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