I just bought an e-book, Yesterday’s Spy, by Len Deighton. So what, Bill, I hear you cry– you buy ebooks every day. Most of us do. What’s there worth writing a blog post about in that?
Well, it’s a process I usually do unthinkingly and today I actually analysed it on the level of both my intellectual processes and the mechanisms of sale. (Forgive me if what I am going to say sounds entirely obvious, but sometimes it’s worth thinking about the obvious.) Here’s what happened.
This morning I was reading an article on Slate about how Len Deighton wrote Bomber which may well have been the first book ever written on a word processor. (It’s a fascinating article, you should take a look.) This reminded me how much I enjoyed his writing. I went to Amazon, did a search and found a Harry Palmer book I could not remember having read before so I bought it. The whole process took a few minutes from start to finish.
Since I am ultimately in the business of selling books, I started thinking about what was involved in this? How did I go from not even thinking about an author to buying his book maybe ten minutes later?
There were a few steps. First I needed to be reminded of Deighton’s name. Then I needed to remember the fact that I had really enjoyed his books. Then I had to be able to easily find this particular book. Then I had to be able to buy it.
Much of this process was based on the technological miracles of our age. I was sitting in a cafe in Prague, reading an article on Slate, an American website magazine. The fact that I was on my laptop meant I had only to click on a link and I was at Amazon, looking at Bomber. I clicked on Deighton’s name and got a list of all his books currently available there. I narrowed the search down to kindle books since I wanted something to read now, not weeks later when the book might come in the mail. I noticed a title I did not recall, clicked on it. I read the product blurb and did not remember any of the details of the story. Could it be I had found a Deighton book I had not actually read before? Clicked look inside and read the first page. The writing was as good as I remembered Deighton’s writing being and I did not recall the opening so I bought it. A few seconds later it was on my phone and I was reading it.
Some of them echoes the experience of conventional book buying, such as reading the back cover blurb and then scanning the first few pages of the book. The rest of it is a product of the technology of our time.
Think about how this would have gone in the pre-Internet age. If I was reading about Deighton, it would most likely be in a newspaper and probably round about the time when there was a surge of publicity based on his new book being released. I would then have had to physically go to a book shop. The book I bought, part of Deighton’s deep backlist might well not have been in stock. If it wasn’t, I would never have had a chance to notice it. I might have bought another Deighton, since I was there anyway. Chances are it would have been the big new release that had generated the surge of newspaper hype. I would probably have started reading it a few minutes later on the bus. The whole process would have taken a lot longer than a few minutes, and would only have happened if I recalled the Deighton article a few days later when I was in town shopping on the weekend. There are a lot of chances for the sale to have been missed in that process. All of them were short-circuited by the Internet and the technology.
The convenience of the Internet enabled the sale. A complex web of sophisticated software engines drove it. The fact that I had a phone in my pocket as powerful as the computers of my youth (hell, the computers of ten years ago) let me download and start reading at once. One of the powerful promises of that one-click buy was instant gratification. I could get what I wanted in seconds. The one-click made it easy to make an irrevocable commitment to the transaction.
All that said, I think it’s important not to forget the most important part of the equation. I already knew who Deighton was, and I have always loved his books. Without that, I would not have bothered at all. Even in the age of the Internet, an author’s name still means something.