Digital Gardening Books – who will read them?

I have had seven books published and every one was a journey of discovery. There is no way to get to know a subject better than have to write a book about it. Wooly ideas have to be sorted out, your facts have to be correct and when it comes to gardening books not only the spelling, but also the most up to date names of plants have to be correct as book reviewers delight in your outdated terminology.

My first book, written together with Piet Oudolf, was about ornamental grasses and the best perennials to combine with them – Gardening with Grasses. It first appeared in Dutch in September 1996 with the title “Prachtig Gras” and opened the eyes of gardeners to the world of gorgeous grasses. But it had taken three years of arguing with publishers to appear and was only taken seriously after we took the risk to write and illustrate it in order to show them exactly what we were banging on about. Before then grasses in the garden where little known, seen as either weeds or something to mow. When breaking new ground, so to speak, you learn how conservative publishing can be and how concentrated it can be upon what is currently selling. It took another year and a half before Gardening with Grasses appeared in English and German editions.

Another book I wrote – Gardening with Tulips – was the result of a love affair with a plant that became more and more important in the planting schemes I was creating. For six springs I was out and about on the Dutch polders with a camera gathering inspiration for a book which again only appeared after I had shown just how interesting it could be put together. My Dutch publisher turned it down on the grounds that he would buy his bulbs at the petrol station if he came across a bag of yellow or red tulips with a good picture attached – “who could be bothered to read about such ordinary flowers”.

The reason I am recalling these stories is to suggest that books of this type take a long time to appear. Of course once something is popular the printing presses go into overdrive and churn out the same material over on over again, but it is hard for things that deviate from the status quo to gain a footing.

The world of publishing seems to be at a turning point. The new media are no longer constrained by long established publishing practices, distribution networks and outlets – digital products can be immediately accessible to all without the traditionally associated overhead costs. The big question is – will we gardeners be prepared to change and start reading our books on the computer or iPad or will a hard copy still be our preferred choice?

I am hoping not as my next book is going to be published as an eBook very shortly, but there are some advantages and disadvantages to this as far as I can currently see.

The advantages to me as an author are:

  • I can get my thoughts out to the wider world far faster than has been possible in the past.
  • My words and pictures are presented exactly as I want, which in my case is not difficult as I have been delivering books and magazine articles as fully laid-out manuscripts for some time already.
  • The text can be as long and include as many pictures as I want without having to fit into printing format constraints.

The advantages to my readers are:

  • The books will be much cheaper. Not only do they not need to be printed and distributed, but also some of the administrative overheads of publishing are eliminated.
  • Images look better on screen than in print in many cases.
  • Individual pages and extracts of the text can be quickly printed-out for use in the garden without worrying about soiling an expensive printed copy of the book.

But there are also many disadvantages to consider:

  • Publishers have the skills to create better designed books than most authors.
  • Editorial input is vital and most independent authors do not have the support that a good publishing house can offer. This is the biggest aspect of self publishing that currently worries me as I know from experience just how much effort goes into this.
  • The marketing and distribution networks of publishers promote their books to a wider public than most authors are likely to reach; potentially sales will be higher at any given price point.

It is clear that a lot is about to change and who will receive the greatest benefit has yet to become apparent. The danger is that a lot of rubbish will be published without the filter of good publishing houses, but with significantly lower selling prices this may be less of a problem for the consumer. Not all authors will be able or interested in publishing their own work and clearly the role of the professional publisher will continue. Not all readers will be happy unless they can hold a hard copy of a book in their hands and this I see is the biggest barrier to be overcome.

Speaking personally as someone who has shelves full of books, I feel I am ready to make a change. There are many books I want to quickly read in order to keep up to date or learn what others are saying about a topic that interests me. These books I read once and never look at again – a cheap, digital version would be ideal. But of course there are some books I refer to over and over again and the ability to flick the pages is the best way to use them. Will a lower price be enough to change the world of garden publishing?

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