response to an essay by author Edan Lepucki, […]

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