Sunday, July 25, 2010
As I mentioned yesterday, I thought I might take a few moments and speak more directly on the topic of eBook readers. This is a hot topic at the moment in the worlds of publishing, reading, literature, blogging, newspapers, bookstores, etc. I am often asked, because I've been in the book business for the past seven years, what I think of them and, especially, if I believe that "publishing is dead" in any capacity.
Up until the Kindle, I never took eBooks seriously. The main objection leveled against them by the reading public is that staring at a lighted screen for hours on end is hard on the eyes. Staring at pages of paper, less so. Until this problem was surmounted, eBooks would be nothing but a novelty. When I first saw a Kindle I knew the entire game had changed. As soon as they came out with a screen similar to paper and easy on the eye, the race was on.
At present, it seems to be a two horse race. The two products worth even focusing your eyes on are Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Nobles' Nook (if you're in the market for one, I am not shilling for anyone, but I will give you my educated but unsolicited opinion that at the moment the Nook is a slightly superior product. If a sack of money fell on me, I would probably buy a Nook for myself.) There are other eBook readers but, if we're being serious, it's really about those two. The reason for this is threefold: quality of product and services, name recognition, and price.
Often when new technologies like these come on the market, they are cost prohibitive to the lower middle class for a few years, relegating them to hipsters, metros, tech geeks, people who fly a lot, harnessing that image to build up the waters in the dam of coveting in the fevered brains of the have-nots. (Maybe throw in a highly successful, summer, hip, teen, college comedy-romance movie featuring a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt's funny, fat, Seth Rogan-y, Jonah Hill-y sidekick gets up to hilarious antics with an eBook reader in some capacity that will be reposted with LOLCat font commentary on something instantly relevant on every ever-loving Tumblr in existence, frying that product into the parietal lobes of a million young minds. Or maybe toss that funny eBook scene to someone playing a member of the faculty, either an SNL or Daily Show alum in order to include the post-college crowd into the demographic. The point is, modern slam-dunk advertising revolves around getting the people to recirculate the information on their own. Exhibit A: The Old Spice Guy.)
Where was I?
But Barnes and Noble by-passed that step by dramatically reducing the price of their eBook reader to less than $200. Now, I won't go into product detail too much, you can research that for yourself if you're interested, but B & N also has the advantage of a huge network of brick and mortar stores which they are employing in this endeavor by offering special services and advantages to coming into their stores with your eBook reader. The Kindle thrives because it boasts similar price and features (sans instore features) and also has the name recognition of Hipster Wal-Mart.
So, what do you do about the multitude who still claim they'll never change or "there's just something about the feel of a book in your hand?" Or the vast portion of the reading population who are, let's face it, the ones who "have the time to read" (pet peeve of mine: everyone has time to read. They just don't bring books with them when they wait in line and when they get home they park it in front of, you guessed it, a lighted screen) which is to say the retired population? Or people like me, the bohemian intellectual poor to whom $200 may as well be $2 billion as far as I'm concerned because I can't afford either? Well, let's actually lay aside that last one for a moment and come back to it.
You may wail against the eBook reader and boost the analog book all you want. Most of you are going to have children, if you haven't already, and then you will eventually die. The children will grow up in the world of eBooks and the system is already on top of this. A whopping portion of our population doesn't read but a whopping portion does go to school. And textbooks are very expensive. You see where this is going? It's already there. Don't want to pay $300 for a calculus book that will depreciate somehow to 25 bucks by the end of the semester? Buy the eBook version for $25 in the first place!
Now, back to me. There is the issue of cost, not just of an eBook reader, but also of eBooks themselves. Normally the fare I lean toward in my reading matter is classical and public domain. But let's take a rare upcoming new book I will probably be reading. If I bought Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas in hardcover from Amazon or in a new bookstore, I would pay about $20 (which is actually on the cheap side of contemporary new hardcovers). If it were available in Kindle form, I would pay about $9 for it brand new. If I alert the Chico Library that I want to read this book, they will order it and have it waiting for me at the library for absolutely no cost. It's worth it to me to wait to get to read it for free. If I somehow got an eBook reader as a gift or a hand-me-down, I would certainly use it, but I would probably mainly fill it with cheap or free public domain works like, oh, you know, the collected wisdom of human civilization. There are tens to hundreds of thousands like me out there: starving artists and/or poor autodidact intellectuals throughout this country who are tough nuts to crack in this market. They are Readers. Also, I may purchase a new paperback of, say, Ms. Thomas' upcoming book if it were around $10-15 instead of an eBook because if you leave a paperback on a bus or drop it in the bath by accident or it gets stolen (unlikely. Thieves don't usually have their eyes on books), you're out $10-15. But if you lose your eBook reader...
Also, if you hate a book you're reading, you can throw it against the wall and not lose $200 and your entire library in the process.
Also, when the economy inevitably collapses and the revolution comes, what happens to all of the eBooks if all of the servers are destroyed? The People in that circumstance must needs educate themselves with physical books.
Then, there's the world of blogs, online news, and self-published books which will bring more people into publication. This is a very good thing because perhaps publishing will of necessity move away from such towering exclusivity. I have no problem with Everyone having a voice. One thing history shows us is that it has a way of weeding out the crap and preserving the greatness over time (although with the sad side effect of incalculable lost masterpieces in the mix, but haven't we already muddied the waters enough?). I will throw this little Molotov cocktail out there: a book written on a computer, "published" in PDF format, and made available entirely in eBook format independent of an established publisher is NO LESS of a "real book" than a book published by an established publishing company. Martin Luther, Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Franklin, et al. did not have Knopf or Random House. They had a printing press. They produced some of the most enduring works in the history of humankind.
I would add the consideration of physical books as historical objects. If I turn slightly to my left, I see a bookcase that almost touches the ceiling filled with many books of value, many books of great importance in my life for some reason or other, and, most importantly I think, many books that were signed by the author. The author of the book held the book in their hand and put their signature on it. There is something primal and beautiful about that which I have a hard time imagining dying out completely and I cannot imagine how eBook readers could ever provide one with that aspect of the reading life. Readers are sentimental, romantic fools. No leaps in technology will ever topple that.
Partly for that reason, I don't think it's time yet to call for the feather and mirror to hold up to the nostrils of the books publishing industry by any means. However, as I mentioned, thinking about handwritten letters makes me a little nervous. Time was when all communication came from handwritten letters and certainly "there's just something so human and historical about a handwritten letter." And yet, in this modern age, although the art of handwritten letters isn't quite dead yet, it might be appropriate for someone to think about calling a priest sometime soon.
In short, I think eBooks are a great thing on a number of levels. I would love one, but don't anticipate actually owning one anytime soon. I don't think they will kill printed books, but they may kill hardcovers or, eventually, it may swing the other way and they may kill everything but flashy gift books. I think the transition will be slow and gradual, more like the cd to MP3 transition (lots of people still purchase recorded music in tangible formats. Likely no longer the majority, but enough so that cds are still being made.) But, I do think the eBook reader has the potential to finally kill newspapers, maybe even physical magazines, once and for all.
More importantly, I do think that this will change everything in the publishing industry. I'm not a prophet and am not yet entirely certain what it will actually look like, but I really do believe that the dawn of the eBook is the dawn of a new age. As usual, it's up to us what we do with it.