What makes a book a book?

If you ask book lovers (who apparently suffer from a yellowing-page-smell fetish), if it’s not sacrificed a tree or two in the process, it’s not a book. If you ask publishers, they’ll tell you that whatever they can sell in the sagging literary market for a profit is a book. If you ask a reader with little time, money and attention span, the answer is simple – a book is a story, whether it’s on Twitter, on their headphones or glowing on their Kindles.

Apparently, the literary establishment is sitting up and taking notice of the busy reader’s definition of a book. Among the diverse list of books on the longlist of the Man Booker Prize is The Kills. Author Richard House has penned – no wait, that’s not right.

House typed, and then updated his Twitter and Facebook pages with the first half of the four-part thriller. The remaining three parts were available online as an ebook. House also filmed and taped audio and video material as a supplement to the book, with large chunks of character development relegated to them. And now he’s a nominee for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world.

Covers of two books of Richard House's novel, The Kills. Image courtesy Pan Macmillan
Covers of two books of Richard House’s novel, The Kills. Image courtesy Pan Macmillan

The Kills is a political thriller which has now found a publisher in Pan Macmillan. According to the publisher’s blurb, it begins “with a man on the run and ends with a burned body.” The book apparently moves across genres and continents, and the video and audio have been described by House in an interview as being stand-alone pieces that work as footnotes to the action of the book. It was only published as a hardcover a week ago.

House’s format transgressions are a unique selling point to digital, and publishers are noticing. “The thing with digital is that you’re not as adhered to a single format or price point as you were in the past,” said Liate Stehlik, senior vice president and publisher at Harper Collins in an interview to Wired.com. “You can do a novella, you can do a short book that leads into a longer book, or a book that bridges two different books from the same author. Before, you might have thought,Oh, there’s nowhere to put that, we’ll have to put in paperback with the next one, but digital presents a different market to promote shorter works. And the audience responds.”

Besides this, the fact that House’s e-book is a political thriller speaks volumes about the particular niche that ebooks are coming to occupy – they’re genre friendly. Genre fiction is a term which refers to specialised fiction which isn’t really ‘literary’ – for example, romantic fiction, science fiction, and thrillers. HarperCollins last April created the digital mystery imprint Witness.

Reasons for why genre fiction does particularly well have been speculated on. Some wonder if it’s the digital anonymity which readers enjoy – go ahead and read your copy of Dan Brown’s latest on your iPad, but keep the Dostoevsky on the bookshelves. Publishers theorise that genre fiction, where you want to know what happens next right away, is a perfect fit for the internet, which offers immediacy of access.

Whether House’s nomination makes the eventual meeting of traditional publishing and ebooks smoother remains to be seen. But going back to the point of view of the busy reader, do we even care? The book is being created, provided, and bought online. It’s the Man Booker judges who are having to rush to keep up.

Publish date: July 25, 2013 4:43 pm| Modified date: July 25, 2013 4:43 pm

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