How Digital Formats Are Changing Fiction Writing

Question: How do you feel about digital books? (- Question from GalleyCat editor Jason Boog)

Bret Easton Ellis: Everything is going to be digitized and that is just the way of the future.  And a lot of old school people in the business are complaining about it.  But I only see it... it can only be like a positive thing.  I mean, I know people already who are downloading books on the iPad and I have one myself.  I'm not downloading books on the iPad because I like holding books still because I'm old and I'm from the Empire, the old world. And I'm just used to reading books that way and I'm not yet, you know, moved into the iPad world.  But I did get an iPad because a friend of mine showed me his ipad and how he was reading books on it, and how he bought more books once he had the iPad than he had ever bought that last six month on Amazon or going to a bookstore. 

And also the idea of a book costing not $25 anymore but $10 means you're also wiping away a lot of the cost of making a book.  You know, the printing, the shipping, et cetera. And so the royalty rates for authors are shifting as well. So it's not as authors are necessarily going to lose money on their work in terms of people like buying to download them.  The royalty rate is actually going to be the same, if not more, because they're cutting out all those other costs.  So that can be a good thing as well.

But we've just got to see where it's going.  I think we're in a transitional moment in the publishing industry and a lot of people are very worried.  And they don't kind of get what's going to happen and I think they just need to like get with it a little bit more and not be so scared.

But I do think that there is a problem right now with people reading fiction.  We haven't gotten to that point where it looks so good on... though it does look really good on the iPad, though I don't think enough people know about this.  Where we... it looks so good digitally rendered that it's worth doing, you know, I think people are still a little nervous about that.

How much will digital formats change the way that books are written and conceived? (- Question via Facebook from Catherine Kustanczy)

Bret Easton Ellis:  I think people started writing differently once computers came into play.  I think people started writing differently.  I noticed a difference in books when people were writing books on computers and not composing them longhand and not doing them on typewriters.  But books seemed longer and they seemed more extravagant and decorative.  Once you can start doing footnotes in books, a la David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers, or whoever.  I mean... or I think of a book like "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski in terms of how it's designed, or his follow-up "Only Revolutions."

Yes, I saw a big difference in books by people my age because of the computer.  Now in terms of books becoming digitized I don't know.  I mean, if we're going to make yet... I mean, I guess the next step is when I was looking at my friend's iPad, and I was looking through a novel, there was a way to... if you wanted to find out something about a certain historical figure or the genesis of a certain word, you could like find that out while you're reading the text or you could remove that and not have that be part of your reading experience.  But you can have that and that might be another part or how we read books then. It just might be the next step in how we experience fiction. But I don't look at it as a negative thing.  I can't... you just sort of have to like, you know, move along with the culture and see where it goes.  It could end up being someplace very cool. 

And I think that's really exciting and, actually when I look at a lot of fiction now and how dreary a lot of it is—and also not only how dreary a lot of it is but also I think our collective impatience with fiction, like just holding a book that's just full of words about a made-up situation, made-up characters. I mean, I think we now live in a society where we want more of that, what you're talking about.  More of an interactive experience.  We want to see images.  We want to see a lot more of a lights show or something.  That makes sense to me and I think that can be incredibly exciting.  So once that really does start happening I don't know, that could even possibly reenergize my faith in fiction.

How much do you think the form of the novel is affected by the increasing amount of other media people consume?

Bret Easton Ellis: The novel's affected a huge amount by that, because of all these distractions.  Look, a lot of my friends—college educated, smart people, adults who used to read a lot of fiction—have admitted to me that technology has disrupted their patience with fiction.  There's so many other things going on that once... I mean, if none of this stuff was available to them, whether it's checking their Facebook page or reading articles online and then linking to the next article and the next article that they might be sitting down with a novel instead. 

I think this is... I think all the time that we spend with technology has definitely cut into the idea of that kind of active... the active act of reading a novel where you are sitting there and you're reading the book and you're creating the world in your mind. And it's really the ultimate virtual reality show with you reading a novel because you're in complete control of how the rooms look and how the characters look.  And I think that experience of being alone with a book has been in a way degraded by technology and its been... its just something that's happened.

Recorded June 23, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Digital books and iPads are certainly changing the way that people write, but so did computers when they first came out. You just have to move with the culture and "it could end up being someplace very cool."

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