Ebooks have changed the way I read — my books are always at my fingertips and to someone who has spent decades taking public transport everywhere and travelled overseas a great deal, they’ve made life so much easier. In the grand scheme of things, it seems like a minor thing to mention, but more than anything else, they tend to make want to read more because they’re so easy to have them with me.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m for anything that makes people read more — whether it’s a traditional book or an ebook, the form doesn’t matter. That someone is picking up a book and reading does.
The constant argument around ebooks and their effect on readers and publishing was at the back of my mind when I saw an article about Peter James’ Host, his 1993 novel, going on display in the Science Museum as the world’s first electronic novel.
The book was published by Penguin as all books were, in the traditional way — see the first edition cover below — and is the story of a computer scientist who believes he can cheat death by downloading his brain into a computer and freezing his body.
It seems tailor-made to usher in a futuristic age of reading, doesn’t it? In between working on his most recent Roy Grace novel, Peter James kindly answered some questions for me about that time in his career.
When you were presented with the chance to publish Host on floppy disks, what was your first thought?
I loved the idea! I’ve always been fascinated by new technology and with the rise in the popularity in desktop computers and laptops I could see that there would be a time when people would read books quite normally on screens.
The biggest concern was the greater instability of computers back in 1993/1994. I felt it would be extremely irritating for people to try to read a book that constantly crashed. I had no idea of the venomous backlash the publishing of Host on a floppy disk would create among the world press and among some of the older generation of authors. In part, it was the enthusiasm of my publishers, Penguin, who made the decision to go ahead within 4 hours of my suggesting the idea to them, but also it was the fact that I do so much research for my novels (and in particular for that novel), that I felt the electronic version gave my readers the opportunity to interact and to click and see actual photographs of places I’d visited on my research and the whole detailed background to my research.
I’ve read various articles of the aftermath of the publication of Host – what was that time like for you as an author? Did you ever just shake your head and wonder what you’d got yourself into?
I’ve always enjoyed being adversarial and when the massive backlash happened I found myself defending the whole concept of the digital novel vigorously. I was front-page news of many newspapers around the world, accused of killing the novel. I pointed out that the novel was already dying at an alarming rate without my assistance. One staggering statistic was that here in the UK 90% of boys between the ages of 12 and 16 had never read a book and many gave the reason that they thought books were old fashioned. I thought, maybe if an exciting new platform to read on was available, and seen as cool that might encourage more kids to read.
Now, given the rise of ebooks, is ebooks everything you imagined?
I was a keynote speaker at a conference in LA in 1995 on the future of the novel, and I said that ebooks would become popular when they became as nice to read as the printed page and more convenient – I think we are pretty much there now.
There two important things to consider; the first is that whilst ebooks are currently taking around 50% of all book sales, that other 50%, I believe, is here to stay. There are a lot of people, like myself, who still prefer to read a printed book, even though I own a Kindle. There are also many people who will buy an ebook to read, but will buy a printed version for their bookshelves because they collect an author’s work. The other point is that most of the bookshops that are succeeding today are the ones that have embraced the ebook, and are finding ways of selling both the hardware and the content. I don’t think we can blame solely ebooks for the tragic demise of so many independent bookshops. There are factors in the UK, such as the end of retail price maintenance for books, resulting in massive discounting of all popular titles by supermarkets and online booksellers, so now the independent bookstores struggle to compete with them.
Ebooks have given rise to a wealth of self-published authors – good and bad, or perhaps the bad tends to get more press than the good, so self-publishing tends to have a bad reputation. But, I think it’s changed the book industry in that respect, for the good, I think – do you agree? Did you ever think self-publishing would be as easily available or a possibility when Host was published?
Self-publishing used to be called ‘vanity’ publishing, where, if an author was unable to get a publishing deal they would pay anything between £5-10K to a vanity publishing house. Very occasionally – maybe once in every few years – a vanity published author would go on to have a huge commercial success after being picked up by a huge mainstream publisher. Now with ebooks, any budding author can publish their work electronically for a modest outlay, and certainly there are a higher number of self-published authors today getting mainstream publishing deals. So one could argue that the ebook has freed many new would-be authors from the agony of the publisher’s rejection slip.
How have readers changed since you first started writing? Have they changed? Or have your fans stayed steady?
I think the principal change is the engagement now through social media. I am loving the almost instant interaction between them, finding out their likes and dislikes, and even engaging them in research help. Through Facebook, Twitter and email I am able to put names, and sometimes faces, to my readers and I love that – and I think they enjoy having contact with authors who were once virtually anonymous to them.
You often go out with police while researching your Roy Grace novels – what has that experience been like for you? How have the cops you’ve worked with received your books?
I have always been a stickler for research, and once of the best complements I have had – and I’ve had it many times from different police offices from UK, Australia, and many parts of the world – is that ‘Peter James is the author who gets it right’. I think that the police, like everyone else doing a job that they are passionate about, like to see it portrayed accurately, which is what I strive to do. I know that is why I get so much cooperation from them. In addition, I find their world utterly fascinating. From the point of view of a writer, interested in writing about the world we live in, nobody sees more of human life in the course of his or her career than a police officer.
You’ve written books in the crime genre and with supernatural elements – those are on two opposite ends of the genre spectrum I think – what drew you to the genres? Do you find you’re different as a writer working on two different genres like this? If so, in what respect?
I’ve always had an interest in the supernatural. Many years ago the son of some friends of mine was tragically killed in a car accident, and they began going to mediums, this is when I came up with an idea for a supernatural thriller called Possession. In the early days of my research I was burgled and became friends with the young detective who came to take fingerprints. Through him I started to meet other police officers and I found them and their work totally captivating. I have always loved the detective and crime thriller genre and when I was 14 I read Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock – a crime thriller set in my home town of Brighton, and ever since I’ve wanted to write a crime novel also set in Brighton. The inspiration came through conversations and spending time with police officers way back in the early 1980s. There is some overlap between the supernatural and crime in my novels, in that Roy Grace has an interest himself, resulting from a childhood experience, and Roy has even consulted mediums in his search for his long missing wife sandy.
Do you think writers are born? Was it like that for you?
I think writers are born with a deep-rooted desire to write. I don’t think that it is possible to teach someone from scratch how to write a novel. You can help someone who has talent but there is an innate aptitude in all successful writers. A massively important part of that is to believe in yourself if you think you have it, and not take rejection as the end of the road. Like many budding writers, my first novels were turned down by pretty much every publisher here in the UK, and in the United States, before I got my big break. In fact, it took me 23 years from the time I wrote my first novel to the point where I was able to make a living out of writing novels.