What conversation about ebooks?

It seems wherever one goes on the Internet, everyone is talking about ebooks. But are they? Sure, there are plenty of people talking about the sea change that’s happening in the publishing industry. There are stats to show that kindle sales are rising and even surpassing hardcover sales. There’s plenty of chat about self-publishing phenoms that make us all believe that yes, we too could be that millionaire author with our $1.99 ebook price point, and there’s interesting talk of traditionally published authors now going it alone down the self-publishing road. Yes, these are all markers to show that we have truly entered the age of the download generation, but is anyone talking about ebooks? I mean really talking about them? I’m not referring to any of the above, I’m talking about the books themselves. The e-ink. The blood, sweat and tears that authors have left on the electronic page. The magic weaved among the words. The stories themselves.

People have articulated over and over again why they will lament the loss of hardcopy books – the feel of it in their hands, the smell of it, the turning of the pages, the favorite dog-eared copy that holds a special place on their shelf and in their heart. The memories such a tome evoked – but there’s another reason why I will miss books. They’re a talking point.

I’m currently on the verge of buying an e-reader. I’ve realized there are three reasons for this. Firstly, I spend way too much on books and the lower price of ebooks will save me a ton of cash. Secondly, it’s convenient. I have a long commute and being able to carry multiple books at the same time and not run the risk of them getting roughed up in my bag (I hate damaged books!) is a win-win. Thirdly, I just don’t have the space for books any more.
It’s this third and final “confession” that’s most troubling to me. As a child I hoarded books. (There’s really no other word for it). There was a shelf above my bed that was so chock full of them that adding to it required vigorous shoving or Jenga-like balancing skills. Thankfully my father was good at home improvements because I swear, if that shelf had ever failed while I was sleeping the sheer volume of books would have killed me.

I loved having my books on display. Not only did it serve as a complete visual history of what I had read, it also showed my changing tastes and my growth as a reader. There was Willard Price’s “Adventure” series, Piers Anthony’s Xanth series, and the doorstop tomes of Brooks’ Shannara series. There was the dirty great head of a shark, all teeth and menace, thrusting upward towards the miniscule unsuspecting swimmer on the spine of Peter Benchley’s Jaws. There was Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance trilogies, Tanis reaching for me with an outstretched hand, Desmond Bagley’s High Citadel, Craig Thomas’s Firefox and Firefox Down. And then there were a bunch of psychology books that piqued my interest in my late teens. Games People Play and the bright yellow cover of I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas A. Harris which, incidentally, is an excellent book that everybody should read at least once in their lifetime. These were just a few.
Not only did I love looking at my own books, I loved going round other people’s houses and looking at their books. Immediately I could tell if I had a kinship with people. “I see you like Connolly too. Which one of his is your favorite?” Or, coming across something I was interested in I could ask, “Oh, you read this? What did you think of it?” Whereupon, more often than not, the person would walk over, whip the book from the shelf and hand it to me. “I liked it. Here. You can borrow it if you want.”
I’ve borrowed books and loved them enough to buy my own copy. I’ve loaned out books, happy to share my passion for a story, and got them back battered and beaten up (which p*ssed me off immensely). I’ve handed out books knowing full well I’d probably not see that copy again and I’ve repurchased books multiple times to replace the ones that didn’t come back. I’ve sat on trains and looked at what the people opposite me are reading. I’ve had people read over my shoulder for a few stops and then ask me what I’m reading, resulting in lengthy discussions. This was true word-of-mouth. With ebooks and ereaders these kinds of interactions just aren’t going to happen and I can’t help but think that this is going to impact sales figures.

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that people won’t continue to talk about books. The Internet has the capacity to reach far more people than snatched conversations over coffee and review sites are a dime a dozen. However, an online review, no matter how good, is not the recommendation of a trusted friend. A review can’t pull the book down from its shelf and say, “Here. Take it,” and hand you a free copy. Dear God, that’s almost like…(whispers) piracy!
Granted, book clubs will still purchase their book of the month and discuss it at length, friends will still ask each other in passing “Have you read any good books lately?” But having books physically present in a room made starting that conversation all the more easy, almost inevitable, and I do think those conversations resulted in people buying books.

I think there’s another reason why ebooks are going to hurt sales. One copy is always going to be enough. Sure, my digital library can get wiped out in a cataclysmic system crash but the outlets where I buy my ebooks from will have a record of my purchases and let me instantly replace them. I’m convinced I’m single-handedly responsible for making Terry Brooks successful. I bought at least five copies of the Sword of Shannara over the years to replace loaners that never came back – and here’s the kicker, I had no intention whatsoever of rereading it. I just liked owning that book. I liked the cover. I liked the look of it on my shelf, the fat width of it jutting above the books to either side like the top of a castle battlement. I liked seeing it among all my other books, a kaleidoscope of colored spines, vertically oriented text and thumbnail pictures. I won’t get any of that with an ebook.
I’m pleased to see the eReaders are now incorporating lending features, I think this can only be a good thing, but once you’ve borrowed an ebook, are you seriously going to then go and buy it? Why would you ever want to? I rarely re-read books, but it’s not a ebook I’d be buying, it’s just bytes, and let’s be honest, an e-reader lying around the house just doesn’t have the same aesthetic as a book now does it? There was uproar when Harper Collins announced it was going to place restrictions on libraries, only allowing them to lend ebook titles a finite number of times before repurchasing, it got me thinking about how people value ebooks versus physical books and the whole distribution dynamic of books among the general population – borrowing, buying and loaning. I think that’s a topic for a whole other blog post but suffice to say, in hindsight, Harper Collins policy actually starts to make some sense to me.

I’m not against ebooks, in fact I’m really looking forward to the ease with which Ill be able to access them with an e-reader. But I will miss books. Not for any of the usual reasons people give, I’ll just miss owning them.

Are people talking about ebooks? Really talking about ebooks? I’m sure they are, but I don’t think they’re having the same kind of spontaneous conversations that arise from having books physically on display – and I think that’s a sad loss.

Stuart Clark is the author of the Project U.L.F. series of Science Fiction adventure books

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “What conversation about ebooks?

  1. Pingback: SF Signal: SF Tidbits for 5/18/11

  2. Grand post. Maybe in the future there’ll be a sharing function on e-readers, that lets you wirelessly send the first three or four chapters to a friend?

  3. Another “traitor”, lol.

    First – get a tablet PC, not an e-reader. Costs are very close and, with an external keyboard, you’ll find you can write wherever you happen to be, as well as read some other folks books.

    Second – not having space, budget and reading convenience are EXCUSES, not justifications. They’re easy excuses too.

    And the reason why we’re having to deal with e-books in the first place is because people like you have given in. It was the same with computers. If those damned abacus people had put up just a little bit more of a fight, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion!

  4. You know, I don’t really know what the fuss is about. I have an iPad. I love it. I have both the Kindle and Nook apps, along with a couple other e-reader apps on it, and like I said, I love it. I also have a small library in my apartment. Have I given up buying non-e-books? No! I use my iPad to buy books from authors I haven’t heard of, or had recommended to me. The books are cheaper, so it’s easier on the mind if I pick up a new author and don’t like it. I didn’t spend as much money on a book I’ll never pick up again. (Books are, to quote many people in the past, just like old friends to me and I love going back and rereading them.) If I find I like the book, I will go out and buy others from the author and be more willing to pick it up in hard copy. Also, I find I buy more books at a time through my e-reader than I ever do in the store. Why? My arms could only carry so much.

    These are just my random thoughts for this post. However, I have to add the fact that I’ve seen more kids with e-readers lately sitting outside, or in a comfy couch, reading off a Kindle or Nook or another e-reader. It may be that it’s a little less nerdy to be reading something off an e-reader than having a book in their hands. Still, if it’s getting more people to read, I don’t care what form it is in. I will always have a small library in my house (I fully intend to dedicate a room to it when/if I have the space). However, I will still always cherish my e-reader, if only because it is much easier to haul around on a plane, or in a car, especially when I couldn’t quite decide which book I wanted to read on the trip and didn’t want to take two.

  5. Guido – Thanks!
    Steve – Ah yes, the world is such a better place with computers. Remember all those “paperless” offices we were going to have 😉
    Brittany – It wasn’t my intention to write a post about books vs ebooks, more an observation that having books visible would often lead to discussions about them – so I’m pleased you’re keeping your small library!

  6. I know that many people don’t like e-books, I’ve heard a couple of years ago that usually only 10 % of the purchased books are of the kind one could read on a PC or other e-device. I’m not sure whether the situation today has changed, yet many of my friends, realtives and acquaintances prefer to hold a book made of paper. None of them thinks about the awful consequences the creating of paper could cause to the nature… Every tree is connected to at least twenty species of animals or other plants (it depends on the longitude and latitude, please excuse me if my numbers are not quite correct)… When a tree is cut off, it means death for some of these species, and much stress for the others, that could even lead to extinction…
    There are many other awful consecuences caused by the disappearance of the trees. Like draught, erosion, climate change… Usually, the new generation of trees grow up for about ten years, so it takes a lot of time until things are normal again… Finally, that leads to awful consequences for us humans (hunger, diseases, even death…).
    I’ve heard that about 98 % of all the animal and plant species that existed on Earth are extinct, since the Earth has been formed or created. I don’t know what is the percentage of the species killed by people’s way of life or strivings for a better future. But I remember when a journalist asked the famous naturalist Gerald Durrel how many animals and plants were threatened or extincted because of people’s activities, Mr Durrel showed him two enormous volumes of The Red Book and replied: „ I don’t know, I’m not brave enough to count them…”
    I remember also an excellent thought of the Indians from North America: The Earth is not ours, we just borrowed it from our children… I guess all of us should bear in mind this excellent saying, which Antoan De St. Exupery used too, and do our best to preserve the planet… Reading e-books instead of those made of paper could be one of the ways to do that?…

    • Ivan, I understand where you’re coming from and I think the less trees get pulped for paper the better. However, that said, with all these people switching to ebooks there’s going to be a greater demand for power to recharge all the ereaders – and when you think that 57% of the United States electricity is generated from burning coal, the tradeoff might not be worth it.

  7. why do book lovers protest ebooks and ereaders? Because the march to digital is going to raise the prices of what I and my fellow luddites will continue to want to purchase.

    Don’t get me wrong – a lot of my protests against new things are (deliberate) pro-forma knee-jerk reactions. (Yes, I would turn the world back to the early 60s if I could, and then freeze it there.) A bit for fun, a bit to help me personally get over the impact of constant change.

    However, putting all levity aside: the western world is largely being run by the forces of marketing these days and, believe me or dismiss me as is your whim, their druthers would be for everything to be electronic, one time use, penned by a monkies following a script and channeled out into standardized niches that have already proven their sales.

    Amazon, among others, is firmly in the lead on working out this paradigm; note that as soon as they got everyone to accept a (modified) version of their ebook sales plan the VERY NEXT thing they did was to announce their own in-house publishing brand. Followed by the whiz-bang idea of selling books to libraries on time-share.

    Playing over in the specialty market (which is where I and just about everything I enjoy will eventually be relegated) is expensive.

    Imagine the publishing industry being run just like McDonalds – after McDonalds has put all of the other FF franchises out of business and pretty much run independent restaurants out of business. That is where we’re heading. Books like burgers, churned out by pimply-faced, illiterate kids, packaged with a toy, an outlet on every corner. (Except no need for trucks, or grills or even spatulas).

    • Hey Steve, first of all I’d never dismiss your opinion (in fact I welcome it).

      However, putting all levity aside: the western world is largely being run by the forces of marketing these days and, believe me or dismiss me as is your whim, their druthers would be for everything to be electronic, one time use, penned by a monkies following a script and channeled out into standardized niches that have already proven their sales.

      I think you’re absolutely right on all counts here. I think you only have to look around you at movies and the ongoing vampire fest in books to see that creativity is largely being ignored in favor of what is either (a) selling now or (b) can be repackaged to sell some more.

      That is where we’re heading. Books like burgers, churned out by pimply-faced, illiterate kids, packaged with a toy, an outlet on every corner.

      Honestly, I think if people want to self-publish then they should go for it. I think there are a heap of incredibly talented, creative voices out there that should get an opportunity to be heard. Self publishing is by no means an easy thing to do and if somebody’s dream is to publish a book, then why not. The problem then falls on the reader to sort through this explosion of new material to find something they like. I think there will be more phenom stories like Amanda Hocking because people will just desperately want a recommendation of something good rather than having to sift through it all – and once recommendations start spreading they will gather huge momentum. There might not be many diamonds in the rough, but they will be huge glittery ones. But I do see the self-pubbing explosion as being self-limiting in a number of ways. Firstly, self-pubbed authors are going to then discover how incredibly difficult it is to market a book and this may then put them off publishing again. Secondly, readers may turn away from self-published authors in favor of traditional publishers where they perceive a certain amount of gatekeeping and (hopefully) quality. I do think things will settle down and find some kind of equilibrium.

      Speaking of gatekeepers, thank you so much for your post “Who will Guard the Guardian.” I linked to it in another discussion thread. You were the only person who made any sense to me.

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