Stephen King has the wrong villain – it’s not the ebook

Stephen King's Joyland
Stephen King’s Joyland. (Photo: Hard Case Crime; Rex Features)

From Thursday’s Daily Telegraph:

What have you got against ebooks, Stephen King? Or, rather more interestingly, what terrible, frightening thing happened in the past 13 years which has turned you against them?

Mr King, the great horror (among other things) writer, has taken some time out from instilling a lifelong fear of clowns in his readers, to instead shock them out of their affection for the electronic book-reading device. He announced that his new book, Joyland, will only be released in print: “I have no plans for a digital version… let people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore, rather than a digital one.”

This is a startling plot twist even by the King’s standards. In 2000, he sent chills down publishers’ spines by releasing his novel The Plant on his own website, free to download with a voluntary payment of $1. Later that year, he wrote a novella, Riding the Bullet, which became the first book by a mainstream writer to be published solely as an ebook; it raked in 500,000 sales at $2.50 a pop within the first 24 hours.

But now his love affair with electronic publishing has come to an end; he has decided to make a stand, to save the bookshop from the apocalyptic digital plague that is stalking the land. Unfortunately, for him and for bookshops, it won’t work.

It’s not the ebook that’s killing high-street bookstores one by one, like a vampire in a small Midwestern town. Borders closed in 2009, barely two years after the first Amazon Kindle came out and long before they became mainstream (the store’s American parent staggered on for two more years).

The number of independent UK booksellers has dropped every year for the last seven. The bookselling industry has been in trouble for a long time.

No: the problem isn’t ebooks. They’re just the malevolent familiars of two dark and ancient gods: the internet, and big business. People have been buying more and more of their reading material from Amazon and other online retailers, and less and less from small shops; before that, they were buying from Waterstones or W H Smith or some other high-street chain.

So, if Mr King really wants to fight back against the evil, to pour a metaphorical bucket of pig’s blood over the head of the telekinetic prom queen – sorry, I’m running out of King references here – he’s not going far enough. If he wants people to “stir their sticks” and get down the bookshop, he should ban his latest from being sold online at all.

In fact, he should insist that it’s only sold at independent booksellers: preferably dusty ones that smell of leather, run by kindly old men, with wooden shelves and ancient first editions and a bell that rings when you open the door.

It still won’t work, though. It won’t work because big bookshops have more choice, and buying online is far cheaper and more convenient and has even greater choice, and ebooks let you take a whole reading list on holiday without weighing your luggage down with half a hundredweight of paper.

Mr King is a rare thing: a genuinely gifted writer who can also sell tens of millions of copies; a workaholic genius; by all accounts a decent guy. And he’s obviously no kneejerk luddite, clinging pathetically to a lost world. But if he tries to hold the book-buying public captive, perhaps chopping its foot off like a crazed fan keeping her favourite author in the basement, it will escape.

The internet/ebook revolution has had its casualties, the lovely old bookshop being one of the most obvious ones. But it has its advantages, too, and in the eyes of the public the benefits seem to outweigh the costs, just as they did for the spinning jenny or the horseless carriage.  I’m afraid, Mr King, that even the author of The Running Man can’t outrun the future.

Read more by Tom Chivers on Telegraph Blogs
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