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Shelf Life: e-Lit and the New Best Sellers Lists


By Nick Bergus

Rachel Corbett chanced across a photograph, and it haunted her.

Taken by her mother on a disposable camera in 1992, the photo captures her 8-year-old self in the grass of her Iowa yard with a man her mother had been dating for a few years. The very next year the man, Scott Johnson, would murder another girlfriend, then kill himself in his Vinton home.
Stirred by the image, Corbett set off to fill in details she’d either forgotten or never been given, hoping to figure out just why this man, this “gentle welder” she remembered, had done what he had done. What Corbett delivers in A Killing in Iowa is a haunting, 15,000-word portrait of her childhood and of Iowa.

Even just a couple of years ago, Corbett’s story might very well have been a victim of a publishing industry that would have demanded the story be either fluffed up to fill a book or cut down to be shoehorned into a magazine. But Corbett is part of a new generation of writers who might never be forced to squeeze or stretch their work to fit physical formats.

The proliferation of e-book devices and tablet computers (monthly sales of Apple’s iPads and Amazon’s Kindle e-readers are now measured in millions) offers a new path to commercial viability. The cost of production is low, so publishers can take risks on new, unknown authors. The means of production are widely accessible, so self-publishing authors can bypass publishers entirely. The finished product is affordable, so readers can buy new works for only a buck or two.

A Killing in Iowa reached the No. 3 spot on one of Amazon’s Kindle best-seller lists. (Corbett’s book is also available through Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Apple’s iBook, and Sony’s Reader stores.) This is good for you and me — the people who like to read great stories — and what we get, according to Amazon, is “compelling ideas expressed at their natural length.”

Before anyone castigates me for wishing for the end of ink printed on dead trees, let me be clear: I do not. I don’t believe books printed in pixels are better than those printed on paper, but I do believe the disruption they have brought to publishing will bring us new voices and new forms that traditional publishing by itself would not. Corbett’s 15,000-word memoir is just one example.

One small Iowa publisher (who was reticent to publish digitally) had the attraction of e-books explained by one of his authors (an avid reader who carries his book-loaded iPad with him): “I like reading books, but I like reading even more.”

The biblio revolution has its shortcomings. Publishers used to be able to act as curators. Now, with a low cost of entry opening the floodgates, readers are forced to wade through books that before would not have, and still should not have, seen the light of day. Yet if capable writers such as Corbett are discovered, the extra navigation seems a worthwhile trade-off.
The alternate plane of e-lit also changes serendipity’s gameboard. No one will chance across A Killing in Iowa while browsing a library or bookstore or reader’s shelf. That worries me because, as the result of Corbett’s happening across a photograph suggests, wonderful things sometimes come out of chance.



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