I have a confession to make. I don’t much care about physical books (cue mass unfollowing). I don’t love the smell of new paper or the cracking of the spine. I like ebooks because they’re instantly available and portable and because I’ve reached the age where I look at a book’s font size before I read the blurb. I have one bookcase and when it’s full I scoop up a handful of the dust-gatherers and take them to the charity shop.
However, I have realised that, as in most areas of life, I am out of step with public opinion. People still love the book as artefact. Readers of literary fiction, in particular, like them to have and to hold, to cherish and even to read. For many, the sensation of holding the book, the cover image, the way you can see it in your mind’s eye and link it to the context in which you read it, all form part of the reading experience.
So, I accepted the inevitable and decided to publish my new novel, The Former Chief Executive, in paperback. And because my life is not stressful enough already, I decided to do a paperback of my last novel, Not the End, at the same time.
Of course I dramatically underestimated the work involved. I’ve formatted my own ebooks, so how complicated could it be to do a paperback? This brings us onto the vexed question of widows and orphans. I’d vaguely heard the term but hadn’t thought too much about what it meant till now. For those who are still in that blissful state of ignorance, briefly orphans are first lines of a paragraph at the end of a page, and widows the last line of a paragraph at the top of a page. (In all the years I’ve been reading books I’ve never stopped to notice these, although I was dimly aware that you don’t see hyphens splitting words over two lines like you used to.)
There is much debate about whether you should even bother to address widows and orphans. Some argue that the remedial steps taken (minutely condensing or expanding the text of the offending paragraph until you can force it into shape) could be just as unsightly. Others say that familiarity with ebooks means that people are used to a more fluid attitude to page layout.
Others argue that the effort of making these changes is unnecessary, because most readers won’t notice. However there will always be one person who will write a scathing review if you get it wrong (this is how I learnt that back matter should start on a right-hand page, thankfully before I committed mine to the left).
Once you decide to take action, you then find there are different standards about what must be changed (even the revered Chicago Manual of Style now says that orphans are acceptable, though widows are not). In the end I followed the advice of this excellent article by Christine Michaels. Widows were dispatched without mercy, while orphans were allowed to plead their case.
It made me wonder how many other traditions are being eroded by changing technology. Many ebook authors (myself included) don’t bother with an ISBN, although the official advice of the Alliance of Independent Authors is that you should have one for each format of your book. And the distinctions between editions and reprints and revised editions are breaking down. With an ebook, or even a print-on-demand paperback, you can easily pop in and change the cover or make a few amendments to the text whereas with a traditionally published book you’re stuck with it till the next print run.
One thing I love about being an independent author is that I’m always learning something new. Even if you don’t do the work yourself (I’ve finally seen the wisdom of getting professionally designed covers) you still need to know enough to ask the right questions (I can now throw around terms like ‘spine width’ and ‘bleed’ and ‘gutter’ with at least a semblance of knowing what I’m talking about).
Now I have my books. I must admit that there is something nice about holding them in your hands. And if I’m ever on TV, I will be able to stand in front of my bookcase looking earnest, with my novels strategically arranged to be in full view. And that is surely the best use for a physical book (just kidding).
*** After I’d finished my books (of course), I learnt that Reedsy has a free formatting tool. I haven’t used it, so can’t vouch for it, but will certainly be taking a look before I publish my next book.***