Let’s face it: many e-books out there are of very low quality. This is not always apparent with paid e-books, but can be seen in low-price, say, 99 cents, and free e-books, notably in the free section of the Amazon e-book store. The market is flooded with a glut of novellas, serials, self-help, memoirs, full-length works and other writings abounding in countless misspellings, comma splices, periods that are meant to be question marks, incorrectly used homophones, strange capitalization, odd instances of grammar, among many, many other mistakes, clogging what is supposed to be a, if not perfectly smooth, at least readable experience. This is not a trivial affair. This has serious consequences for the readers of such e-books.
First, a disclaimer: I am not trying to bash any e-book authors, regardless of their experience, preferred genre, set book price, or citizenship (i.e. authors who are not native English speakers). To sit down and actually write a book to its completion, a seemingly simple action, is actually a momentous and difficult task, and I commend anyone who succeeds in doing so. The blogging sphere occupies the same arena as e-books, so we’re all in the same boat. I am merely discussing this already-present trend and the very real effects of its continuation.
The main problem arising from reading such e-books is the erosion of what should be a firmly ingrained set of intuitive rules for writing and communicating in English. From grade school on teachers teach students in the U.S. proper rules for grammar and punctuation. However, many people gain their literary know-how from reading books (this author included). This usually consists of physical paper books, but in today’s world, the electronic format has become widely available and accessible to any age group with an Internet connection. The important thing is – and hear me out for a moment, I think this is really important – the reader takes the words he or she reads and adds them to his or her own unconscious knowledge of how to write. Thus, writing style develops unique to the individual and the environment of books they grow up in. This is how the process of creativity works in reality: synthesizing what you already know into a new and individual product. In essence, what you read and how it’s written becomes how you write.
You can scratch this theory off as bogus if you’d like, but I have endured this from personal experience. And it was not pleasant. It was torturous, filled with anguish and misery, and the effects are clearly in effect today. I used to consider myself a, if not excellent, at least decent writer. I had spelling and grammar pretty well in order. I knew how to construct sentences, to strive for synonyms and proper vocabulary usage. I knew how to write. Reading poor quality e-books devastated that. When I browsed through the free section of Amazon’s Kindle Store for e-books and began downloading some – just for fun, you understand, as I am currently a pretty voracious reader – I had no idea what I was getting into. I came upon some books with misspellings and improper capitalization or homophones, but, like most of you reading this, I assumed it was no big deal. Then I began to download more, and it approached a habit. The troubles began, innocuous at first. Small, but constant. There were strange Capitals. There were simply oddly placed sentences. There were hyphens where there weren’t supposed to be hyphens and no hyphens where there should be hyphens. And there was the dreaded comma splice. Sentences would go, like this. At first I resisted. My former readings of hundreds, likely thousands, of published hardcover and paperback books, as well as my tendency to be a stickler for spelling and a grammar Nazi, informed me of what was wrong and what was right. Bad plot, I could accept. Bad characters, I could steam at a bit or even commend their creator for their lack of likability. Badly structured sentences, I could tolerate. But this? This was the deep black hole out to ruin my life. As I read more e-books and less “real” books, my self-knowledge of what was right and proper waned. Then it broke down. My own writing suffered drastically. I could no longer decide what was right or wrong. I would struggle with a sentence for long stretches of time, just trying to see if the structure was acceptable. Was this right? Or this? I would halt at the placement of a single comma, question whether every seemingly compound word was to have a hyphen or not, internally debate multiple synonyms for a word in a sentence, every single blasted sentence I would wonder if it was too long or short or just didn’t “feel” right. And as of now recovery is not anywhere in sight.
The only solution, as I can see it, is to cover up the damage wrought. The wreck cannot be reversed or undone. That is, the answer is to lay off e-books and to stick to “real” books, books that have been scrutinized by big publishers where quality is assured and small details are nit-picked and even the smallest, subtlest, and most ambiguous errors are almost always squashed. Read those books, read, read, until the electronic novel in all its variations is forgotten in the digitally dusty realms of cyberspace. Then, perhaps, the store of proper knowledge will build up again. Although the level of skill acquired therein will never be as before, and doubts will inevitably reign from time to time.
But why resort to such drastic measures? Surely there is another solution, one which lies not with the reader but with the writer. Maybe some of you reading this will say, “You get what you pay for”, and scapegoat cost as the basis for the drop in quality. However, as authors in a realm of unprecedented freedom, both in expression and transfer of ideas, I believe e-book authors hold a responsibility to make a decent book. That’s common sense. Authors should have pride in their work, especially with published work. This means not simply relying on or blindly ignoring Microsoft’s spellcheck. This means multiple peer reviews. This means poring over your pages to find even the smallest detail that detracts from the reading experience and eliminating it. This means, after publishing, if errors are found you fix them. This means proper knowledge and proper application of proper English. Am I being clear?
This does not mean e-book authors need to be subject to the wildest standards of big-name publishers. I am not advocating an ironclad regulation agency to descend upon the Internet and stamp out independent and eccentric thought. I am also not asking writers to be rejected multiple times from both online and brick-and-mortar publishers for a perfectly good work of literature. But standards are needed, and I am raising the bar to a level that should have been raised long ago. When writing a book, write a book that’s properly written in the English language.
If this disturbing trend and acceptance of it continues, this unseen problem will only gain traction. Consider how people, in their own writings, will be affected by this. Consider how e-books are accessible as well to children, and there is no regulation of how to properly format and spell words in a children’s e-book. Won’t at least some portion of them be affected in the future? Consider, even if the effect is not as prevalent, how this can interfere with common speech. And consider how posters, memos, billboards, journals, magazines, and other widely seen mediums will affect us down the line if its writers are influenced by this trend. The power of e-books only grows. Action for something as straightforward and sensible as this needs to be done now.
The psychological destruction of poor quality e-books has already been felt. The issue looks, on the surface, unimportant – silly, even – but it must be addressed and met. E-books should not be the death of the English language. It should be an extension of it, a revival of it, able to bring a variety of views and ideas that cannot be as easily spread, or even exist, elsewhere.
Now, as an aspiring author myself, how should I end this.