Wednesday, June 3, 2009

E-book, anyone?

I've been reading a massive amount of blog posts and other material related to the recent BookExpo 2009 in New York; I followed the actual event via Publishers Weekly updates, because, frankly, it's the biggest book gathering in the U.S. and with all the rumbling going on around the future of publishing, I was very interested to hear what the industry thought and how they were preparing to deal with all the changes coming, one of which is the rise of the e-book. While I was reading, I came across this very interesting Q&A with author Sherman Alexie, who garnered some infamy for himself at BEA when he made a controversial remark about a woman he saw on a plane, reading from a Kindle.

Now, I have to admit, I am not an e-book reader. I've tried several times, even borrowing a Kindle from a friend; but I just don't like the sleek "feel" of the e-reader tool, nor am I enamoured of seeing a book on screen. It all feels . . . well, impersonal. I may be old-fashioned, though, like Alexie mentions in his post, I do love my computer, my iphone, my HD tv, etc. I also work on a computer all day and, as a writer, cannot imagine living without one. I've written manuscripts long-hand (yes, I'm old enough to recall a time when personal computers did not exist) so I know the drill. Your wrists ache and editing is a white-out nightmare. Computers are a writer's best friend. Unless the hard drive crashes and you forgot to back up. But I digress.

For me, a book is more than words; it's a sensory experience. I revel in all four senses whenever I read. The words are most important, yes, but the texture of the pages, the feel of the cover, the look and smell: each book has its own distinct personality, its allure, if you will. Short, tall, fat, slim, rough-cut pages, gullotine-cut, matte, varnished, embossed, smooth, new, used, collector edition, mass market, trade, hard cover -- I'm in love with the book itself and whenever I walk into a bookstore, I still get that giddy rush I've had for as long as I can remember. It's like seeing a beloved; I just can't wait to touch.

To me, books on an e-reader look all the same. Like droids. This isn't meant as a criticism or lament; honestly, I'm all for books selling in whatever formats most benefit readers - the operative word here being 'selling.' There is a comment below the Alexie Q&A that froze my blood: "In the future, no one will be able to make a living writing novels." This gave me serious pause. Of all the arguments in favor of the rapid digitalization of books, this isn't one I'd ever thought to hear, nor did I ever think to hear it declared with quite such glee. First of all, it's not as if most writers make much of a living writing novels to start with. For every James Patterson and Danielle Steel, they are thousands who sacrifice a lot to write, because they must. Most book advances are not yacht-worthy, trust me, and they're doled out in installments, so most writers never "cash in". It can take years to write a book and years to build a career, if you're lucky. And with publishing suffering the massive effects of this recession, shrinking marketing dollars means more and more of us realize we must save a portion of our advance, often up to 20%, for our own marketing, if we ever want to sell enough copies to get the next book deal.

I'm ashamed to admit, because I'm not an e-book reader I've also paid little attention to the pricing issues and formatting related to e-books. As far as formats go, it's all very complicated, and so I've just thought to avoid it by continuing to buy physical books. Pricing, however, does apparently affect me, and so I did some research, only to discover, to my surprise, that many e-books cost around $9.95! I guess the poster on the Alexie Q&A was right: at that rate, if the book does go 100% "e", none of us will be able to make a living, except the e-book publisher, that is. And when I start exploring all the pesky copyright issues coming up, I start to feel as if I need a cocktail.

Nevertheless, I'm going to pay a lot more attention from now on. As an author, it's vital to me that all writers receive decent compensation for their work and are protected as much as possible from the horrifying piracy issues that nearly gutted the music industry. I also think writers should have a say in how their work is digitalized. There's no question that the e-book is here to stay and there are as passionate defenders of it as there are opponents. I'm still muddling my way through the various arguments, because frankly I don't see why we shouldn't all be on the same page, no pun intended: we should be championing reading and joining forces to keep our book industry alive. There has to be a place for everything: I want physical book and e-books, online and physical bookstores, and all types of publishers to thrive, because I believe there is an audience for all of it, providing we, as a society and as a species, keep reading.

What do you think?


Meghan said...

I worry about this. I love to read and I love books. Whenever I think of what we would lose if we went towards an e-book culture, it horrifies me. No shelves and shelves of books to gaze at, no signed books, no book smell or solid feel while reading. Plus, not only would authors lose out on being paid, but imagine all of our books being tied to one device? If I had my 1500 books on a Kindle and then dropped it in the bathtub and couldn't afford another one - then what?

And what about libraries? While they don't pay authors beyond the book's initial purchase, I can't tell you how many times I've gone out to buy books because I loved an author or the series wasn't complete or because I had to have it. If books are all digitized, libraries serve no purpose and a huge, huge part of our literary culture vanishes.

I do think there has to be a place for everything. Obviously, people like ebooks. Maybe I'd like them too if I had a reader. But I always want to be able to purchase a real version, and I can't imagine a world in which that wasn't so.

- Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

Lezlie said...

I'm very torn over the whole concept. I love the "green" aspect of ebooks. I love the idea of having some shelf space cleared out. But I love my books, too. Big sigh.


Amanda said...

I too have problems with eReaders. My main problem is that I tend to skim things on the computer. I've talked to others who do the same thing. This doesn't happen when I read a physical book. And I am on the computer too much anyway to want to do fun reading via a digital object. And it's so cold and impersonal. I can curl up in bed with a good book but curling up with an eReader...I just don't see it.

Nan Hawthorne said...

As it happens, most print books look all the same to me... since I am legally blind. So I am rather excited about ebooks.. so long as they are in accessible formats.

Coincidentally my blog post for today is about how ebooks make hitherto useless print into something that can be shared with everyone. Even a deaf blind person using a refreshible Braille display can read a digital text file.

So by all means mourn the physical book.. I love them too.. I just can't read 'em.

Nan Hawthorne
Booking the Middle Ages

Lezlie said...

Thinking a little more on this subject, one of the things that greatly appeals to me about ebooks is the possibility of a book never going out of print. No matter how old or obscure, it would possibly be available.

Just a passing thought from someone who has been on the search for a couple of books I read long ago. :-)


C.W. Gortner said...

This is all great discussion. I think e-readers have a place and I'm not in any way arguing against them; as Nan points out, they're wonderful devices for people with disabilities who can't read physical books, and as Lezlie says, they solve that out-of-print issue though authors do worry over the "always being in print" clause versus having your rights revert to you at some point, so you can re-sell them. Also, e-readers are "green" to a certain extent, though I worry over the waste that e-readers could engender, given that computer waste is already a huge problem in developing countries where it's dumped. Publishers could also do a lot more to minimize the enviornmental impact of physical production of books and many have in fact committed to as much, setting goals for the use of recycled paper in all books, etc.

Still, as Amanda, Lezlie and Meghan point out, for many of us books remain a physical comfort and immersive experience, against which e-readers pale by comparision. In addition, the implications for libraries is indeed a complex one that deserves further exploration.

Nan Hawthorne said...

The national Library Service which makes the books we blind folk read.. there are now many others, thank the book gods, is slowly switching over to downloadable books. Soon a patron will be able to go to a web site and find a book in the local NLS library collection and just download it.

My local public library has some books available as etesct and eaudio.

If anything, would not a library of ebooks be in a position, financially and spacewise, to have many more times the size of its collection if they stocked ebooks?

Finally, has anyone else here read Jorge Luis Borge's The Library of Babel?

Nan Hawthorne
Author, An Involuntary King - now on Kindle so even I can read it!

Justin Aucoin said...

I've had this convo myself with some friends-- some seem to love the idea of having every book they own at their fingertips, the other half (which I belong to), rather the actual book in hand.

As much as I like the idea of being able to have a million books on hand, I like the idea of having a library more. And there's a better chance of a computer crashing than my house going down in flames *knock on wood*. I'd be beside myself if I lost my Sabatini and Dumas collection because of a hardware crash.

Like people have mentioned, reading a screen just isn't the same. I, too, find myself scanning more when I'm reading online (almost everyone does this)... not to mention, screen's aren't as easy on the eyes as a book.

Side note: Not sure if you heard, Chris, but 'Captain Blood' is being turned into a comic book. I am stoked. :-)

Anita Davison said...

I'm a big fan of my Sony E-Reader - and in tribute to Christopher, 'The Last Queen' reads every bit as well on it under the bedclothes with the portable light on so as not to disturb the husband - as it does in paperback. That aside. I love books too, and fill the house with them - however my children have no problems with e-readers, pdas, blackberrys etc which are an essential part of their life. Reading e-mails on their Blackberry's is nornal for them. My generation might be nostalgic for the solid feel of a new book - but I feel e-books are here to stay.

Nan Hawthorne said...

Two things:

Every new technology is seen as losing some value from the one to which we are accustomed. Just a we now say, "But reading a screen just isn't the same!" someone once said "But printing press books are so... mechanical looking! Give me an illuminated manuascript any day..." and before that "Reading? But listening to a storyteller is so much more exciting."

Another thought... think about a long trip. You could drag twenty books with you.. that would weigh around 50 lbs or so.. or one Kindle with 20 books loaded onto it that weighs less than one paperback.

The sould of a book is what goes from an author's mind to yours.. is the method of delivbbery - is it all that important?


Billy said...

This is a fascinating subject. As in many other areas of our lives technology is moving towards convergence. Where once you would have many devices to perform separate functions now you can find devices that do it all. But not very well – sort of like “jack of all trades, master of none”. But each iteration gets closer to the ideal or grail if you will. I purchased a Kindle principally for novels as I usually give them to a library or friend when I finish. I also was concerned about the massive amount of paper and waste that is the printing industry – it’s all economies of scale now. I was pleasantly surprised by the Kindle. Unlike the computer screen which is emissive light the Kindle’s digital paper is reflective, and is as easy on the eye as, well, paper. But then the whole thing was thrown out of kilter by the release of the Kindle app for the iPhone. Huh! It automatically synchronizes between the two. Now, I no longer fear long lines at the DMV, I just continue reading where I left off at home. Cell phone reading apps have become all the rage in Japan long, before iPhone added the Kindle app, even inspiring a new genre, or master genre of writing – the micro story. So, we are in a maelstrom of change and it never feels good. There is the Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” that codified what we feel now, so long ago. There are certain books that I will probably never buy on a Kindle – photography, art and architecture. But I have already saved enough by my purchases of Kindle books to fund my current Kindle and my iPhone which brings me back to Christopher’s remark that is now inspiring guilt – are authors being fairly compensated for e-rights. Remember, this was the issue with the writer’s strike last year that prematurely ended the guilty pleasure of Lost and Heros.

C.W. Gortner said...

Great comments, and lots of food for thought! I think there's a place for e-readers and they're here to stay; I just hope the pending issues around author compensation can be satisfactorily solved. Anita, I love the image of you reading THE LAST QUEEN under the covers on your e-reader :) and I agree that the younger generation is a lot more attuned to these developments. Billy, your comments are on target, as are Nan's. The truth is, it does take time for people to adjust to new technologies. Justin, I hadn't heard "Captain Blood" was being turned into a comic. That is cool!

Sarah said...

Fascinating discussion!
The library where I work has many different e-book collections on topics ranging from 18th-century English texts to computer titles to popular reading. Some are more widely used than others. Digital audio goes over big; e-texts of the latest fiction generally don't. People prefer the print (usual reasons; they don't want to read their leisure reading on a screen). Publishers/distributors of e-books have many different approaches to library sales... there's no consistency, not like there are with print books. Some use a "loan" system, others are available (and priced) for multiple simultaneous users. For libraries, e-books aren't always cheaper; sometimes they're much more expensive, depending on the model. And there are many different platforms for both us and our users to learn.

The Kindle is an interesting challenge. Unlike the other forms of ebooks we have, we'd have to actually loan out the device (we currently have one just for staff to try out). Because the Kindle seems to associate with a single Amazon account, anyone (any patron) borrowing our Kindle and wanting to buy new titles to read would automatically be charging them to the library's account, which is a problem. So we're still experimenting with how it all would work.

sweetpotatoboy said...

I also have mixed feelings about this.

There are certain books that I would want to have the physical versions of on my shelves. The authors I love. The genres I collect. The books that look attractive on a shelf. And once you have the book-buying bug, nothing's going to shake that.

But there are certain books that I might prefer to have paid less for, in a more disposable and more portable form. If it's a 700-page doorstep and I'm only like to read 40-50 pages of it each on my commute, do I really want to lug it round with me all day? And if it's turns out it wasn't such a great book after all and I wallbanged at 50 pages, then I might prefer to have had another option.

There is certainly room on the market for both formats - and this is a very exciting time for booklovers. The electronic world opens up all sorts of opportunities in terms of making an increased number of books more readily and perhaps more affordably available.

One concern, however, would be that the growth in electronic formats leads to a decline in physical formats, with the result that the latter become more expensive and less readily available. In the future, will you have to pay a significant premium for the physical version and find that it becomes a specialist, pricey option?

Another issue is unpaid-for file-sharing. The minute you have electronic versions, it becomes possible to distribute the version you've paid for to countless others who haven't paid for it. This is already happening online, mirroring what has been happening for music, movies and software etc. I haven't yet heard the publishing industry making such a noise about this as the music and movie industries have been, but they soon will be because the trends are the same.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anita here, I wasn't much of an ebook fan before buying my Sony Reader, but now am completely in love.

I think there's a place for both ebooks and regular ones, I for one won't stop spending money on regular books, there's always that special copy you want to treasure. But ebooks have a special place too, if you're anything like me, before going on vacation you choose an enormous book pile that you just have to take along but can't carry around due to its weight, now with the Reader you can have 20 books on the palm of your hand.

And someone here said they couldn't imagine curling up with a Reader, funny thing is, that's one of the reasons I bought the Reader in the first place. Reading in bed can be a chore, sometimes a book is too heavy and you can't hold it properly or it keeps closing on you, with the Reader I'm always on the same page and can hold it with only one hand.

Oh and regarding the comment "screens aren't as easy on the eyes", eReaders aren't computers or PDAs, they use eink technology that doesn't strain your eyes. Believe me, I wear glasses and I'd tried reading ebooks in my Pocket PC before and just gave up, after a while my eyes were getting blurry, eink imitates paper and it's like you're reading a real book, you need light to see the screen, unlike a computer.

Now from a buyer's point of view, I'd say that ebooks could be a lot cheaper, for 9.95$ I can get a paperback, and it's just ridiculous asking 23$ for an ebook just because it's new and is out on hardcover.

And not all book formats can be distributed freely, both Sony and Kindle have their innate formats protected and up until now no one has been able to crack them, and you need a device connected to the computer before you can buy from Sony or Amazon, so even if you could crack them, you could only buy them if you owned the device.

Amanda said...

I can see that ebooks would be a fantastic medium for people that travel a lot.
But personally I much prefer a book. And one of the main considerations for me is the cost of replacement! Not that I have ever had to replace a book.....yet. I like to relax in the bath and read (and my husband does too), and I just could not risk dropping an ebook reader in the bath! Hey if I dropped a book in the bath I would be cranky enough with myself let alone a gadget worth a few hundred dollars!
Also ebook readers have not kicked off here in Australia. We are in the unKindled part of the world, and the alternatives are quite expensive.