A couple of years ago, I wrote a novel about a bookstore struggling to survive after digital books became wildly popular.  It was a satire of sorts, based loosely on the bookstore I actually own, and it allowed me to explore every bookseller’s worst fear:  What if people loved digital books?  What if they couldn’t wait to start reading books on their computer? 

The novel is called The Last Bookstore in America. I wrote it as a lark, pounding it out during three dark, cold winter months while I was in between other projects.  My publisher decided not to publish it, and I was so preoccupied with my next book that I didn’t bother looking for another publisher. Instead, I hired a designer to make a cover, hired a guy in Austin to format it, and published it on the Kindle and on Scribd. Much to my surprise, it sells merrily along, and I get a nice little check every month. (It has a horticultural theme as well, this novel–the bookstore survives by selling something other than books: a plant whose future is about to change as much as that of the printed book.)

The experience of writing a book about the death of the printed book, and then publishing that book in a digital-only format, got me thinking about ebooks from the publishing side of things.  It is ridiculously easy to publish a book in this manner, if by “publish” you mean “upload.”  Editing?  Proofreading?  Design? Copyediting?  Marketing?  Well, that’s another matter entirely. 

There’s a great deal of hand-wringing going on in the publishing world right now about the impact of digital books on the future of publishing.  I won’t rehash it all here, except to say that Amazon is making straight-to-Kindle publishing very tempting for authors, with royalties of up to 70 percent, real-time sales reports, and fast monthly payments. The only question is:  How do readers ever find your book?  And once they do, will they really want to read it on the small screen? 

This is no small matter to those of us who write garden books.  A novel is one thing, but a book with photographs, drawings, diagrams, sidebars, lists, charts?  What’s that going to be like in a digital format?

To that end, I’ve reviewed a few of the best-selling gardening titles in the Kindle store. Now, I don’t actually own a Kindle or an iPad or any kind of dedicated ereader–although it’s probably only a matter of time.  But anyone can read a Kindle book on their PC, Mac, iPhone, etc. by downloading free software, which is what I’ve done here. So here are my impressions. What are your thoughts on digital gardening books?

Bringing Back Out-of-Print Titles
.  Weirdly, three of the top-selling Kindle gardening books are all various reprints of a 1917 book called Wild Flowers Worth Knowing. Because this book is out of copyright, anyone with enough time and energy can digitize and sell these old books. These books usually only sell for a few bucks, so if you just need to get your hands on a copy to look something up, this is a way to do it.  But the formatting?  It looks like a Word document, not a cool old book.

Making Reference-y Books Easy to SearchThe Backyard Homestead, Storey’s massive compendium of 
homesteading advice,  isn’t particularly beautiful on the screen, once again resembling a Word document rather than a typeset book, and the charts and tables are hard to follow.  They’re too small to work on the iPhone, and even on the Kindle PC, you run into problems like a planting diagram on one page and the key to the diagram on the next.  This forces the reader to flip back and forth to figure out what is planted in each little plot.  But the search functions!  Imagine getting to just search through a book like this for phrases like “root cellar” or “chicken parasites.”  Wonderful!

Typeface Makes a Difference.  Here’s what I mean when I say these books look like Word documents:

This is the Backyard Homestead. [photo no longer available.] You can click that to enlarge it. It’s functional, sure, but it does suggest that these are early days, and that someday we’ll look back and laugh at the kind of generic formatting most ebooks have right now. Compare that to Eliot Coleman’s surprisingly lovely Winter Harvest Handbook from Chelsea Green, which makes use of interesting typefaces that immediately make the book feel more readable and more literary.  The photos in this one are black and white
(perhaps because the Kindle device only displays in black-and-white), but other than that, this is a lovely book to read, even in an electronic format.  Here’s what I mean:  (again, click to enlarge.)

The iPhone Surprise
.  I wasn’t expecting to like any of these on my iPhone, but guess what?  Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens from Timber is AWESOME on the iPhone! The text is a little plain, but the color photos are placed simply on individual pages, as bright and crisp and lovely as you’d want them to be.  If I was headed off to the garden center to pick up some succulents for my garden, I would LOVE having this book with me on my phone so I could remind myself what I was shopping for.

Which is not to say that I don’t love a big old beautiful paper book.  Of course I do. We all do.  Yes, we love the touch, feel, look, smell, taste of books and paper and bookstores and yes, computers are cold and impersonal and weird compared with the books we know and love.  I get it.  I get that. 

But what’s good about digital?  What works, especially when it comes to garden books?  And is the ease of digital publishing tempting anybody else to go straight-to-Kindle and bypass the traditional publishing route?  If so, let us know–maybe we’ll do a round-up of digital-only titles in a future post.