Critical Mass

Adventures in E-Reading: Guest Post from Roxana Robinson

By Roxana Robinson

Over the next month or so we're going to be offering a new series of guest posts (read the first series,”The Next Decade in Book Culture here). Our question: How are you handling the rise of the e-book? Are you reading on Kindle, the Sony Reader, the Vook, have you reserved an iPad?  Are you buying e-books? Reading e-galleys? And how's it working out for you? Let us know your quibbles, quirks, happy and not so happy adventures in e-reading. This post is from NBCC member Roxana Robinson, critic, novelist and short story writer. (Her novel Cost has been longlisted for the 2010 Dublin Impac award.)

Inadvertently, I’ve taken a plunge into the rising tide of e-publishing: A story of mine, called “This Is America,” is about to appear in The Atlantic on Kindle.


I’m an agnostic on Kindle. I don’t own one. I like actual books, and I don’t want to worry if I drop one in the bath, or leave it on a plane. But if other people love the Kindle, I’m all for it. Generally, I support whatever encourages reading.


Here’s how The Atlantic on Kindle works: for eighteen months, the story will be available exclusively on Kindle, as a stand-alone electronic text. During that time it won’t be available in print, or anywhere else. When my sister (who doesn’t own a Kindle) asked how she could read it, I realised that she can’t. No one without a Kindle (or a Kindle app on an IPhone or a PC) can read it. For a year and a half it will be surrounded by a cyberwall. This exclusionism seems strange in a world where we’ve become accustomed to everything being available, all the time, for free.


But the stories are not free, this is the new e-commerce, and one of the great things about this project is that it makes very clear that online content has financial value. This is good news for the writers and good news for The Atlantic. Amazon’s great strength is in marketing, and it’s proving itself to be a robust and enthusiastic partner here. It sends e-blasts to customers who’ve bought work in the past by these writers, notifying readers directly of the new work. This is smart marketing strategy, and one not available to print publishers. So there are a lot of benefits: the venture allows The Atlantic to offer more stories to the reading public, paying the writers solid fees, and taking advantage of the new evolving electronic landscape.


There are critics, of course. The Atlantic has been accused of setting the price too high, based on the fear that the price will undermine the ecomomic success of the project. The price isn’t actually very high – it’s $3.99, about the cost of a grande latte. Not a lot of money for someone who already owns an expensive electronic device for reading.  The same critic declares that“unbundling” the story from the magazine is bad,  because it might lead to dropping prices. (So, should the price have been even higher to start with?)

The fact is that we don’t know how all this will work.


In the meantime, it’s exciting to be in the vanguard, part of the long, national, electronic experiment. Will e-readers buy short stories as separate items, the way e-listeners download tunes? In England a venture called SpokenInk   offers audio versions of literary short stories, read by actors, for a modest fee. Will literary readers take to these new forms? Who can say?

In the time of Homer, there were no books to carry around, and no way to choose your own time to listen to stories. You got your literary fix whenever a poet sat down on a stone bench and began declaiming. Everyone was used to it. Probably there were outcries when someone came up with the idea of writing down what he said. We’ve adjusted to the new media – writing, Gutenburg, qwertiop – we just don’t know what will happen next.


So here I am, bobbing in the foam. As I said, it was inadvertent. I didn’t submit the story to The Atlantic on Kindle. What happened was this: I was at MacDowell, the artists’ colony in New Hampshire. In the evenings, the residents there give presentations of  their work to each other. One night I read a new story to the group sitting around the fireplace. Among them was an editor from The Atlantic, and the next morning I received an email, asking if the story was available for the Kindle project. I would never say no to The Atlantic, and so here I am, enjoying the turbulence, tossed by the current, and waiting to see what happens next.