Ebooks – and Harry Devlin

In the 21 years since my first novel was published, the publishing world has changed out of all recognition. When All the Lonely People appeared, there were editions in hardback, paperback, large print, audio, and translation. I was lucky, because the novel was a success, and with a book club edition thrown in, I thought I’d covered all the bases. But that was long before the dawn of the era of digital publishing, and the new horizons that ebooks open up – for authors as well as readers.

All the Lonely People introduced Harry Devlin, who featured in my next six books, and then – after a gap of a decade – returned in Waterloo Sunset. By the time the most recent Devlin story appeared, in 2008, ebooks were becoming established. The ebook rights in Waterloo Sunset, as well as those in my series of Lake District Mysteries, belonged to the print publishers, who produce ebook editions which are readily available on Amazon.

But, like other writers who have been around for some time, I had a “backlist” of titles including the early Devlins, and I decided to give them a fresh life in ebook editions produced by a company specialising in ebooks. This gave me extra control over the process, and I decided to add a range of new “special features”, rather in the manner of the extras you find on a DVD.

So each of the new Harry Devlin ebooks includes an introduction by a leading writer. I was very fortunate that some of the finest crime novelists in Britain agreed to contribute introductions. So Frances Fyfield introduced All the Lonely People, Val (The Wire in the Blood) McDermid Suspicious Minds, Peter Lovesey Yesterday’s Papers, and so on.

In addition, for each title I wrote a new “making of” feature that explained how the book came into being and sought to give some insight into the writing process, and how it varies from book to book. Another well-known author, Michael Jecks, kindly allowed me to include an updated version of an essay he had written about my work for a literary encyclopaedia, and a biographical note was also included. Finally, each book includes a “preview chapter” of the next novel in the series – the idea, of course, is to encourage readers who have enjoyed the book to try out another.

The special features are, therefore, a significant aspect of the ebook editions. The idea is, in the jargon of marketing people, to add value to the “product” (even if authors tend to recoil from the idea of regarding their work as “product”!) First and foremost, the aim is to attract a new generation of readers; the series enjoyed a good deal of success in the 90s, and reader reaction so far that, though times have changed, the stories stand up very well today. Even though most of the Devlin books have already enjoyed two previous lives in mass market paperback editions from two major publishers, Transworld and Hodder, it may also be that people who read the originals would like to try the books again, and will be tempted by the exclusive new features. Most of the Devlin books have been out of print for years, and it is enormously gratifying to see them come to life again.

There is a huge debate at present about the future of publishing. There are plenty of questions, and nobody knows all the answers. Will ebooks replace conventional books (or, more likely, mass market paperbacks)? Will they “democratise” publishing and make it possible for vast numbers of hitherto unpublished writers to find an audience? Will the tidal wave of enthusiasm for ebooks recede, as some people believe?

Time will tell. My own view is that ebooks will transform the nature of publishing, but perhaps sometimes in ways that we can’t at present foresee. Maybe those who believe that the hardback novel will, paradoxically, enjoy something of a renaissance will be proved right – I hope so. Keen as I am on ebooks, and thrilled as I am to see the appearance of enhanced Devlin books at modest prices, I love conventional books and would hate to see them disappear. And I really don’t think they will disappear. For instance, my ebook publisher is also making print copies of the books available. And All the Lonely People has also just come out in a paperback edition from a third publisher, Arcturus. They have branded the book as a “Crime Classic”, which is gratifying, even if it does make me feel quite venerable.

Ebooks are, I believe, here to stay. But conventional books aren’t going to vanish from the shelves any time soon. There’s a place for the two forms of publishing, and I’m optimistic that, whilst further changes in the business are inevitable, they can continue to co-exist. Each has so much to offer to anyone who loves reading, or writing – or both.