Clara Bow, John Gilbert and the rise of the eBook

It is terribly unfair, of course, but, 80 years after the event, we tend think of Clara Bow and John Gilbert (amongst others) as movie stars whose careers were destroyed by the coming of talkies.  Bow had a broad Brooklyn accent, Gilbert was given ludicrous dialogue, and both in due course were mercilessly parodied in Singin’ in the Rain.  But, whether it was the talkies, booze or breakdowns, by the early 1930s, Bow and Gilbert were both yesterday’s stars.

Which has got what, exactly, to do with retail, or books, or digitisation, or those other things that this blog bangs on about?

Ed Nawotka ran an editorial in Publishing Perspectives this morning wherein, citing a report from one Randy Petway, he posits that:

…mass market paperbacks will last right up to the point where absolutely everyone who wants one has a dedicated e-reader or smartphone — three years, tops.

Which got me thinking – which authors or genres will get left behind in the Great Digital Switchover?

The parallel with the shift from silent movies to talkies is, of course, hardly an exact one.  Acting in talking pictures required a different set of skills, and the format of story-telling on film changed overnight, with silent epics and speeded-up comedy being replaced by more intimate storylines and plenty of Broadway melodies.  A new generation of stars – Garbo, Gable, Tracy, Hepburn, Davies, Groucho Marx – emerged to take advantage of the new format.

Today’s seismic change in the nature of publishing, from paper to screen, is a primary cause of the revolution on the high street, and it’s likely  to change publishing and all of the associated trades around it fundamentally.  But what about the content, what about the writers?

Already, certain genres are clear winners among the early adopters to eBooks – romance, thrillers, sci-fi, erotica and so on.  No surprises there.  Self-publishing has brought a few runaway success stories for Amanda Hocking and her ilk.  Big names will emerge which will no longer be linked to the airport bookstall or the 3 for 2 in Waterstone’s.  In our minds, we will in due course sub-consciously categorise authors and genres as “e” or “pre-e”.

Of course, Grisham, King and Child aren’t going away; they can be assured of the ongoing investment required to maintain the high earnings they’ve built up over the years.  But there will be authors – perhaps older authors, perhaps genre-specific authors – who will prove disproportionately popular with the print reader.  They will start to slide in the best-seller charts.  It would be invidious to guess who they might be (though Katie Price without pictures could be a longshot) – and, like Bow and Gilbert, their decline might just coincide with the big change, rather than being directly precipitated by it.  If electronic rights aren’t in order, and an author skips a season, or misses out on marketing spend, then that author’s status could quickly change.

Authors and sub-genres are fashions, and what was reliable yesterday can suddenly seem terribly old-hat tomorrow.  This is a highly speculative post, because it’s just too early in the ebook revolution to point to examples of my theory in action.  But this is a huge change, and I have no doubt that – rightly, wrongly or brutally unfairly – talent will get left behind as a result of the big switch.  Three years and counting…

Pictures:  Clara Bow:; John Gilbert:


3 Comments on “Clara Bow, John Gilbert and the rise of the eBook”

  1. Paul Dillon says:

    Nice article. It’s interesting, music led the way, perhaps the younger, more receptive audience is a larger market – and the content has always been grass roots. Literature is the obvious second mover; so many more people write books these days and eBooks give them an audience. Movies will follow suit. It will be an interesting world when there are fewer opportunities for middlemen to control art.

  2. Clara Bow says:

    In fact, the only person that did not like Clara’s voice…was CLARA !!! She made a couple of awesome “talkies.”

    • I’ve only ever seen clips, but she was a more subtle/realistic actress then most of the silent vamps. In these clips, she’s playing a real person – the male lead towards the end is wholly artificial, by comparison.