Sunday, March 01, 2009

Musings about eBooks.

The launch of Amazon's Kindle 2 on February 9th has released a torrent of discussion about the future of ebooks on television, in newspapers, in the pages of national magazines, as well as online conversations in blogs and on Twitter. I've refrained from joining the choir of commentators because I feel that I don't have a cogent argument to put forward about my extreme discomfort when it comes to eBooks.

I sincerely believe that if Amazon's Kindle or Sony's Reader Digital Book or perhaps an iPhone eReader application were to take off the way the iPod has over the last five years, bookstores as we know them would cease to exist. Sure, there would be some small, niche stores. Perhaps even a few general booksellers that were a tiny fraction of the size of my store could exist in big tourist destinations, but the world of oversized chain booksellers and scrappy full-service, general independents would largely disappear.

Instead of trying to put together a rational, logical essay about all of these ideas swirling in my head, I thought I'd just jot down a few thoughts about eBooks, in an effort to join the conversation.

  • The prices of Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader are outrageous. We are talking about a device to enable people to read books. Books, the top source of information for about 500 years, have been relatively affordable, throughout modern history, for people of all walks of life. New books generally range in price from $3 (Dover classics and children's early readers) to $35 (hardcover biographies or histories). The $359 price tag truly prevents eReaders from being something that will be available to all classes of Americans, let alone people in poorer countries. If some books are eventually only published as eBooks, millions of people will not have access to them. That's scary.

  • Every new scientific or technological idea is not necessarily a good one. My wife and I have been debating the merits of cloning Neanderthals for the past few weeks. I've been in favor of bringing our ancient relatives back to life. It would only take about 30 million dollars to meet one. We could clone about 25,000 (a small city) if we spent the entire stimulus bill on the project. My wife is concerned about the ethics and humanity of the enterprise. EBooks seem about as necessary in today's world as Neanderthals. For generations, the book has been an unbelievably efficient means of communicating complex ideas and stories. EBooks don't add anything to the reading experience. IPods, on the other hand, allow us to mix our music and categorize it in ways that weren't possible unless you were a disc jockey. We aren't going to make mixed books. Do you need to carry around 100 books? Should we scrap books simply because we can? What are the real ramifications of digitizing our cultural legacy? Could a virus wipe out a future Thomas Paine's cry for revolution?

  • Reading is a vacation from the computer and television screens. We spend half our waking lives, maybe more, in front of these screens. Reading a book slows us down, forces us to concentrate in a way that neither the television nor the Internet does. If reading a novel is no different than reading a website with multiple links, will our ability to focus on something longer than a blog post begin to erode?

  • Now that I have a baby, I seem to find myself in the library a bit more. It's a restful place in downtown Boulder with excellent diaper-changing facilities. We've started borrowing DVDs and books on CD while we are there. Almost all of the library's numerous patrons are glued to computer screens. Many are watching entertainment videos on YouTube, viewing sports clips on ESPN or just tweaking their resumes. Often, I amble, virtually alone, through the stacks of books, glancing at their colorful spines. I get the feeling in those quiet aisles, as I look at John Dos Passos' collected works taking up half a shelf, that I'm witnessing the demise of a whole civilization of learning. I think eBooks will just hasten the decline. Without their physical aspect, books will have no chance of competing in the entertainment world.

  • Each night, I read a book to our four-month-old daughter, Martina, before putting her to bed. We've read Henry Hikes to Fitchburg by D.B. Johnson, my personal favorite, Chubbo's Pool by Betsy Lewin, I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy and Dawn by Uri Shulevitz several times. I perch her on my lap and spread open the beautiful, illustrated pages before her. The paintings take up most of her field of vision. She's completely absorbed by the riot of colors and shapes that she sees. EBooks will never be able to do that.

There are two recent blog posts that I would recommend for a sane and rational bookseller perspective on eBooks. Rich Rennick, a bookseller with Malaprop's in Asheville, North Carolina states his belief that there are opportunities for independent bookstores in his post What About EBooks? Patrick, a bookseller with Vromans, the top independent bookstore in Los Angeles, talks about the actual experience of reading an eBook and what the future of eBooks might mean for independents in his recent post, I Read and E-Book (And I Liked It).


MacElf said...

Arsen, I second your thoughts, and your point on affordability of books is an excellent one. We read to the kids every night, too - those things require no batteries.

Rich Rennicks said...

Rather than totally disappearing, I worry about a digital divide along socio-economic lines. Digital ebooks with access to up-to-the-minute scholarship for the wealthy, versus cheap second-hand paperbacks or paper reprints without/with out of date scholarship for everyone else.

We've seen 4yr degrees become the new HS diploma (the baseline qualification for anything). How will digital books affect the affordibility of an education?

Anonymous said...

I love that picture of you and Martina!! Another bonus with real books made out of paper is when she gets older, she will want to be in charge of turning the pages when you read. My 4-year-old considers it a real honor to get page-turning duty.

But then again, if it were digital, he could be in charge of hitting the "next page" button. Meh. give me books that smell like books and have crayon scribbles on them from when I was a kid.

The one major thing I can see in favor of Ebooks is what Nicholas Negroponte is doing with the OneLaptopPerChild gig. Poor kids who will never get a box of secondhand books sent to them can use their self-generating powered laptops to access an ELibrary.

What was on "the shelves" looked like slim pickings a year ago, so hopefully it's been upgraded. It would be awesome for them to get greater access to what is out there.

Rick Toone said...

Everyone agrees that reading to a child is the best way for children to learn so much. Technology should help if you so desire. Though the Kindle and iPhone are expensive some kids who read may find the "gadget" cool and read more while others will only play with it.

I do think that there are times when having a "distraction", like out to dinner or in the car that the use of technology to read rather than play games or watch the same movie again comes in handy.

As more companies get on board producing e-books, I think we'll all see a change in our habits and opinions about this conversation.

Jeff said...

A book lover's fascination with books starts early in life. I think the ratio of true book lovers to the general public is not likely to change.

Somebody always brings out the analogy of e-books is to print as cars are to horses. (I love the neanderthal analogy!) But horses are still around and loved by many. Sure, the uses of horses have changed but it would be silly to call for the extinction of horses just because everyone prefer autos instead.

Books in print will continue to find an audience, a group that really enjoy both reading and books. Ultimately, this may be better for independent booksellers who specialize in quality books rather than the larger chains that depend upon more general sales.

I've come to realize that the Internet is too skewed towards e-books to properly discuss the future of the book. It's like asking the Taliban to discuss the future of religion in Afghanistan. :-)

Anonymous said...

Arsen, all your fears that eBook readers will take off like the iPod will will be realized. The tipping point will probably come by 2012. Already Amazon appears to be selling 5% of the total book market as eBooks. This will probably reach 10% - 15% by the holidays.

Russell Dauterman

Angela Connor said...

I am happy to have found a blog where i can follow the minds of those in the book industry. I get so caught up in the journalism, death of newspapers, new media conversations that my industry is so involved in that I had not really thought about following the conversations of those in the book industry about how they too are being affected by all things digital. I am a book lover and have made sure that my children are as well. I hope that the industry can prevail, adapt and innovate in ways that will stand the test of time. You've just got yourself a new subscriber. BTW, I'm communitygirl on twitter.

Henry said...

I understand you’re a bookseller and you’re worried about the future of bookstores, but really: “EBooks seem about as necessary in today's world as Neanderthals.” For one, it’s a way for thousands of writers to reach an audience who may not be able to otherwise. And much of your discussion about ebooks is as if the current system is static. 1. Ereader costs are going to come down. 2. Color ereaders are going to come on the market, so picture books will translate fine. The “screen” on the Sony e-reader is very un-screenlike. This technology is going to both improve and get cheaper.

This also comes from the perspective as ebooks vs. books, as if there’s a great battle between the two – even if they complement each other. Stephen Fry on Twitter (think it’s original to him) said, ebooks aren’t going to make printed books obsolete any more than escalators make stairs obsolete. I don’t know how indie bookstores are going to adapt to the new market, but stating that ebooks are useless might not be the greatest starting point.

Benjamin said...

Why does it have to be "either-or?" Real books are not going away any time soon, and have advantages, as you point out. Ebooks are not totally bad or evil, and also have advantages. There is still a pleasure in browsing stacks, and in searching online for books. We now can have both.

ThisWankingLife said...

I love books, I love proper books stores my favorite way to spend a few hours browsing. I just moved to Chile very few english book stores so I have been reading ebooks. Kindle for iphone has saved me I never thought i would like it but I'm finding it really handy and I am reading a lot more(13 books in 3 weeks). I'm sure I will go back to the traditional book for something i love, but when i want to read a trashy crime book or horror novel I may just stick with a download.