No, I don’t hate the idea of a Kindle, or a Nook, or a Sony Reader, or any other e-book readers out there.
And I’m not a card-carrying Luddite. (That’s a trick question: Luddites wouldn’t carry a printed card, would they?) In fact, I’ll probably publish a title or two in 2010 in e-book editions (alongside hard-copy editions in print).
But . . . there are a few things about the hoopla surrounding e-book readers that underwhelm me, as a practical Midwesterner.
First and foremost, it’s hype to extol this format as “the future of the book.” And to lament the possible demise of the printed book. This kind of hype is always tossed about, fueled by media’s interest in provocative headlines, plus industry’s desire to sell the latest gizmo as fast as they can. And it’s echoed by early adopters, of course, who want the rest of us to jump on the bandwagon (otherwise, they wouldn’t be early adopters, just folks wearing the emperor’s new clothes). And we all want technology to come down in price, so volume helps. And so on.
Yes, the Kindle/Reader, etc. does offer advantages in certain circumstances. One example is a person traveling . . . who wants to take a bunch of reading material. A Kindle is lighter than a stack of books. It has other clear benefits. Speed of delivery to your device when a book order is placed. Ability to search and find a given phrase. Ability to increase the size of the type.
Okay, but let’s look at a few serious negatives, beyond the hype.
1. Cost of the Kindle, Nook, Reader, etc. unit.
This is absurdly often swept under the rug when talking about the wonders of new technology. But what does it really cost to purchase, maintain, learn to use, and occasionally upgrade or fix or replace an outmoded device? I can buy a lot of books for a couple hundred bucks.
2. Longevity of the Books
Let’s face it, paper is a superior technology in proven longevity. Physical books will stick around; they’ll be readable in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. . . . Is that true of e-books? Can you transfer them from device, from person to person? Do you believe they’ll be readable in 5 years or more? E-books might be best for titles you want to read and toss fairly soon. Physical books, perhaps, are better suited for books you want to keep.
3. Reliability Day to Day
Your e-book reader functions today. Will it tomorrow? Battery problems? Other issues? What if Amazon decides to remotely erase your e-copy of a book, as they did with their edition of Orwell’s 1984. (Was it just a freaky coincidence that it was that book, of all books?). Again, physical books score high in reliability.
4. Ability to Share the Book
Want to lend a book to a friend? Or give one as a gift? The physical book is better suited as a thoughtful gift, for a number of reasons, such as knowing the recipient will be able to read it! For e-books? . . . probably best to give a gift card, that most vanilla of gifts.
5. The Reader Experience
I love books, and so come with a bias. But think about how you read. If just to acquire information, then the device hardly matters. And the most efficient device should win. But if you’re like me . . . you enjoy the experience of reading a physical book . . . not because of habit but because you’re sophisticated enough to realize the experience is well designed . . . by generations of book designers, typographers, printers, and yes, by writers and illustrators.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I relate to the nature of a real printed book. I actually enjoy turning a physical page; it reinforces the sense of forward motion through a book, from beginning to end. When I get to the last pages of a great book, I experience a remarkable feeling of closure, sometimes bittersweet, as I come to the last page and leave the world of that book.
And I read books in brief chunks. I set them down, by my bedside or downstairs on the coffee-table. These real books, lying there with their evocative covers, are my reminders of what I’m reading. I don’t climb into bed and think, hey, I want to read Beautiful Creatures (what I’m currently in the midst of). I get into bed and see it, there on the nightstand. That’s my prompt. Otherwise, let’s see . . . would I fire up the Kindle, and look for a file? (After a day of working at a computer . . . no way!)
This isn’t like the audiophile who appreciates vinyl records as something nostalgic and tangible. Rather, there’s a strong correlation . . . logical and reinforcing . . . between the design of a book and the physical act of picking up a book and reading it, page by page.
6. Motivation for Writers
Those folks eagerly promoting new technologies haven’t always thought about the impact on writers.
Take a minute to think how the digital file has changed the recording industry . . . the concept of the longer album has given way to the random-shuffle of single cuts. And musicians have switched to giving their music away for less and instead making money on live shows on tours.
So let’s say you’re, oh . . . Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Are you going to write Huck Finn and get it published? Or just stick with your short comedic pieces like “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”? Which will do better in an e-world, or in performance on tour? Fun stories or great literature?
What does it all add up to?
In summary: physical books have an economic model that (mostly) functions, to sell books with real ownership, longevity, and a nice reader experience.
E-books and e-reading devices . . . economically, technologically, and professionally . . . are more experimental than you might think. And let’s face it, the purveyors of these devices care more about their bottom lines and less about the future of decent literature of any length and substance and quality, produced by the most skilled writers. Of course, they have a lot to gain by making you think that e-books are the coolest thing. And to buy physical books is a bit old-fashioned.
Just think about what really works. And what it really costs.
I tell my friends I’m a futurist. I believe that the future will feature paper books, on your shelves, in your hands, as great gifts, as graceful reader experiences with artful covers . . . and amazingly, they will work! You can read them! You can share them!
(By the way, I’m more excited by the book-at-a-time printing device. It’s a small machine that prints a physical book on the spot while you wait. Now that’s cool! It solves a real problem of distribution . . . eliminating costs of shipping and stocking inventory, and shelf wear, and returns . . . for hard-copy books. Hey, that’s better for everyone concerned in the business and art of book literature.)
Yes, Kindles and Nooks and Readers fill a certain niche for info you want to get quickly, cheaply, and that you may not want to keep for too long.
That’s not really why I’m in the world of books.