The recent Hachette and Amazon standoff got me thinking again about the e-reader. 

Of all the transformations of physical media to digital, I can’t think of one that has rumbled on and divided audiences like the paperback to ebook. 

Arguably not CD to MP3, maybe because people could still burn CDs from iTunes (the move to subscription music was more gradual) whereas people can’t print their ebooks on a whim. 

Arguably calls to SMS to messaging apps, DVDs to streaming, physical games to computer games, these were easy transitions.

Perhaps these easier transitions were partly because for these digital media, the product itself improved so greatly when moved to digital.

Adoption was quick because the benefits were so clear. 

  • Music is better quality and doesn’t skip, there’s no carting around bags of CDs. 
  • Streaming and download services have allowed many users to watch film on devices without a disk drive – tablets and smaller laptops – making the experience more portable. 
  • Games are infinitely richer in scale and involvement – compare GTA to Cluedo. 

With an ebook, the product is improved in some ways. Although the words are there just the same, the e-reader is more portable than all but the tiniest and thinnest books and the font size is flexible.

The e-reader itself offers additional functionality, too, like web browsing and instant purchase of new titles. 

But there are some aspects of an ebook, again talking about the product itself, that are worse than a paperback. As Sheila Bounford discusses in a brilliant article on her website:

….I miss some of the certainties of print: the place on a page a character or an idea first emerges, and the ability to revisit it in exactly that spot whenever I want to. I’m currently talking with a friend about starting a new book group locally and worrying that if we all read on the Kindle app, we’ll miss out on the ability to refer to page numbers and collectively locate ourselves as we talk.

Ebooks suit me well geographically but less so metaphorically. The answer to “now where was I?” can no longer be “bottom of page 125″, and that feels like a loss.

Media fetishes

I’m not going to list the pros and cons of ebooks versus paperbacks, because there are already thousands of articles out there on this topic. I’ve pasted some at the end of this article, for those unsure of current dynamics between Amazon, publishers, authors, agents and readers.

But what I’m most interested is in is the way we are wired. There’s long been fetishising of media, old and new. Whether it’s Tacita Dean’s insistence (through her work) that film is to be treasured, or David Hockney (in the same ‘industry’) and his very early adoption of the iPad for drawing.

An iPad portrait of Hockney by Florent Bonnefoi. From Wikimedia.

david hockney self portrait on ipad

On the whole, I’m inclined to think that the ebook debate rumbles on because it’s the perfectly pitched battle.

Ebooks have many advantages but as readers and academics think of the canon, it’s not limitless, it’s not in the cloud and abstract. Sure, there are millions of books, but a reader embarks on a journey to finish and collect their favourite authors’ oeuvres.

Perhaps the best way to think of it is that books are traditionally a more collectable media. People would spend lifetimes creating the perfect library. For that physical dimension, that beauty of browsing dustjackets, for these to disappear with e-readers is not acceptable. Whereas a CD was never what brought enjoyment – it was the instruments.

Other media was sort of abstract before it was digitised i.e. music existed in the air, a CD of an entire orchestra was no larger than one of a single flute. Films were conceptual anyway – ‘look, it’s real but it also not real’.

Books are different though, there’s a more obvious connection between the thing and the enjoyment of the thing. The enjoyment comes from how we use our brains to conceptualise the physical print on paper. Perhaps e-readers and their squashing of books into nice adjustable font, rob us of some of this psychic grunt work. We are the imaginer of worlds, not an Amazon produced electronic device.

The future is free

I’ll stop talking rubbish now. Let’s me be honest, as the internet has won out for newspapers, I expect it to do so for books, as long as the price point is driven down to an unignorable level, as happened with journalism.

Hachette doesn’t like that idea, but maybe it’s time to look at other ways of balancing the books (no pun intended). Good books are priceless anyway, so arguably maybe we (the readers) should get them for free. So, who’s going to subsidise all the great fiction of the world and in a way that doesn’t intefere with the product?

I’ll let you figure that one out.

Footnote (a few pros and cons of the ebook)

Pros 

  • Nothing will be out of print, once available.
  • Gratification. I can buy a new book wherever I am, instantly.
  • Less overheads for publishers often mean cheaper ebooks. After all, no need to cut down trees.
  • Lighter than a book.
  • Adjustable font.
  • Storage of umpteen handbags.

Cons

  • Non-transferable. This is good for publishers though. We’re less inclined to lend, certainly can’t donate an ebook to a charity shop and so more ebooks will theoretically be bought. We also can’t inscribe ebooks and gift them.
  • We can’t show off on the tube or in our houses.
  • Progress as a percentage, not the same as ‘ten pages left’.
  • Browsing in a bookshop is fun.