Digital Gardening Books: How’s It Going Out There?


A couple of years ago, I wrote a novel about a bookstore struggling to survive after digital books became wildly popular.  It was a satire of sorts, based loosely on the bookstore I actually own, and it allowed me to explore every bookseller’s worst fear:  What if people loved digital books?  What if they couldn’t wait to start reading books on their computer? 

The novel is called The Last Bookstore in America. I wrote it as a lark, pounding it out during three dark, cold winter months while I was in between other projects.  My publisher decided not to publish it, and I was so preoccupied with my next book that I didn’t bother looking for another publisher. Instead, I hired a designer to make a cover, hired a guy in Austin to format it, and published it on the Kindle and on Scribd. Much to my surprise, it sells merrily along, and I get a nice little check every month. (It has a horticultural theme as well, this novel–the bookstore survives by selling something other than books: a plant whose future is about to change as much as that of the printed book.)

The experience of writing a book about the death of the printed book, and then publishing that book in a digital-only format, got me thinking about ebooks from the publishing side of things.  It is ridiculously easy to publish a book in this manner, if by “publish” you mean “upload.”  Editing?  Proofreading?  Design? Copyediting?  Marketing?  Well, that’s another matter entirely. 

There’s a great deal of hand-wringing going on in the publishing world right now about the impact of digital books on the future of publishing.  I won’t rehash it all here, except to say that Amazon is making straight-to-Kindle publishing very tempting for authors, with royalties of up to 70 percent, real-time sales reports, and fast monthly payments. The only question is:  How do readers ever find your book?  And once they do, will they really want to read it on the small screen? 

This is no small matter to those of us who write garden books.  A novel is one thing, but a book with photographs, drawings, diagrams, sidebars, lists, charts?  What’s that going to be like in a digital format?

To that end, I’ve reviewed a few of the best-selling gardening titles in the Kindle store. Now, I don’t actually own a Kindle or an iPad or any kind of dedicated ereader–although it’s probably only a matter of time.  But anyone can read a Kindle book on their PC, Mac, iPhone, etc. by downloading free software, which is what I’ve done here. So here are my impressions. What are your thoughts on digital gardening books?

Bringing Back Out-of-Print Titles.  Weirdly, three of the top-selling Kindle gardening books are all various reprints of a 1917 book called Wild Flowers Worth Knowing. Because this book is out of copyright, anyone with enough time and energy can digitize and sell these old books. These books usually only sell for a few bucks, so if you just need to get your hands on a copy to look something up, this is a way to do it.  But the formatting?  It looks like a Word document, not a cool old book.

Making Reference-y Books Easy to SearchThe Backyard Homestead, Storey’s massive compendium of homesteading advice,  isn’t particularly beautiful on the screen, once again resembling a Word document rather than a typeset book, and the charts and tables are hard to follow.  They’re too small to work on the iPhone, and even on the Kindle PC, you run into problems like a planting diagram on one page and the key to the diagram on the next.  This forces the reader to flip back and forth to figure out what is planted in each little plot.  But the search functions!  Imagine getting to just search through a book like this for phrases like “root cellar” or “chicken parasites.”  Wonderful!

Typeface Makes a Difference.  Here’s what I mean when I say these books look like Word documents: [photo no longer available].
This is the Backyard Homestead. You can click that to enlarge it. It’s functional, sure, but it does suggest that these are early days, and that someday we’ll look back and laugh at the kind of generic formatting most ebooks have right now. Compare that to Eliot Coleman’s surprisingly lovely Winter Harvest Handbook from Chelsea Green, which makes use of interesting typefaces that immediately make the book feel more readable and more literary.  The photos in this one are black and white  (perhaps because the Kindle device only displays in black-and-white), but other than that, this is a lovely book to read, even in an electronic format.  Here’s what I mean:  (again, click to enlarge.)

The iPhone Surprise.  I wasn’t expecting to like any of these on my iPhone, but guess what?  Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens from Timber is AWESOME on the iPhone! The text is a little plain, but the color photos are placed simply on individual pages, as bright and crisp and lovely as you’d want them to be.  If I was headed off to the garden center to pick up some succulents for my garden, I would LOVE having this book with me on my phone so I could remind myself what I was shopping for.

Which is not to say that I don’t love a big old beautiful paper book.  Of course I do. We all do.  Yes, we love the touch, feel, look, smell, taste of books and paper and bookstores and yes, computers are cold and impersonal and weird compared with the books we know and love.  I get it.  I get that. 

But what’s good about digital?  What works, especially when it comes to garden books?  And is the ease of digital publishing tempting anybody else to go straight-to-Kindle and bypass the traditional publishing route?  If so, let us know–maybe we’ll do a round-up of digital-only titles in a future post.


  1. I love my Nook ereader. But I also love my books in, dare I say it, old fashioned form. I am sure there are many who will go to a digital only way of reading but not me at least. And I think that there are some books that don’t translate well, at least in my opinion, to ereaders. Books on gardening, cook books, books with many pictures and illustrations just to name a few.

  2. I admit to being intrigued by ebooks… to have a Kindle is not like having a real book, but it is the future. The publishing world is having a hard time, which makes it harder to get published. I have thought about publishing an ebook more recently. I would imagine in time they will improve on the text format. Of course, nothing will ever replace the experience of holding a real book. I hope there will always be bookstores… in our science fiction world to come… they will be truly novel. I am looking forward to reading your book!

  3. I find it shallow to see people reading an e-book at the beach. Nothing can replace the the feel and depth of turning pages. Only if e-books are 1/2 the price or less of hard copies will I get the urge.

    The TROLL

  4. My issue with e-readers is the problem of lending them out. I lend books to friends, students, acquaintances. I know if I don’t get it back, at least it is somewhere out in the world. With an ebook, I would be able to tell someone about this great book I just read, then not be able to share it.

  5. What’s good about digital?

    You don’t have to lug 2000lbs of books when you move houses.

    On the other hand, you have to pay full price for the device and for ebooks–no getting them on the cheap at the thrift store.

  6. I think there’s a balance. Certain books (my weakness is a cookbook with great photos) are better as traditional books. But the popular fiction novels that help me unwind after a hectic day or kill time waiting through carpool are much better on my Kindle. Why waste the resources to print and ship a book that I have no desire to keep once it’s been read? Why lug around a heavy hardback when my Kindle tucks into a purse?
    Also, I love that so many of the classics are free. I found myself re-reading all of the Jane Austen books and now look for other classics to download. FREE is awesome!

  7. I do agree that digital seems like a very good way to bring back out of print titles, but I am otherwise pretty old-fashioned and prefer my books to be books and not files.

  8. I just finished Michael Nolan’s Second Nature on the iPad – my first book purchase via the iTunes store.

    The typography is beautiful. I love the built in dictionary – Polan used some *cough* big words I didn’t know and wouldn’t have bothered to look up with a traditional book. The bookmarking and hi-lighting is also wonderful – and it all magically syncs with my iphone so I can continue reading where I left off when I’m getting the oil changed.

    Having said that, it was as expensive as the real book, and I don’t feel like I truly own it – more like I paid to rent it indefinitely. As others mentioned, I can’t give it away or sell it- and with iTunes, I’m stuck on Apple hardware if I want to keep this book.

  9. I own and buy more books than is technically healthy or realistic, and like Amy I’ll probably give in one day and buy a Kindle-like device. But overall my conclusion about electronic books is that if they cause more people to read actual words in print then all is well.

  10. I was always very anti-ebook, because I felt the advantages didn’t outweigh the advantages. But now I have an iPad and can read on a decent-sized, high quality screen, in full colour – I am becoming a convert 🙂

  11. TV has not killed radio–or movies. Satellite radio and podcasting has not killed terrestrial radio. Kindle and iPad will not kill printed books. And, Amazon conveniently left out of its sales report the number of paperback books compared to kindle sales. They only compared Kindle to hardback sales

    yes, publishing is in the middle of big time changes. And it ain’t over. And yes, there will be far fewer printed hardbacks in the future–a culling of the market and further downsizing of editorial jobs.

    With online publishing (whether electronic versions or print versions), new authors will–for the first tim–have some final say and control over the finished product–and the price. but, publicizing the book and getting reviewers/big media markets interested will also be the author’s responsibility/job/extra work.

    As a gardener, I think it’s great news. I think it opens the door for individuals/extension offices/hort departments and profs to print real info about MY locale…not just the “Northeast”, etc.

    Serious weeding within garden publishing as we once new it has been and continues to be a very good thing.

  12. I’ve been taking every opportunity I can over the past six months to play with the B&N nook, Amazon Kindle and Borders Sony eReader, while my wife had been resistant to the idea of an eBook reader. Over the past month she’s turned the corner and we’re waiting for our nextgen Kindle to arrive. I’d be very interested in seeing a top ten list of gardening books for Kindle.

  13. I agree with vicki. I seem to remember a similar worry when audiobooks exploded. “People won’t read anymore,” I remember people saying.

    We’re an easily bored… and easily entertained species. We have room for all sorts of media in our lives. 🙂

  14. I can see both advantages and disadvantages to books in any form. I’m partial to the hardcover version myself. I feel for anyone that has to make the challenging transition from hardcopy to e-form.

  15. I think of my books as old friends. I do not care for the new computer books. I like to buy them once and know that I can always go and pull it off the shelf and reread it. I hope that hard backed books never completely go away or become to expensive for me to afford.

  16. I just received a kindle for my birthday. I pretty much will only buy books under 5$ and free books, I prefer the real thing. However I do find it a nice addendum to my library and it actually beats real books for reading in bed.

  17. I think they have their place. I would consider going straight to Amazon when all the traditional options of publishing have rejected me! The problem of course is marketing and promotion-you’ll have to spend money to get your name and your book out there if you self-publish. But if you already have a following, I say go for it.

    Digital books will never be that popular I think with people 35 and older who actually (eeek!) grew up pre-internet. And here in Portland, people really do still pour into Powell’s (young and old) and buy loads of books!

  18. I think I recently read an article that said that reading whole novels has seriously decreased in this country. My rural county just closed it’s entire library system (all 3 libraries) after a vote to raise property taxes just a little bit to save it. One of the arguments against saving the library was that “you can read anything you want on the computer”. So I’m ambivalent about e-readers; for one thing, it takes a bit more money than just buying a book for access, so that leaves less affluent people out. But I can see the convenience angle. I would like to be able to try one before buying it though.

  19. I love the internet, my computer, etc. I’m on it all day with my job. But unless forced into it, I don’t envision myself reading ebooks for several reasons. In the first place, I don’t want to come home after being on the computer all day and pick up anther one. Also,I just love the feel and the experience of holding a book (and I can drop it in the bathtub and know I’m not out megabucks). I also don’t spend money on books, I use my public library and books that friends and family pass around (and this is another thing – we couldn’t share an ebook). And finally, I very rarely reread a book so why spend money on one, esp. one I can’t pass along? I also think there’s going to be some quality control issues going on. That being said, I wish there was a non-electronic version of your book!

  20. There’s room for both. A photographer friend and I “published” an ebook (poetry and pictures). And I just read Bram Stoker’s short story “The Burial of the Rats” on my iPhone. I have a large collection of gardening books that I use on a regular basis too. I think once the paradigm shift has been accepted things will settle down.

  21. As a graphic artist that works in publishing – I love the extra income from desperate folks wanting to self publish after being turned down by the big boys. And since they don’t know much about page design I am pretty much free to do things my way whereas working on projects with all the big names in garden publishing was never fun – never, ever, never!

    I’m surprised that magazines in the digital format have not taken off. There is so much you could do with a page – text where you click on a scientific name and hear it pronounced correctly; people’s names which click through to bio’s; lush layouts where each plant works as a button to explore further if you are interested; magnifying glasses for close-ups of flowers and leaves; etc… I guess they are waiting for larger format hand held devices. Of course magazine publishers never fully utilized their format either – the industry is full of poor ad placement examples.

    Like many folks that spend all day ‘staring at a box’, (my words for working on a computer) I can barely stand to even watch tv when I get home. Thank gawd I can unplug and go outside and actually pull the weeds myself.

  22. I think ebooks are here to stay. just like sound came and movies evolved, and tv appeared and radio changed, books change too. My concern is the quality of the writing in the new medium. will that be better or different? You still need to have someone write the material, edit, put it together to make sense. I think, with the computer, there is too much to read, even though a website, for example, might offer the material in sections. what kind of readers will be become with the computer, and ebooks?

  23. I’m actually a children’s book author/illustrator by trade, and I sometimes think I’m in the ONLY branch of publishing that won’t go digital any time soon. The day e-book readers get cheap enough and sturdy enough that you can hand one to an eight-year-old boy and say “Go read a book!”…then yeah. But at the moment, since everybody I know with a spendy iPad or Kindle would not dream of handing it off to a small child, who might drop it/step on it/accidentally stumble into Mom’s erotica collection/whatever my income from physical book sales is still pretty secure.

    I suspect within a decade, that’ll change, but I’d honestly be surprised if the print side drops to less than 50% of sales in my lifetime.

  24. It’s only a matter of time. The publishing industry will morph much like the music industry has over the last 7-8 years. There will be a huge downward pressure on prices to the consumer, since publishers will no longer control the whole process internally, and the costs associated with digital is almost negligibe, in comparison. I may still listen to my vinyl recordings on a turntable, but I also recognize that I will never listen to Lady Gaga on vinyl, and I better get with the program if I want to (somewhat dubious proposition, that). I suspect the same thing will happen to the written word industry, as well, with multiple niche markets, greater personal selection options, and lower consumer costs as a result.

    Not having a clue what that end-device in the consumers’ hand (embedded eyeball chip?) will be prevents me from being any kind of early adopter of e-reader formats, however.

  25. I like the digital books. I can make the print large enough that I can read them. The older I get the less I find myself reading books because I can not read them easily.

  26. Since I still live in the digital stone age, I am guessing that books are downloaded from the online publisher to the reading device – Kindle being the current trendy one.

    I can barely download a basic web page at times because my satellite ISP sucks and that is my only option. Downloading an entire novel could take weeks or simply shut the pitiful Hughes satellite down altogether.

    E-books sound like a nice option for many people. Publishers just might want to consider that the internet infrastructure in huge swaths of this country are non-existent to pitiful by first world standards and a big part of their potential market is shut out.

    Tell that to your congressbots who want to stimulate the damn economy.

  27. I like books so much. Book books. Paper books. I have about 12 bookcases of them.

    A few things about this, and I will sound crazy saying them, but “whateve”

    1) If, someday, electricity is so expensive that I can’t power up a digital device, I still have my books.

    2) If I need to use my books as fuel, I have them.

    3) I like holding a paper book. I only do electronic stuff because I have to, that’s how I make my living.

    4) With a paper book, you can read two pages in entirely different places of the book at one time. You can flip around easily. Not so much electronic, in my view.

    I love books. I will buy them until they are not made anymore.

    ALSO: I definitely think it is worth paying a book that has been professionally edited.

  28. I love gardens and books! They calm me down and let me escape the high speed world that is too much about instant gratification. Books made of paper are more timeless to me, an escape and I can’t imagine ever owning too many! That said my 76 year old mother bought a Kindle because she was tired of traveling and lugging books around. I just can’t imagine a world with out books unless it was “The Garden Of Eden” : )

  29. After asking a nook reading friend the other day who reads constantly if she enjoyed reading on a nook, or if she missed the tactile experience of turning the pages, we started reminiscing about our experiences at the public library when we were little and the impact ebooks would have on that. I still remember circle time, and how much I enjoyed carrying home the books I checked out. Realistically, by the time I have grandchildren, that experience will have radically changed due to ebooks; not the love of reading but how you do it. My children may reminisce about reading a printed book the same way I do about the commodore 64, record player and 8 tracks that we had when I was little.

  30. Katie, as a long-time book editor, I thank you for your appreciation of professional editing. Also, as a book indexer, I wonder, do people really want to go through every single instance of “chicken parasites” or some such term, or do they want to turn to an index where a real, human indexer has evaluated all those terms, ignored the meaningless references, and indexed the useful passages in an organized, accessible way? In reality, search functions can be incredible time-wasters. But, in fact professional editing and indexing can and should be as much a part of digital publishing as paper publishing. Just because people choose to read in a digital format doesn’t mean they should have to wade through crap.

    And even though I’m well over 35, and a real book-lover, there is one important feature that may eventually lure me over to the digital format–the ability to adjust font size. Anyone over 40 knows what I’m talking about.

    But it’s not likely I’ll go digital until the publishing world settles on a format, and the word I get from my friends who work on the production side of publishing is that that’s nowhere near being settled yet.

  31. I find it sad that someone is too lazy to look up a word in a dictionary or needs a reader’s guide to get them through a book. I like books because I can hold them, they have heft and texture, you can turn back pages easily, flip too and fro. Producing a screen takes rare materials, toxic materials and huge amounts of energy, all non-renewable resources and a source of indestructable waste. Books take paper made from a renewable resource and will rot when old.


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