When I wrote my first novel, Burning Embers, there was no such thing as an ebook. My dream was simply to see the book in print; to hold the novel in my hands. By the time I came to publish Burning Embers, however, the digital revolution was in full swing. My publisher informed me that the novel would be simultaneously published in print and ebook formats.
I recall feeling overjoyed about the print version, but having to consider more carefully the ebook one. I am a bibliophile; I love books. Actual books on the shelf – objects of beauty. At the time, I did not have an ereader, and the idea of my book being virtual was a little strange. Would readers experience the story in the same way through an ebook, I wondered? Would the book be somehow ‘less’ in the digital format?
Still, despite my worries it was evident to me that many, many readers were downloading ebooks, particularly in the romance genre. And ultimately, what mattered most was that readers could access my fiction.
All these years later, all of my novels are available as ebooks, and the response has been wonderful. People read my books in both ebook and print versions, and I haven’t encountered any diminishment of the experience for the ebook readers. In fact, only recently a reader told me how they had bought my novel Concerto as an ebook and devoured it that day, which was made possible by their ability to enlarge the font size, for they are sight-impaired – like the hero of Concerto, Umberto.
Accessibility is a huge benefit of ebooks. In fact, it is for that reason that a work of classic literature that has only been available in print until now has become available as an ebook.
The Catcher in the Rye (1951) is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels. Following its publication, it became something of a sensation, not only for the power of the writing but also because the themes and language provoked controversy. The author, J. D. Salinger, was uncomfortable with all the publicity and he became reclusive, to the point that in 1992 The New York Times commented that ‘Mr. Salinger is almost equally famous for having elevated privacy to an art form’.
Such a private writer held his novels very close to him: he would not sell the film rights, even to Stephen Spielberg; he would not sell the audio rights; he would absolutely not sell the ebook rights because, his son explained to the media, he ‘hated the internet’. In his lifetime, Salinger permitted print publication of his novels, but nothing else.
Following his death in 2010, control of Salinger’s literary legacy passed to his son, who has now decided to allow the publication of The Catcher in the Rye and Salinger’s other novels as ebooks. The reason comes down to accessibility. While Salinger was a bibliophile and was left cold by digital publishing, he was also passionate about his books being available to everyone – which was why he insisted on keeping cheap paperback versions of his books in print. But not everyone can read a paperback.
Salinger’s son received a letter from a lady with a disability who could only read on an ereader; she wanted to read The Catcher in the Rye, but was unable to do so. This prompted Salinger’s son to think: ‘Would [my father] prefer and encourage readers to stick with the printed books? Absolutely. But not exclusively if it means some not being able to read him at all.’ [Source] And so, The Catcher in the Rye, along with three other Salinger novels, is now available from Penguin as an ebook.
I have no doubt that this brave move by Salinger’s son will open up the novel to new readers. And it is a brave move. There is something a little difficult about sharing a book as a digital file, something a little less soulful. Perhaps in the coming years this discomfort will ease. In some ways I hope it does not, because then we will always be led back to physical books as the ultimate books; those are what we will treasure.