The Book I Thought I’d Never Write: An E-Book

  • By Ronald K.L. Collins
  • April 7, 2014

E-books lack character, gravitas, and the splendor of the art form that has charmed people of all walks of life for centuries. Let me explain why I’ve decided to embrace them.

The Book I Thought I’d Never Write: An E-Book

I like books — their weight, their spines, their dust jackets, their fonts, their rough-cut pages, their indexes, and the fact that I can shelve them in our home. I also like the fact that authors can personally sign and inscribe books. I like libraries, too, and savor a stroll through rows of books to behold the names and titles of authors and books past. For me, it is a thing of joy to open a library book that may have sat untouched on a shelf for decades.

And, of course, I love bookstores, especially independent ones. It has always been impossible for me to walk past a bookstore without going in and browsing for half an hour or more.To lose them, as we lost Chapters Bookstore (that wondrous K Street home of literary delights), saddens me. For all of these reasons and more, I say: Hail, Johannes Gutenberg!

If you are like me, you probably hate the thought of e-books and the fact that they ever streamed into existence. I’m sorry, but digital “books” are not real books; rather, they are virtual books. They lack character, gravitas, and the splendor of that art form that has charmed people of all walks of life for centuries. They pose a clear-and-present danger to everything we book lovers hold dear. For all of those reasons and more, I say: E-books be damned!

And yet, like a sinner in a brothel, I have entered this tempting domain: I have just published my first e-book sans any real-book counterpart. Yes, it is true: I have jumped over to the other side; I have become part of the problem.

Last week, Top Five Books “published” When Money Speaks: The McCutcheon Decision, Campaign Finance Law & the First Amendment. It is a “book” I did with my longtime friend and co-author, David Skover, with whom I have written many real books. He, too, has entered the brothel. So why have we two, who greatly admire the proud print tradition, gone digital?

Well, it is surely not for the money! The reasons for our Benedict Arnold decision have everything to do with the nature of the work we set out to do. Our e-book concerns the Supreme Court and a rather important First Amendment case decided last Wednesday by the justices. The e-book is an 80,000-word narrative account of the players, issues, and history of the law concerning the controversial topic of money in electoral politics. The e-book has a handsome digital “cover,” and was finely edited and proofed by our editor (Alex Lubertozzi). It was also neatly formatted and contains photographs and, get this, hyperlinks! The chapter on the ruling itself was written and completed within 18 hours after that ruling came down. The book was posted on Amazon, Barnes &Noble, and Google Play 18 hours later — a first in the world of books about Supreme Court rulings. There lies the twist, the raison d’être of our reprehensible behavior.

If we were to publish a print book, our work could not come out for three to eight months after the Supreme Court handed down its decision. Yet, since we changed the publishing calculus and went digital, we released When Money Speaks with unprecedented speed. True, writing this book was intense and took a lot of concentrated work given the short turnaround time. But we inserted text almost up to the point at which the work was released. And we can revise our e-book at any time after publication to correct mistakes. Yes!

As I noted, our e-book hit the digital platforms (I don’t say bookstores) the day after the ruling and was electronically accessible to everyone in America for a modest $2.99. Think of it: Everything was available with almost magical speed. Cut publishing time drastically, cut price notably, and increase the likelihood of reaching a broad national audience — these, my fellow writers, are the temptations of the trade known as digital publishing. Ah, yes, “The times they are a-changin.” Hail, Jeff Bezos! 

Of course, you won’t see us speaking and signing our “book” at bookstores as we did last year at Politics and Prose in D.C. and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco when our last real book came out. (BTW: For you printophiles, the title of one of our books from last year is Mania: The Story of the Outraged & Outrageous Lives that Launched a Cultural Revolution; Top Five Books, 464 pp., cloth, also available as an e-book.)

We don’t expect the folks at the New York Times book review or the New York Review of Books or any other print review will bother to notice our digital handiwork, however good it may be. And I doubt that any of our friends will host a party for the release of our e-book. Worse still, now that When Money Speaks is “published,” it will not take its place in those revered spots we have reserved in our homes and studies for the books we have written.

Will we do another standalone e-book? Perhaps. We will do another print book? We hope so.

One final thought: When Gutenberg brought his new technology to bear on the minds of men, there were those who lamented the loss of the true book, those beautifully crafted and illuminated books hand-penned by master monastic scribes in scriptoria. Among other things, the word of God ceased to be conveyed by the hand of man. If there is a lesson here, it might be this: With every new technology, something is lost, but also gained. Take heed! 

Ronald K.L. Collins is the Harold S.
Shefelman scholar at the University of Washington Law School and is one of the
founding members of the board of the Washington Independent Review of Books. 


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