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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Edith and the Ebook — A Blog in the form of an Op-Ed, runs a bit long

This week we celebrate Edith Wharton’s 150th anniversary – and last week Apple launched its new enhanced book authoring tool. What do these two have in common? An opportunity and a warning.
When Edith began writing, literary print publishing in America still used a model familiar to everyone who has read Dickens – serialization in magazines, followed by publication in a bound book. An author, then, had two editors – the magazine gatekeeper who got her into print and out to the public, and the maestro of the book. Edith was talented, rich, distracted, eager to be a big success, and determined to maintain her privacy and her round of world travel. When a collection of her Scribner’s Magazine short stories did not sell well, she blasted her print editor, the august literary and art critic William Crary Brownell. Brownell wrote back the most firm and direct letter she ever received from an editor – telling her that there were only two paths to popularity – give readers what they want, Westerns and the like – or write something great. Her response was House of Mirth.
Brownell wrote as a market-savvy publisher, a psychologist who knew his author’s true talent and ambition, and an astute critic who understood what it took to create exceptional art. We all are the beneficiaries.
Brownell continued to edit a series of Wharton books, both fiction and nonfiction. He also worked on Westerns, and helped to train his successor, the famous Maxwell Perkins who performed similar service to a galaxy of great writers from Fitzgerald and Hemingway to Margery Keenan Rawlings and Thomas Wolfe. Though the mass circulation magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, replaced the publisher owned journals, the blend of serial and book remained relatively stable, until, after World War II, the paperback replaced the magazine as the conduit to the mass market. And now, it seems, digital distribution is eclipsing the paperback.
Apple has given every potential author tools to create books that pop off the page into digital space. In effect, the iBookstore, and Amazon’s publishing program, are becoming what the popular magazines were in Wharton’s and Fitzgerald’s day – a direct channel to readers. But what we desperately need are the digital Brownells – not editing programs, but actual individuals who understand how to create in these new spaces, how to sell, and how to challenge us to do better, to do more.
Why do we need editors? Isn’t the whole point of these authoring programs and self-publishing tools to break past the sclerotic gatekeepers? Shouldn’t we be following the Cory Doctorows into the world of unfettered writing and selling? Why bring the teacher back into the classroom when you have just freed the students to express themselves?
Anyone who has spent time exploring the current offerings of enhanced ebooks and apps will be able to answer those questions. All too often they are built on the same template, offering versions of the same enhancements, and thus, while fun at first, quickly lose their appeal. In turn, they are priced for a browsing quick impulse sale – since that is all they offer, a first look, not a long immersion. This is not the path to a new, pathbreaking, form of art. Rather it is a chutes and ladders slide into mediocrity where technological novelty takes the place of insight, craft, and depth.
The digital book moment is here – Edith left Scribners when its magazine faded, just as Normal Mailer followed the money into paperback. But if we want to have great enhanced ebooks and apps, we need great editors to challenge and guide us. That is Edith’s 150th anniversary message to us.


  1. Palmer Smith says:

    I think that, while there is going to be a brief vacuum of innovative self-produced content on e/ibooks while everyone is tinkering around with the medium, you’re underestimating the usefulness of templates for teachers. iBooks Author makes it very easy for teachers to make ibooks that suit their curriculum to a T, and offers a lot of room for them to toss in interesting or amusing media. Just since I heard about it last week, I popped out an iBook on locating specific facts in a passage that I’ll be using with a class next week. Sure, the templates may get old after a while, but they are a handy tool for teachers in the short term. I think iBook Author is going to be a lot like the Notebook software for Smart boards; by the time all the use has been squeezed out of the existing templates, the user-made content will be ready to refresh the medium.

  2. Shirley Budhos says:

    Indeed, among her many messages to us, women in particular, in 2012. There are many Lily Barts among us, but their skirts are shorter.

  3. Marc Aronson says:

    fascinating — I have been thinking in terms of trade ebooks — ebooks created to be sold, but your point about teacher use makes a great deal of sense — and those teacher creations will also point the way and help authors and publishers learn about the capacities and usefulness of the medium.

  4. Shirley Budhos says:

    Of course, in the past teachers produced all those zeroxed handouts, such as instructions, notes, information to supplement classroom instruction all these years. Now they will be replaced by ibooks based on students’ needs, and the distribution will be so much easier.

    I used to consider myself “the tree killer” because I consumed so much paper (administrators also worried about budgets for supplies).

    Who knows? Perhaps some teachers may create the nonfiction books you promote! Much is possible!