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Publishers Still Don't Understand What Douglas Adams Knew About Ebooks in 1979

Posted: 5/04/2012 00:00

In his introduction to the 2009 edition of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies praises the tattered old paperback copy of Douglas Adams' sci-fi classic that he carried around in his back pocket in his school days. I had one too and I loved it just as much.

Davies ends his introduction with, "Maybe ebooks are going to take over one day, but not until those wizzkids in Silicon Valley invent a way to bend the corners, fold the spine, yellow the pages, add a coffee ring or two and allow the plastic tablet to fall open at a favourite page."

There are two ironies at work here. First, I read that introduction on the ebook version on my Kindle, which the publisher digitised straight from the print version of the book without a second thought. And second, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the book that Adams' book is about, is an ebook. Here is how Adams describes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "...a device which looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press-buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million 'pages' could be summoned at a moment's notice."

He has just described my Kindle.

At the moment publishers are quickly churning out ebook versions of the mainstays of their print backlists. But more often than not they are doing so without giving a moment's thought to making even the simplest of changes to the printed book. So we end up with an introduction to an ebook that sings the praises of paperbacks or ebook cover images taken straight from printed books that boast of illustrations - when the illustrations have been stripped from the ebook editions.

Publishers need to pause for a moment to consider how they can match the book to the medium. I bet that Russell T Davies would have relished the opportunity to write a new introduction to the ebook version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I am genuinely am interested to know if he has changed his mind, like I have, in the last three years.

Does he have an ebook reader these days? Does he now think that a paperback book about an electronic book seems a bit peculiar? Hardback editions of books often have different covers to paperbacks, reflecting the fact that hardback buyers and paperback buyers have different marketing profiles. Now that ebooks are outselling hardbacks shouldn't they get the same attention from publishers?

Certainly Douglas Adams was a pioneer of computerised content including game versions of THG2TG, so my guess is that he would have been pushing forward the boundaries of book technology - a fact that should play to his publishers' strengths. By and large publishers are creative people. Creativity is what they do well and enjoy. And with creative publishers technology can be used in ways that expand traditionally printed books. The app version of Stephen Fry's Chronicles, My Fry, was a great example of this. Recognising that it was a book for dipping in and out of, Penguin Books created an electronic version that emphasised the index so that readers could move about the book in a non-linear, topic based way.

So, with all that technology has to offer now, why am I reading a science-fiction novel about an electronic book in an electronic format that pretends to be a paperback?

 

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