Kindles Don’t Have Covers or The Return of the Penny Dreadful

You know what I like to read and I mean, you know what I really like to read?

More like Awesomov, am I right?

I like to read deep, thought provoking science fiction. The kind where you sit back every so often and think “Yeah, not only could such-and-such happen, but the author totally nailed the human condition and the human response if it did happen.” I love reading essays, especially short well written essays like the classics from Isaac Asimov (who, coincidentally, is also a science fiction author). I like to read Christopher Hitchens’ essays because they’re awesome and make me think. I like to read insightful scientific stuff by Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Greene. I love to read history, especially the history of science or the history of Japan. Scientists and/or samurais are pretty hard to beat.

And sometimes I like to read about people f**king.

I don’t mean the occasional romance story with cuddling, cooing, soft lighting and making love at midnight. I mean bodies slapping where the only thing missing is the bad disco soundtrack. I also, on occasion, pick up something bizarre. Something that’s not pornographic, but damn, the title alone is enough to twist one’s brain. For instance, there is a book titled The Driver’s Guide to Hitting Pedestrians. There’s another one called Ass Goblins of Auschwitz. Then there’s The Egg Said Nothing which sounds fairly sedate yet the cover would draw some interesting stares on the bus. (Especially from the more interesting people who may not actually be so interesting to you.)

There’s another really good book called Just Friends by Anne Thomas. It’s a romance novel about a guy who totally falls for, and has some marvelous sex with… another guy. While attitudes have changed towards homosexuality, I’m kind of a low key guy and don’t really need jerks approaching me and sermonizing about the “sinful literature” I’m reading.

Sometimes I do want a fairly standard romance novel that may or may not have hardcore sex. I’m a librarian, in order to properly serve my patrons I need to read any genre there is – at least that’s my cover story. I don’t want to deal with the crowd of people who’d frown on a dude reading Phantom Waltz nor do I particularly care to harmonize with those who might think it’s awesome. I’m reading, leave me alone.

All this brings me to my point, something I try to cram down my dear readers’ throats in the post title. Have you ever noticed that Kindles have no covers? (Neither do other eBook readers, but the words “Nook Tablets have no covers” just didn’t flow properly for me.) There’s a couple of things that are awesome about this development of coverless reading and you’ll see more and more of them, especially after people open their presents on Christmas.

This picture was worth several thousand words.

Since an eBook reader doesn’t have a cover, I can sit in a coffee shop, on a bus, kick back against a wall outside the library, or stand in line at the supermarket and read my book- and no one needs to know that I’m reading The Gentleman’s Guide to the Golden Age of Menage a Trois. (Sadly, not a real book.) This bit of increased anonymity means that one can enjoy their guilty reading no matter where they go or what they’re doing. Seriously, I’d say most of us have read a book that we want to keep reading, to take with us, but fear the bit of social ostracism that might occur if we go out with a book sporting a cover like you see on the right.

But did you notice something most of the books I linked? They’re all fairly inexpensive, even as far as Kindle books go. They’re especially inexpensive when you compare them to Kindle editions of the latest bestsellers. That makes them attractive for a lot of reasons. First, at those costs, they’re an impulse purchase. If I’m looking to read something fun, and you give me a list of fun books, I’ll look at many things and one of those things will be the price. I can buy SUPER AWESOME BESTSELLER for $14.99, or I can read this thing over here that looks interesting for $3.99. Heck, for $3.99 I can buy four things instead of just one. Even if they’re not the best writing in the world, nothing like a great American novel, they’re fun and they’re cheap and I can have more of them.

BEST TITLE EVER.

This isn’t a new business model at all. There used to be these things called “penny dreadfuls” which were the predecessors of the pulp magazines of the mid-twentieth century. They were cheap, sure. Of course the writing contained therein was one step above or below Highlights for Children. In some cases, they wrote stories about real people but the stories were full of lies, damn lies, and fabrications.

But by god they were entertaining.

Then, just like now, people would cock a sneer at you for reading such tripe, trashy “literature.” Many would, in the style of Capote, tell you that it’s not even writing, it’s merely typing. There’s truth to that, and as an ardent fan of Truman Capote, I agree and I love to read things like In Cold Blood.

I also love to read murder mysteries involving shabbily dressed alcoholic detectives who are as likely to throw up at a crime scene as they are to investigate it and, for some reason, they totally get the hot girl in the end. Oh and the victim? They died with clown makeup on their face and that face was wrapped up in a plastic bag.

Now that, my friends, is entertainment. And it’s cheap!

Patrons of our libraries are no different than any other readers except for the fact that it’s a safe bet that a regular library patron reads more than the average reader. They want those amazing, award winning novels and sometimes, they also want absolute trash. Trash in all its wonderful, fun, and entertaining glory. And now they can have it! They can have it easily! They can even check the stuff out without ever looking a librarian in the eye – a librarian, one who is an ultimate judge of literary character. (Well, we are, aren’t we?)

So let me ask you, will your library stock it? I’m not worried about collection development ethics and whether or not something is too filthy for your collection. I’m talking about a lot of collection development policies that basically run towards archaic ideas like “Well, if we wouldn’t put it on our shelves, we don’t want it in the eCollection.” Or “It doesn’t have a starred review in two major book review magazines and Publishers Weekly never even mentioned it.” Or my favourite “This looks like it’s self published, or published by some tiny, independent press. We don’t add that kind of stuff to the collection.”

Well, let me give you a (five) word(s) of advice. RETHINK YOUR COLLECTION DEVELOPMENT POLICIES. Libraries are finally accepting that the eBook revolution is upon us and, bucko, come this Christmas you’re going to see another massive explosion of interest in eBooks. There’s a complimentary revolution going on alongside this that has just as much to do with the soaring popularity in eBooks and you ignore it at your peril. Amazon and B&N both have made it incredibly easy to self publish and have your work displayed in a big online store. And before one discredits self publishing as vanity, let me hit you with one last fact before I get out of here:

This massive bestseller started out as a self-published book.

Oscar Wilde. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Christopher Paolini. Beatrix Potter. Louis L’Amour. James Redfield. Virginia Woolf. These are just a few of the famous authors you will most likely find on your library shelves. All of them writers, all of them self publishers. One of the founding fathers of the United States was a notoriously unabashed and completely unashamed self publisher – none other than Benjamin Franklin.

If you have a bias against cheap, self-published or independently books, especially if they happen to be eBooks, I advise you to get over it. Welcome to the new world of publishing and the new frontier in reading, which as the penny dreadful illustrates, isn’t so new after all.

2 comments

  1. I am also a librarian and a kindle user. Your comment about covers really hit me. I used to do a lot of my choosing from looking at the covers (not exclusively) and I also read a lot of stuff that I don’t want my (spouse, patrons, friends, neighbors, person next to me on plane) to see the covers. The kindle gives me that comfortable privacy. But I still need covers. So I still look at the books at the library or bookstore or book review magazines to see the covers before I download. And your comments about selection….whoa, been there , done that. Good luck getting that policy change.

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