Sunday, July 25, 2010

on eBooks

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.


  1. Hubby loves his Kindle and the availability of books that are out of public domain. I have resisted this new-fangled contraption. *smile*

  2. Yes, I've heard nothing but positive from people who own one. Which leads me to even further suspect they're on to something.

  3. I can see this future coming but I want to be the guy in the Si Fi movie (can't remember it's name) where the young future people escape from their sterile, killing anyone over 25 world and find an old man in a library with hundreds of cats - the young people not knowing what a book is or a cat nor an old person.

  4. Awesome, authoritative ...... you could be an awesome feature writer !

  5. rainydaytoys,
    The film was Logan's Run. And it was an awesome movie. The always fantastic Peter Ustinov played the Old Man. Now I want to see it again!

    Mr. Kumar, thank you. You are very kind.

  6. I received a Nook as a present after the priced drop. A few months later and I have over 400 books on it. Some things work, some don't.

    The public domain books are often poorly formatted, though you can luck out sometimes. Feedbooks and the user-submitted books from are often pretty decent. Gutenberg is hit or miss. The best news with these is that they don't have DRM and you can fix them.

    Poetry doesn't work. I have yet to see a book with formatting appropriate for poetry in this reflowable model. So, you'd have to do it yourself. I was actually surprised when one book had line numbering for poetry (a Penguin edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass) but they didn't do it right, so it screws up the visual line. Most attempts at formatting poetry in ebooks is pathetic, left aligned, zero margin junk that doesn't even both to indent wrapped portion of a long line. Some ebooks actually have physical breaks in the line where the long lines wrapped in the print format (Barnes & Nobles Classics, I'm talking about you).

    Many publishing companies are lazy and don't bother to take advantage of the technology. My copy of the recent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War & Peace has 329 endnotes, none of them hyperlinked. You are expected to do the same gymnastics as you would with a physical books with endnotes, but it's much harder and more time consuming to do with an ereader.

    Any kind of scholarly work with lots of annotations will suffer. Any work with graphs and lots of images will suffer.

    What does work are novels, memoirs, etc. with few annotations.

    Also, I've been reading through Shakespeare's plays. The ebooks from the Modern Library/Royal Shakespeare Company edition work pretty well. No line numbers and some quirky formatting issues, but they are usable.

    DRM is a miserable thing. Once that's gone, you can fix all the problems with bad formatting rules and you'll have a copy that you can convert to whatever format you need for your reader so you are future-proofing your purchase. But you're probably breaking the law to do it.

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  8. As for Barnes & Noble versus Amazon...

    Barnes & Noble doesn't really seem to care about what their customers are begging for in the software, and they're pretty slow to get around to releasing updates that don't fix the existing problems while adding new ones. B&N won't let me return ebooks, no matter what the problem. Actually, the *did*... after a week worth of hassle and argument. The organization on Nook is almost non-existent and large libraries are not manageable. You can't search for books that are in your personal documents. You are forced to sort by title, author, or "most recent" and then page through until you find what you're looking for. The softroot has better organization, but B&N has recently broken the ability to softroot new devices and the softroot people haven't come up with a fix. Personal notes and highlights on the Nook are laughable and seriously not worth the effort. You have no way to export them. And you have no way to see where in a book they exist unless you also create a bookmark on every page you've left a note.

    Amazon's customer service is top notch in my experience. Amazon lets me return ebooks. The problem is resolved within 24 hours. I'm now wishing for a Kindle for Christmas.

    The bad thing about Kindle is the lack of epub support. This means no library books unless you're technologically proficient and don't mind skirting the law. My library doesn't have a huge selection of ebooks, and fewer that I'm interested in. BUT... they have been very responsive in purchasing ebooks that I want to read. They've ordered about 10 books for me so far. Takes them 2-3 days max.

    In the future, I don't want to purchase anything more from B&N because they make dealing with problems difficult. I want to go with Amazon who has always treated me right. But I'm glad to have the nook -- the hardware isn't bad... it's just the software lags behind and isn't being addressed. With both a Nook and Kindle I can take advantage of my library (tax dollars at work) and the better prices and customer service of Amazon.

    Neither of these devices handle PDF well, however. The cheapest device that really does well with PDF is the Sony Daily Edition, which is less than $300. It's still out my price range, and it won't read Kindle books unless you strip the DRM.

    The key to being happy with ebooks is either to not be picky about formatting (which does NOT describe me) or to be willing to strip DRM -- probably breaking the law in doing it -- and scratch your own itch.

  9. This is really helpful to know. The poetry thing would drive me to distraction. As would the end notes thing. As would the Nook return policy.

    As I understand it, our library (which is sort of a small town library) does likewise.

    The game seems to shift back and forth so rapidly. At this point, I still think I would like an eBook reader, but I think I'm willing to wait until the Universe brings one to me.

  10. I'm torn. I love having mine, and yet there are so many things about it that drive me nuts. I think if I weren't as technically savvy as I am, I'd go nuts. As it is, I can fix the things that drive me nuts. I have both ebook and print for both Quixote and War & Peace and have switched back and forth between them. I wouldn't want to read the print of either in bed, and I wouldn't want to carry them around town. They're too bulky for that. There's also a benefit in that at the end of the day when my eyes are complaining I can bump up the text size on my reader. I do that all that time. A friend of mine has poor eyes, and uses one of the larger sizes all the time. Far more convenient than tracking down large type books.

    The ideal position for ereaders as they currently are is as a replacement for mass market paperbacks. In an ideal world an ebook copy would come with either a hardcover or a trade paperback. I frankly don't want to give up either format. In time ebooks will be great for far more, but we need to pressure publishers to take the technology seriously and to treat it with the same editorial standards as print books.

  11. I'm not convinced I have the skills to leap those technological hurdles, so I think wisdom would dictate I wait a while to see which of the brands come up with solutions to these problems first. I imagine one of them will have to sometime soon.

  12. If you have a wealthy benefactor like I wish I had, then an iPad may be a good solution. With it you can read books from Amazon, B&N, and the Overdrive program that most libraries are using. It's also one of the few devices that is good for PDF. It's not e-ink, but it is certainly flexible as a reader.

    For someone who isn't technically savvy, I'd say the decision (if an iPad isn't an option, or simply isn't desired) is between a Kindle (often cheaper books, wider selection, better customer service, and more robust development) or Nook (can be used with the library books). If the library is important, make sure your library has either already got a robust selection of EPUB ebooks, or is happy to order them as requested. My library has surprised me in this -- they've ordered a dozen or more books for me over the last month or two.

  13. This strikes me as very sound advice.