Old Media/New Media Perspective
Thinking About Kindle and Ebooks
It’s been a long time since the last C&I essay about ebooks. That long silence was partly because of work-related sensitivities that no longer exist, mostly because I didn’t see much evidence of major or interesting developments where I felt I could add value.
Amazon’s Kindle is certainly an interesting development, one that’s generated a lot of discussion in liblogs and elsewhere. Is it a major development? That depends on your definition of “major.” Now that it’s been out for a few months and the initial fervor has subsided, it’s a good opportunity to discuss Kindle, ebook readers in general and issues regarding ebooks. It’s also, I believe, time to bring back a nine-part model of the ebook field that I introduced in September 2000. I’m guessing almost nobody remembers that American Libraries article; I believe it continues to be relevant.
First, the basics (as I summarized them in a PALINET Leadership Network backgrounder):
Ø The Kindle ebook reader is exclusively available from Amazon for US$399.
Ø Kindle measures 7.5”x5.3”x0.7” and weighs 10.3 ounces.
Ø The E-Ink screen measures 6” diagonal and offers 600x800 pixel resolution, 167 pixels per inch, with four levels of gray. E-Ink (a trademarked brand of “electronic paper”) neither requires nor can use backlighting. (The Sony Reader also uses an E-Ink display.) By most accounts (and photos), it’s a medium gray background, not paper-white.
Ø Kindle has a keyboard (not designed for touch-typing) and large page-forward and page-back strips. It does not use a touch-sensitive screen.
Ø Kindle supports full-text searching across all texts loaded on the device and comes preloaded with a dictionary.
Ø Books can be purchased and downloaded (the first chapter’s free) through Amazon’s WhisperNet wireless EVDO data network in most parts of the US (excluding Alaska and Montana). There’s no direct charge for wireless access—but it’s not clear whether there will be charges for using Kindle as a web browser. There are charges (ten cents a document) for converting your own documents to Kindle’s format and sending them to your Kindle. It’s possible to avoid that charge through email conversion and USB loading.
Ø Kindle books are heavily laden with Digital Rights (or Restrictions) Management.
Ø Most new books (more than 100,000 books as of late February 2008) are priced at $9.95. You can also purchase newspaper and magazine subscriptions and, oddly, purchase certain blogs.
Ø Amazon estimates Kindle’s storage capacity at 200 books. It can be expanded with SD flash memory cards.
Ø Amazon estimates battery life of two days, a week or more if you disable the always-on wireless connection. (Some reviews disagree.)
Ø Amazon says the Kindle sold out 5.5 hours after it was introduced and seems to mostly list it as temporarily sold out ever since. Notably, Amazon does not offer any sales figures—it’s not possible to determine whether 100, 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 were sold.
A note about that final bullet. A total lack of actual sales figures is consistent with the Sony Reader and, years ago, with the Rocket Ebook and competitors in all generations. It’s inconsistent with typical practice for successful new devices in the retail market, where you normally see sales figures touted at all stages of the game. My own instinct is to assume that, if no figures are available, there’s a reason—and not a positive one. “Sold out” by itself has no meaning.
One of the most effusive early commentaries came from Steven Levy in the November 26, 2007 Newsweek: “The future of reading.” Levy recounts the thinking behind the Kindle and features that print books can’t match. He quotes Jeff Bezos at length as to the sheer wonderfulness of it all. Early on, Levy gives us his message—one that I don’t hear from Bezos:
But if all goes well for Amazon, several years from now we’ll see revamped Kindles… And physical bookstores, like the shuttered Tower Records of today, will be lonelier places, as digital reading thrusts us into an exciting—and jarring—post-Gutenberg era.
Levy tells us people “have been reading everything” on screens, including novels, “but taking on the tome directly is the challenge for handheld, dedicated reading devices, of which the Kindle is only the newest and most credible effort.” Levy’s really hot for Kindle’s internet connectivity:
Though the Kindle is at heart a reading machine…it is also something more: a perpetually connected Internet device. A few twitches of the fingers and that zoned-in connection between your mind and an author’s machinations can be interrupted—or enhanced—by an avalanche of data. Therein lies the disruptive nature of the Amazon Kindle. It’s the first “always-on” book.
Levy links connectivity to finding and buying other books—and makes an odd comparison: Kindle gives “some hope to an industry that slogs along with single-digit revenue growth while videogame revenues are skyrocketing.” (We’re not talking about an industry in decline—just a mature industry past its huge growth stage.)
Levy proceeds to other possibilities: Books that can be corrected (or changed in other ways) instantly. Maintaining “the tether between the author and the book.” “With an always-on book, it’s conceivable that an author could not only rework the narrative for future buyers, but he or she could reach inside people’s libraries and make the change.” This brave new scenario is posited as a good thing. Levy also seems to think Kindle will make reading and writing both public acts, for reasons that escape me. We get talk of wiki-based collaboration, even for novels, from people who really should know better. Peter Brantley says “The possibility of interaction will redefine authorship.” Kevin Kelly says “reading becomes a community activity” and dreams of “the world’s only book” as though that’s a good idea.
What I didn’t find, on rereading the article several months later: Any indication that Levy had used a Kindle for any length of time. As with so many other commentaries on the Kindle—pro and con—this isn’t a review: it’s a metacommentary. Levy speaks of what could be. I find most of the possibilities either narrow or silly. When I write a book, I don’t want to maintain a “tether” over the long haul—and, as reader and writer alike, I most certainly don’t want a future where the book I read and possibly disagreed with on February 27 is no longer the book on my virtual shelf on February 28. Fixity matters to me. (I’m assuming that the story I read from Newsweek’s website on February 22, 2008 is identical to the story that was published November 26, 2007. Is that a safe assumption?)
One quick summary I saw of Levy’s article says, “He predicts that we’ll all be reading books this way one day.” If there was such an absolute prediction, I may have missed it. After all, I was trying to read a lengthy magazine article…from a notebook screen.
Peter Brantley spoke up before Kindle appeared, in a November 13, 2007 O’Reilly radar post (radar.oreilly.com) based on the likelihood of its announcement—and on a review of the latest-generation Sony Reader. Brantley labels his essay speculation and starts out reasonably distinguishing between audio and books. (It’s unfortunate that Brantley dismisses the audio album as “an obviously inefficient, undesirable bundling of content, screaming for disaggregation”—that may be true in some cases, but is nonsense in other cases.)
This comment seems reasonable enough: “In contrast, when one considers long form narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, there is less of an impetus to migrate from print use except for the possible advantage of portability and more extensive support for visually handicapped readers; on the flip side, there exist some non-trivial barriers (drm, format wars, etc.) to electronic access.” But that assumes that long-form text narrative will continue—and Brantley’s all for replacing that model:
One might argue that until text-based book production, as a creative process, turns more mixed media, and lends sufficient scaffolding for user generated content, re-use, and re-publication, the appeal of any dedicated, standalone device will be weak. Instead, it will be easier to generate marginal cross book-sector penetration with mixed-use devices (iPhone/gPhone) in which reflowable text/html formats (such as epub) are a straightforward application. [Emphasis added.]
Not coincidentally, it is these same devices that will most readily support the envisioning and enactment of new forms of creative expression, ranging from discursive texts which mutually engage authors and readers; location-sensitive rich-media manga with self-selected forking plots; narratives with multiple entry points and randomized outcomes; hybrid reality games where communication, collaboration, and interaction occur in a combination of physical and the digital spaces; and artistry that we cannot yet imagine.
Is it incorrect to sum up Brantley’s argument as “print books make sense if traditional narrative makes sense, but we’re moving past that point”? He says that, if the Kindle and Sony reader do succeed, it’s likely to be short-term, “a last gasp of a long-enduring form of socially constructed content packaging rendered anew in digital form.” Down with books, up with “consumer experiences”: “How we read will be transformed as much as what we read.”
Perhaps. I remain unconvinced—not that there will be such new forms (there already are), but that the narrative book with fixed text is, or is likely to become, obsolete.
Tom Peters posted an initial essay, “Kindling,” at the ALA TechSource blog on November 19, 2007. He offers a good description of the device, wonders whether it will support audiobooks or have text-to-speech support and concludes (in part):
Will the Kindle find a warm place in our hearts, or will this be yet another sad chapter in the tragic smoldering tale of ebooks?...
Will libraries have any truck with Kindle? Will Kindle knockoffs (with names such as Splinter and Tinder) soon hit the market? After the sizzle of the new begins to wane, will Amazon drop Kindle’s price to $199, similar to what Apple did with the iPhone? Time will tell.
A day later, he notes that Amazon’s website confirms audiobook support but not text-to-speech support.
The next day, John DuPuis (Confessions of a science librarian, jdupuis.blogspot.com) posted a set of links to “blogospheric reactions, mostly slightly negative but a few wildly positive),” adding more links on the next two days. He asks questions of his own—the kinds of questions that you can legitimately ask without ever seeing the device:
Is the future having a bunch of single purpose devices that are really good at one job or having one multipurpose device that may not be equally good at every task?
What if I’d rather spend my money on content rather than content-reading devices? In other words, is a reader worth the 40 books I could have bought with the same amount of money? The people that make and sell the devices certainly think so, but how about the people that make a living off selling content?
Is the book industry heading the same way as the music industry? Is the value of the content to the consumer tending towards $0?
I suspect the answer to the first question is “Yes”— some people want multipurpose devices and will trade off performance while others want excellent single-purpose devices. Despite some futurists’ claims, it seems unlikely that “smart phones” will sweep away all other gadget categories for everyone. For the third, I think the answer is No—but I think that even the best ebook reader won’t sweep away print books. For the second—well, that’s a key question, isn’t it?
Quick takes from early commentaries:
Ø Dorothea Salo: “Looks like the same old, same old to me. I don’t see what’s changed about the gadget or the legal and social environment that’s going to make this thing a success.”
Ø Tim O’Reilly: “I’m rooting for Jeff and the Kindle. I’m not sure that he’s going to win his bet that people will use a single-purpose device rather than reading on a multi-function device like the iPhone and its successors. But I’m also not sure he needs to. Even if some other device becomes the reader of choice, Amazon will still become one of the leading sources of the books that feed it. All Amazon needs to do here is move the industry forward, and I think that’s already been accomplished.”
Ø Steve Campion at LibraryStream thinks Kindle is “almost like an iPod for books” and hopes his library will buy one to try out—but doesn’t predict its future.
Ø Science fiction writer and avowed ebook fan Robert J. Sawyer “immediately fell in love” with the beta unit he got to play with—but he’s Canadian, and (at least back then) the Kindle was only available in the U.S. He admits “it ain’t cheap, but man, is it ever cool.” Sawyer owns three dedicated ebook readers and various PDAs—and he’ll buy the Kindle as soon as he can.
Ø Cory Doctorow came down hard at Boing Boing with “Amazon Kindle: the Web makes Amazon go bad crazy.” The summary version comes from a “great, incisive post” by Mark Pilgrim. As quoted: “it spies on you, it has DRM (which means that it has to be designed to prevent you from modding it, lest you mod it to remove the DRM), it prevents you from selling or lending your books, and the terms of service are nearly as abusive as the Amazon Unbox terms (and worse than the thoroughly dumb-ass Amazon MP3 terms).” Naturally, there’s more.
Ø Stephen Abram believes “someday there will be an ebook reading device that succeeds”—and has no idea whether Kindle is it. He does, quite reasonably, point out that much of the early debate was among people none of whom had actually used a Kindle—and that “someone with a library perspective” really needed to play with one and comment (although, as he notes, we don’t all need to).
Ø Outside liblogs, Marc Orchant at blognation did buy one—and likes it a lot. He thinks the heft is just right, “the screen is brilliant” (no “too-hard black” or “glaring white background”—I never thought about books having “too-hard black” ink!), the cursor strip is “visually arresting” and “intelligent,” the wireless connectivity seems to work, and following hyperlinks is “really quite cool.” He likes the browser too.
Wayne Bivens-Tatum calls himself “an enthusiastic devotee of ebooks” for the last three years, since he loaded Mobipocket onto his Dell Axim, but he’s not ready for the Kindle, as he explains in “The Kindle,” posted November 19, 2007 at Academic librarian (blogs.princeton.edu/librarian/). Excerpts:
First, I don’t want a separate tool… It seems like the things the Kindle can do, I can do now on my phone, and even though the screen might be smaller, the text is very clear.
It also bothers me how rigidly controlled commercial ebooks are. Ebook readers want to try to emulate the book, but only in the reading experience. Ebook readers and publishers are trying to stop many of the other ways people use books. In general, I don’t like the way digital rights issues interfere with ebooks in a way they don’t with paper books. I might be willing to buy a book, since I buy books now, but after I buy the book I want to do with it what I please. If I want to lend it to a friend, regift it to an acquaintance, donate it to a library, or sell it to a used bookstore, I want the freedom to do that. Publishers naturally want to keep me from doing that, though they never could with paper books, and paper books have long sold even though libraries, used bookstores, and reading friends exist.
The stranglehold on information will be difficult to maintain, but as long as it will be illegal for me to do with digital books what I now do with print books, I’ll resist buying them…
If we have ebooks without the freedom to lend, give, resell, or donate them, then in many ways we’ll have a bleaker book future than we could have. This isn’t a complaint against ebooks, as much as I like traditional print books, but it is a complaint against the commercial restrictions that may dominate the future of copyrighted books.
Simon Chamberlain, one of New Zealand’s libloggers, posted “Latest on e-books: Amazon’s Kindle” on November 20, 2007 (chamberlain.net.nz/blog/). He notes some early reaction (and that he hasn’t actually seen one), likes the wireless downloads, doesn’t like being tied to Amazon, and was one of the first to raise a key question—followed by an interesting conclusion:
The next question is whether libraries will be able to lend e-books to Kindle users. I read about 70 books last year, and probably more this year. Of those, I bought about two, and another three or four were gifts. The rest came from my much-loved public library, and the academic library I work in. I’m not likely to shell out $400 if I have to then buy all the content I use on the device.
But that’s OK, maybe I’m not the target audience for this one. I probably prefer reading off paper anyway (it’s not the resolution, so much as being able to flick from page to page and to have several books open at once). In an ideal world, I’d have paper and e-books, one for actually reading, the other available so I can do full-text searching when needed…
Most early reactions didn’t involve hands-on experience—and in many cases, that didn’t matter. It’s entirely legitimate to criticize a device you haven’t used, if your criticism stands assuming that the device does what it does perfectly. While I did comment about Kindle and ebook readers in general during this early period, all I really had to say about Kindle was “The Kindle no more spells the end of print books than any other ebook reader has.” That’s a judgment I could and would make even if the Kindle was a perfect ebook reader, however you define perfect. I just don’t see ebooks sweeping away print books even if they eventually gain the multibillion-dollar annual markets they should have (even if only for textbooks).
The early flow of commentary slowed down, as you’d expect. Some later pieces are worth mentioning.
Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal did a hands-on review on November 29, 2007. Excerpts:
I’ve been testing the Kindle for about a week, and I love the shopping and downloading experience. But the Kindle device itself is just mediocre. While it has good readability, battery life and storage capacity, both its hardware design and its software user interface are marred by annoying flaws. It is bigger and clunkier to use than the Sony Reader, whose second version has just come out at $300.
Like the Sony, the Amazon reader uses a high-contrast, but low-power, screen technology. The Kindle’s six-inch screen can display only monochrome text and gray images, and there’s lag time and a flash of black every time you turn a page. But I did find that the screen was good enough to make me forget I wasn’t reading the book on paper…
The device is poorly designed. It has huge buttons on both edges for turning pages forward or backward. They are way too easy to press accidentally, so my reading was constantly being interrupted by unwanted page turns. Plus, the buttons are confusing. One called “Back” doesn’t actually move to the previous page, but supposedly to the prior function. I never could predict what it would do.
The “Home” button for returning to the list of content on your Kindle is tiny and located at the very bottom of the keyboard. There is no button to take you to the online store; you have to open a menu and scroll. The book-like cover, intended to protect the device, attaches so weakly that it’s always falling off. And because the power buttons are hidden on the back, reaching around to use them practically guarantees you’ll knock off the cover.
The software interface also is clumsy. There is no way to organize titles into groups or categories, so you have to keep turning pages in the Home area to find a particular item to read. And doing many tasks requires you to scroll a barely visible silver cursor along a narrow side panel…
Amazon has nailed the electronic-book shopping experience. But it has a lot to learn about designing electronic devices.
Tim O’Reilly, in this December 5, 2007 post at O’Reilly radar, doesn’t deal with Kindle so much as with those who claim ebooks must and should be cheaper than Amazon’s $9.95. One poll found that most of those surveyed expected ebooks to cost $5 or less, with 20% expecting them to be $2.50 or less.
As a publisher, O’Reilly isn’t buying it. He doesn’t think there’s a huge unmet demand for books: “Regular readers already often have huge piles of unread books, as we end up buying more than we have time for. Time, not price, is the limiting factor.” He notes that alternative income streams aren’t as easy as they sound—“free ebooks with advertising” really don’t work given that most books have small audiences.
O’Reilly also notes that previous “let’s say” experiments (you know, “let’s say you cut the price in half and quadruple the sales”) haven’t worked out very well—and “subscribing to updates” for books specifically hasn’t worked well.
What he doesn’t say until the comment stream: There are a lot of costs to books from regular publishers that have nothing to do with the books being printed and bound. My standard figure for a long time has been one-seventh of the price (not the cost) at the high end. I’ve had a number of publishers agree this is in the ballpark. The big savings in Amazon’s ebook model comes from eliminating the bookstore and its margins, and I’m not entirely convinced that eliminating local bookstores is inherently a wonderful thing.
O’Reilly’s 3.5-page post resulted in 23 pages of comments, most of them long, over the first five days. In that stream, O’Reilly discusses actual costs:
Paper, print and binding are a far smaller part of a book’s list price than most people realize. It’s usually less than 10%. Meanwhile, distributors and retailers claim well over 50% of the list price. So while paper price fluctuations hurt, they don’t explain price changes. The biggest factor that affects price is potential sales volume, so indeed, if there is unmet demand, prices can go down. Volume is also why large retailers like Amazon can offer big discounts—they have lots of margin to begin with, and very large volumes can offset any discounting they do.
He also talks about the whole issue of pricing relative to anticipated sales. Excerpts:
There will be lots of experiments done to find the right price to maximize revenue. And that is dependent on volume—and is independent of length.
A good example of that is our Web 2.0 Patterns and Best Practices report or our Facebook Application Report, each of which sells for hundreds of dollars. Why? We thought demand would be limited, and that enough people would pay a high price to offset the low volume. We were right.
Meanwhile, many of our short cuts have been an economic failure (with a few exceptions) because the low price (typically $9.95) isn’t generating enough volume to make them worthwhile. I’ve been pushing our publishers to do more high priced, short form publishing where the demand is high but the market is small. We’ve learned quite painfully that a low price doesn’t necessarily spur demand.
Of course, we have counter examples as well. I turned Unix in a Nutshell, one of our first books, into a bestseller back in the early 90s when I dropped the price from $19.50 to $9.95. It was a killer price for a really valuable book, and we sold six times as many copies, easily justifying the price drop. But eventually, as we introduced more books at that price point, the surprise factor wore off, and many of the books ended up making less money, so prices went back up.
The set of comments makes fascinating reading, too much to summarize. If it seems as though some of this is about ebooks in general, not specifically the Kindle, that’s quite true. As usual, it’s hard to tear the case study apart from the field as a whole.
Steve Jobs offered perhaps the silliest (or most offensive) take on the Kindle: “It doesn’t matter how good the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore... Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole concept is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.” There’s been enough discussion of this nonsense that I probably don’t need to add more.
Paul Courant posted this on December 29, 2007 at Au Courant (paulcourant.net/). He’s had the “opportunity to skim thousands of comments” on Kindle. “I haven’t actually played with a Kindle, yet, but if ever a subject were well covered by the secondary literature, this is it, so I feel fully qualified to comment on the matter. (This in the spirit of Pierre Bayard’s recent How to Talk About Books that You Haven’t Read, which I have played with.)”
The Kindle is plainly many wonderful things, and does many wonderful things, and, for most purposes, is a pretty poor substitute for a book. (At the same time, for some purposes, such as carrying a substantial library on a long trip, or augmenting that library at 4AM from a hotel room in a strange land, or getting the best price on some content from Amazon, it’s much better than a book.)
Courant has a Sony Reader with an E-Ink screen:
I like it just fine, although if I have time, space, and carrying capacity, I invariably prefer a book. When I first played with the Sony I thought that pretty soon now, there would be readers that would make e-books very good substitutes for p-books. A year or two and lots of development costs later, I’m not so sure. Put simply, what is most striking about the buzz around the Kindle is that (almost) no one is saying that it is a revolutionary, next generation improvement over its predecessor. It’s better at some things, has a much better interface for actually acquiring content, and so on. It’s wow, but not “WOW, I’m going to throw away my library and convert the space into a billiard room.”
Courant—University Librarian at the University of Michigan—considers JSTOR and the success of ejournals. He discarded part of his own library and skim articles via JSTOR: “Of course, even then if I was really going to read the article, I would print it out”—as he believes that faculty and students tend to do for journal articles they really care about.
I’m betting that something similar will be true of e-books. They will really take off when their publishers admit that on-screen (in either computer or reader) is not the best medium for serious and sustained reading, and develop and use technical and rights environments that allow cheap and convenient print on demand. It’s wonderful to be able to search and to skim on screen, but when you want to read, there is nothing like a book or a printed article. The Kindle and the Reader are great; I wouldn’t leave home without one. But, like almost everyone, I do most of my reading at or near home.
I find it hard to argue with anything here.
I’ll use the blog name (Rochelle Hartman, rochellejustrochelle.typepad.com) because Hartman posted three discussions of Kindle on January 25, 28 and 29, 2008. She began “(Quasi) liveblogging the Kindle,” exploring a Kindle that her library’s business manager handed to her for initial evaluation. Hartman avoided reading extensive reviews of Kindle; she wanted to “have a new user experience with it.” Of the reviews I’ve read, this one seems most in line with how most of us would “discover” a new consumer electronics device, so I’m quoting a fair amount of it.
She started out the way most of us would: Trying to figure it out without looking at the manual—and applying the Toaster Test: “Is it as easy to use as my 1959 Sunbeam toaster.” She was also multitasking, recognizing the danger in not focusing on Kindle all by itself…and, after not feeling much more enthusiasm than for several other ebook readers she’s tried, she set it aside. Some of her comments:
I keep wanting to use it as if it has a touch screen. It doesn’t. (*poke* *poke*)
Okay, so I read the manual, since Kindle was not as intuitive as I thought it would be. I think if I were more clear-headed and in play mode, I might have gotten farther without looking at documentation. The documentation is very readable, though, and relatively jargon free. It is, in fact, pretty excellent. This brings a tear to my eye.
Now that I know not to poke things to make stuff happen, I find that navigation is not too bad. Only problem so far is the “back” bar. To me, this means “go back one page,” but it means go back to last document (I think). So, if you are in a document and click “back,” it will take you back to last document you looked at before current one. “Previous page” which is on the left side of the screen, is what you click to go back one page. Since I have the machine in its case, this is cumbersome placement. But, maybe machine was not meant to be kept in case while reading…
[After adding a book she actually wanted to read…] Download was pretty quick. Although the resolution is really good, and there are five text size settings, something isn’t quite right. I’m thinking that it would be better with backlighting, but maybe just better contrast. I am reading in bed, with a not-great table lamp. It’s readable, but I don’t like the darkness of the background. “Muddy” is the word that comes to mind…
I think I am going to have to admit to not hating the Kindle. Managed to read a couple chapters without thinking that I was reading from a machine. Also, when I fell asleep, and book fell on my face, I did not get a black eye as with other, heftier readers I’ve had… Wait...I just called the Kindle a “book.” More tomorrow….
[Next day] Turned on Kindle and it took me back to where I’d left off the night before, so I just started reading. I only got a few pages when the phone rang, so I put machine down to get the call. When I came back, I fully realized one of Kindle’s biggest design flaws. It’s difficult to pick up the machine (outside of its case) without clicking a next/previous page toggle. The page toggles are right on the edge of the machine, running about 3/4 of the length on both sides, so that if you need to change hands, readjust position, or pick up the machine, it’s pretty easy to lose your place. It’s easy enough to get back to where you were, but it’s a nuisance and hopefully something that will be addressed with next the iteration….
[Saturday, at work] The reading experience has been pretty seamless, aside from occasional toggle bump…
So far, so good. Kindle (and the Sony Reader) aren’t ideal “reading in bed with the lights off” ebook readers because they’re not backlit—but neither are books. (It’s not clear that E-Ink technology is compatible with backlighting. It is, I think, clear that backlighting would undermine the long battery life provided by E-Ink…if you’re not running a network connection, that is.) This is the kind of review that almost suggests Amazon might have deliberately done a short production run: They could use feedback from reviews like this to make a second iteration even better (e.g., different labels, making the page toggles shorter).
Then Hartman addressed a different issue: Does the Kindle make sense as a library device? After all, very few public libraries circulate MP3 players even though they may circulate downloadable audiobooks; even fewer public libraries circulate notebooks or PDAs, even though they offer lots of databases. I don’t know of many public libraries that circulate TV sets or DVD players to make use of their DVDs. So should they be lending Kindles?
In a January 25th post, Hartman looked at Kindle’s Terms of Service (TOS) while thinking about Kindle’s use in a library. Here’s what she saw:
“You may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party.”
She notes that a few libraries are already circulating Kindles. When she called Kindle support, a technician verified that circulating a Kindle would appear to violate the TOS. At that point, she concluded: “Bottom line: The Kindle has no application for public libraries.”
Comments muddied the water. One commenter got a different response from Amazon—or is it different? “We have reviewed through our Terms and Conditions regarding this matter and the Amazon Kindle. You will be able to purchase Kindles for your library to use for checking out to patrons, as long as you are not reselling the digital content.” Another commenter stated that Amazon “cannot tell you who you can lend discrete items to for free”—but that’s not clear, since you’re not so much buying the ebooks as licensing them.
After a second round of inquiries, the answer appears to be that it’s OK to circulate an empty Kindle (after all, that’s a straight purchase)—but that, technically, ebooks are only licensed for reading by the purchaser. (It’s still a little unclear.) Meanwhile, Hartman stepped back, resulting in a January 29 post: “Never mind legal issues; Kindle not good choice for most libraries.” Portions of that post:
Whoa. Wait a minute. Stepping back from my Kindle krush and putting aside the question of whether or not it’s legal for libraries to loan them, I considered the Kindle issue through the eyes of a public library manager who has to make decisions about how to get the most out of a budget. Duh! It’s a no brainer. There is no way I could justify deploying Kindles, given the present model. The machine itself is 400 bucks and can hold up to 200 titles. Let’s say that the average price of a Kindle title is 10 bucks. That all adds up to almost $2,500 tied up in a resource that can only be used by one person at a time….
How does it make any sort of sense for a library to loan out a $2500 resource to be used by one person at a time for 2-4 weeks? That’s the equivalent of allowing only one person at a time access to Ancestry online for two weeks. Or to check out the entire World Book set. Those ideas sound outrageous. Because they are. It would demonstrate impeachment-level poor stewardship. Even if the price were to come down drastically, it would still be an irresponsible allocation. Now, if Amazon or someone could come up with an affordable e-reader with the same functionality as Kindle, that patrons would want to buy, along with becoming a vendor of affordable, multi-format ebooks that libraries could offer to patrons for easy downloading, that’d be something to text home about.
The first post and the other two posts cover different issues, to be sure. The first addresses Kindle as an ebook reader—and here, Hartman’s overall tone is quite positive. The others address Kindle as a circulating device—and here, I believe she’s right for most libraries. I presume the Apple iPod Touch really is a wonderful music player and, thus, wonderful way to listen to audiobooks. Does that mean libraries should be buying and circulating them?
The comments are interesting. One person, from an early library to circulate Kindles, notes (in a comment on a post that’s reference in a comment…never mind) that hard-cover books last for about six circulations until the “text box drops out” (by which I assume she means that the bound pages fall out of the cover). Is that true? Are hardbounds that badly made these days?
George Needham offered “Kindle: First e-impressions” in a January 30, 2008 It’s all good post (scanblog.blogspot.com). It’s a favorable review. Needham found himself “thoroughly enmeshed” in a book he wanted to read—”as thoroughly as if I were reading the paper edition.” He thinks Kindle might make very long books more approachable, particularly for someone who travels a lot. He loves the variety of type sizes.
His complaints are similar to Hartman’s:
I still keep accidentally advancing the page before I’m ready, due to the position of the two “next page” bars on either side of the unit. The screen wipe between pages, required by the e-Ink, is moderately distracting…
The proprietary format and the charges to access blogs and other content that are freely available elsewhere are real problems now, although I would expect to see these addressed in the not too distant future. The cardboard/leatherette cover is good for protecting the reader, but you can’t actually hold the book to read when it’s in the cover, unless I’m doing something pathetically wrong. Not that it would be the first time.
He finds Kindle “a fascinating step forward for e-content” and would love to see textbooks available in this format. “I hate seeing my poor 8-year old grandson schlepping a heavy backpack full of textbooks.” He closes with some interesting questions:
So the question seems to be, what now for libraries? Do we have in Kindle an opportunity, a threat, or a parallel course?
Needham can predict my response: Not a threat, possibly an opportunity—if and when Amazon supports a downloadable/circulation mode. Maybe a parallel course for some patrons, just as bookstores are parallel courses for some patrons—and that’s OK.
A longer version of this post appeared as the February 2008 “I’m Curious George” column at WebJunction and was also posted to BlogJunction on February 1, 2008 (blog.webjunctionworks.org/). The longer version adds useful commentary and suggestions. Needham thinks “we might be at the point where e-books move from techie toy to mainstream product” and that ebooks could have a positive impact in several areas. See the column for more.
Despite this screed, I’m not totally sold on e-books yet. I need to start using my Kindle to know if it’s going to be something I can’t live without, like my iPod, or a tchotchke that sits on my desk and doesn’t get used, like my digital picture frame!
Here’s my prediction: Needham travels a lot, and for him and people like him Kindle may indeed be a great and constant companion.
Another favorable review of Kindle appears on the WebJunction site: “Amazon Kindle, breakthrough in ebook readers.” (www.webjunction.org/do/DisplayContent?id=19372). William Lund of Brigham Young University likes Kindle better than other ebook readers he’s tried. He calls it “the first ebook reader that I have truly loved.” The review offers a good description of Kindle and its advantages—and finds the same problems.
We have no idea whether Amazon has sold hundreds, a few thousand, or lots of Kindles. On the whole, most people who have tried Kindle find it better as an ebook reader than most predecessors—but certainly not without flaws, some of which can be corrected easily enough. Its use in libraries is unclear, particularly noting another section of the ToS: payment of fees to download content grants the right “to view, use, and display such Digital Content…solely for your personal, non-commercial use.”
That’s probably the biggest problem: You’re not buying ebooks, you’re licensing them. That license is, at least so far, not appropriate for circulating items.
I continue not to have a personal opinion on Kindle. Nor should I have: I’m not the intended market. I don’t travel often enough. I borrow most of the books I read. I’m happy with print books. I don’t believe Amazon wants to wean me away from print books, for that matter.
What’s the future of ebooks? What should librarians do about them? The easy answer to the second question may be, “Don’t lose too much sleep just yet.” There’s no good answer to the first question because there’s not one medium called “ebooks” the way there’s one medium called “DVD” or “Audio CD.” Let’s look briefly at nine “ebook” varieties.
The biggest wave of ebook hype has been for a group of portable devices that claim to be book replacements. Two such devices are on the market: Rocket’s eBook and the Softbook reader. Both devices are battery-operated, use backlit LCD screens, hold the equivalent of several print books (downloaded in propriety formats locked to a single reader), and have no functions other than to display and search text and related images. You can’t print texts out; they can only be read on the medium-resolution screens. Most book-length texts for both readers cost about as much as hardbound books; most such texts are reformatted versions of print books from commercial publishers. As of May 2000, Rocket claims more than 2,400 books; Softbook, roughly 1,700.
How robust is the locked ebook market? One indicator may be the lack of true competition. Gemstar Development (the company that produces VCR Plus+ listings) purchased both Rocket and Softbook for relative pittances, reporting that sales weren’t material to either purchase. Another may be a complete lack of sales figures for either reader.
Locked ebook devices do have niche uses, including a potentially large niche as textbook carriers, but they don’t serve libraries particularly well, and so far they don’t offer texts that aren’t readily available in print form. While locked ebooks seem to interest many librarians, it’s not entirely clear why: of all ebook models, they seem to have the least to offer from a library perspective.
One alternative to locked ebooks is an “open” standard for ebook markup and encryption: a model that allows any text to reside on any reader, but also protects publishers’ interests. Such a model has been proposed, an XML-based standard called Open eBook.
Open ebooks have the same niche uses as locked readers but don’t require single-use readers. There are several hundred million reading devices for open ebooks: desktop computers, notebook computers, Palm and other handheld devices, and even locked readers.
Open ebooks can make sense for libraries if sensible licensing and circulation arrangements can be worked out—but they must be encrypted for publishers to be comfortable with them, which may restrict printing and make circulation difficult. So far, there aren’t enough open ebooks to see where they’ll go—and an XML-based model may turn out to be less attractive than Adobe’s PDF, even if it is a “standard.”
One section of the Internet Public Library offers more than 12,000 ebooks and other electronic texts. These are free for the downloading, printing, circulation, or what have you: they’re either digital copies of books already in the public domain or texts placed into the public domain for various reasons.
Public domain ebooks can enrich library and personal resources. The texts are easy to locate and download, and some of them are already cataloged in the nation’s great bibliographic databases. A reader will find a crude plain-text version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to be a poor substitute for a Penguin paperback or Modern Library’s omnibus Shakespeare, but thousands of public domain ebooks do offer worthwhile resources—and some of these ebooks (or electronic publications shorter than book length) are resources not readily available in print.
Digital dreamers have claimed universal availability as one reason that digital distribution must inevitably replace printed books. Once it’s digital, everybody can use it simultaneously! That premise terrifies publishers and writers who expect compensation for their work.
NetLibrary dispels the myth of universal accessibility. Libraries or consortia purchase access to titles from netLibrary’s collection and users can borrow those titles (downloading them to their own PCs)—but one user can’t borrow a title while it’s in use by somebody else, unless the library has paid for more than one copy. That’s a standard circulation model that makes economic sense for publishers as well as libraries.
Unfortunately, titles borrowed from netLibrary must be read on a computer: the software prevents readers from printing out major parts of a work. That does not make the concept worthless. Many readers don’t intend to read entire books, particularly in academic libraries or for some kinds of nonfiction books in public libraries. There are tens of thousands of “pseudobooks”—book length items normally used at a paragraph or chapter level within a particular library. While netLibrary doesn’t replace a physical collection (and the costs can be tricky), it offers an intriguing model tuned to library realities.
If you turn a digital text into a physical book, is it an ebook or is it just a book? Lightning Source (from Ingram), Replica Books and competitive services store fully marked up digital texts or scanned page images and use recently-developed laser printers that combine high-speed duplex printing, collating, and binding into a single system designed to produce one book at a time. These instabooks eliminate many of the problems connected with ebooks—but also eliminate some of the advantages.
Currently, Lightning Source offers more than 8,000 titles delivered 48 hours after order, printed on acid-free paper and bound as either paperback or hardcover books with four-color covers. Replica Books offers similar services through book wholesalers.
This doesn’t help library problems with shelf space or potential theft or loss—but it does open a new avenue to acquire three kinds of books previously either impossible or expensive to purchase: out of print books scanned to bring them back into print; slow-selling midlist books ready to fade away; and worthwhile books that don’t get published because their audience is too small. In all three cases, instabooks can benefit libraries—and since they’re books, they circulate normally.
There are problems. Fair book contracts include reversion clauses. Typically, six months after a book goes out of print, all rights revert to the author—who can then work with other publishers, self-publish, or do with it as he or she pleases. Instabook processing may mean that books will never officially go out of print, since it costs the publisher almost nothing to keep the marked-up text available for one-off printing. That strengthens the publisher’s already-stronger hand, and may mean that authors need new kinds of reversion clauses.
The most widely publicized “ebook” wasn’t a book at all. Steven King’s Riding the Bullet is a long novelette or short novella. That’s an awkward length for fiction or nonfiction in most print media: too long for an article (or short story), too short for a book. MightyWords offers an intriguing “ebook” model to handle midlength texts—although they also handle one-page and book-length texts. MightyWords already has thousands of authors, including some established print authors and many who have never been formally published. There are and will be competitive services.
Authors submit files (in Word, PostScript, PDF, or plain text form), short biographies, summaries, and publication agreements. Authors set the price for each publication (with certain very low length-based minima). MightyWords converts other forms to PDF and packages PDF files in secure form, then acts as the e-publisher or e-distributor: providing some publicity, handling charge cards, and sending royalty checks. The author pays $1 per month for each text while it’s mounted; otherwise, MightyWords and the author split proceeds fifty-fifty. As PDF files, MightyWords publications are designed for quality printing (and MightyWords may yet offer one-off printing and binding).
MightyWords started out by commissioning essays on the Bill of Rights from various authors, making those essays available as free downloads, and publicizing them widely. As cumulated, the essays make a modest and uneven book, but they offer fascinating insights into the contributors (who include Newt Gingrich, Whoopi Goldberg and the team of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Richard N. Goodwin).
Is MightyWords just another source for vertical-file material that libraries can’t handle well? Is it another form of self-publishing designed for shorter works? Could it be a way to enrich publishing through essays, longer articles, and a resurgence of short and medium-length fiction? It could be all of these and more; it could engender competitive services with lower charges; or it could fade away.
Who hasn’t said, “I could write a book”? Some of us act on that impulse and find the book-writing habit hard to stop. Others may produce just one book-length manuscript in their lives and never get that book published. In most cases, that’s because the book isn’t “worth” publishing, but in some cases, the book just falls through the cracks: the author fails to contact the right publisher or the book isn’t quite what the publisher needs this year. If sixty thousand new titles are published in a year, there could be another six hundred thousand (or more) that don’t make it into print.
Ebooks blur the line between vanity publishing and self-publishing. At best, digital distribution should eliminate the excesses of vanity presses. When your Internet Service Provider will give you several megabytes of Web space and when Word or its competitors will produce competent HTML for book-length items, why pay someone else large sums to mount your ebook?
There has been an explosion of self-publishing on the Web, but most of it doesn’t rise to ebook status. There are personal Web pages with book-length texts, but those represent a tiny fraction of personal Web pages. There is a role for ebook equivalents of contract publishers: someone to check markup, assist with publicity, handle billing and other financial matters, and make arrangements with instabook operations for physical copies. Some people will self-publish full-fledged ebooks, setting up their own merchant accounts and handling other aspects; some will contract out these aspects.
Libraries rarely buy vanity-press publications but most libraries have acquired well-reviewed self-published books. Just as desktop page layout substantially lowered the entry barrier for self-publishing, electronic distribution lowers it even further. That leaves the two problems that have always made self-publishing and very small presses difficult: awareness (publicity) and reviewing.
Ebooks did not begin with Rocket or the Web. Diskette and CD-ROM ebooks have been around for years from publishers such as Cyberlink Press, Book-on-Disc, Samizdat Express, Ra Kahn, Electra Press, Dead End Street, Eastgate, New York Writers Café, and many others. Some diskette ebook publishers fulfill the filtering functions of traditional publishers; others produce anything they can get their hands on, acting as distributors. At least one diskette ebook publisher has started a CD-ROM vanity imprint: for $1,300, the writer gets 100 copies of his or her masterwork with a custom jewel-box insert!
These publishers have never had much impact, even ones such as Eastgate that specialize in hypertext. Diskette ebooks have the same readability problems as other ebooks and have rarely been reviewed or distributed comparably to mainstream books. Libraries might consider circulating CD-R ebooks, just as many libraries circulate CD-ROMs and audio CDs (including the new CD-based audiobooks), but diskettes pose bigger problems for libraries. This form of ebook is likely to fade away completely, except in some specialized niches.
Years ago, Voyager produced a series of “extended books” (some on diskette, some on CD-ROM), adding features to make the electronic form more than a transcription. Unfortunately, these early ebooks were quirky and aimed primarily at Mac users, and sales never came close to justifying production costs. That’s been the story for most “extended books” published as CD-ROMs. The qualities that make them interesting CD-ROMs drive up production costs, and the mass market for CD-ROMs (other than games and encyclopedias) never really developed.
Extended ebooks, either on CD-ROM or the Web, can go beyond print books in a number of ways besides searchable text. Good CD-ROMs can help users explore some topics in ways not supported by ordinary books, and the same is true for innovative Web-based resources.
Are these ebooks, or are they something else? I would call them new electronic media, able to complement and extend print publishing. They can pose some of the same problems for libraries as other ebooks, but they offer new kinds of promise that may make up for some of the problems.
Which of these models will make a difference? Which ones do libraries need to consider today, next year, or five years from now? What other models will come along?
I don’t have easy answers for any of those questions. Ebooks of all sorts will not replace all print books, but several of these ebook models will provide new resources for libraries and readers. Don’t bet on them converging into a single ebook model: that’s not the way the world usually works.
And when someone asks what you’re doing about ebooks, one good answer is, “What do you mean by ebooks?”
That quoted answer-as-question is the end of the September 2000 article (written in May 2000). I believe it’s still as good a model of the so-called ebook market as any, although it’s now clear that self-publishing and print on demand aren’t really part of the ebook market. A few quick and incomplete updates to the situation in 2000:
Ø Gemstar turned the two ebook readers into REB models, which failed for lack of market interest. It was a vast money-losing operation. Since then, there have been other proprietary ebook devices, including the Sony Reader and Kindle—but both Reader and Kindle bundle in some other features and are open to importing texts other than purchased ebooks. Note that I thought the textbook market was a “potentially large niche” even back then—but it continues to be an empty niche, possibly because textbook publishers don’t seem to be interested.
Ø The Open eBook format does exist. What was the Open eBook Forum is now the International Digital Publishing Forum, pushing Open Publication Structure (OPS, the “.epub” extension), a successor to Open eBook. I don’t see a lot of evidence that it’s been that successful.
Ø There are a lot more public domain ebooks than there were in 2000—thanks primarily to Project Gutenberg, Google Book Search, Open Content Alliance and Live Search Books (and, for non-English books, the Universal Library Project). The Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania (digital.library.upenn.edu/ books/) lists more than 30,000 free books in English and links to some other large-scale repositories. Based on that website’s information, Google Book Search has more than 100,000 downloadable public domain books; Project Gutenberg more than 21,000; Internet Archive more than 200,000 “items”; Live Book Search “thousands.” The Universal Library Project has supposedly scanned more than 1.5 million books, most of them public domain, but only about 10,000 of these show up at the Internet Archive as searchable, downloadable books.
Ø I’m not prepared (or knowledgeable enough) to discuss changes in the world of circulating pseudobooks—but some of the models now allow long enough circulation terms that they could correctly be called circulating ebooks and audiobooks.
Ø Once you convert an ebook into a printed book, it’s no longer an ebook. Period. There are now standalone instabook systems but very few installations. The reversion clause issue has not been worked out, at least not on a standard basis.
Ø In the past, numbers of ebooks sold usually included a lot of “not quite a book” items: Short stories, novelettes. MightyWords disappeared in late 2001 or early 2002. It never realized its possible promise, and in essence faded away.
Ø The eVanity and self-publishing field has exploded, with several companies operating as publish-on-demand vanity presses and at least one or two operating as straightforward service operations. I’ve written about Lulu.com elsewhere; they’ve made several hundred thousand books available and are ready to offer ebook (PDF), print book or both. For ebook editions, Lulu can even be used for free distribution.
Ø I believe most CD-based ebooks have faded away, and I’m pretty sure nobody’s trying to make a business out of distributing text on diskettes. (Does your current PC have a diskette drive? Mine doesn’t.) Some prophets of the future of books expect all books to become “extended” in some manner—but so far, the market hasn’t done much with the idea.
Ø Circulating ebooks (“pseudo” and otherwise) and etexts (e.g. reference works), a category I didn’t include in 2000, have probably had more impact on libraries than any of the other models. They’re clearly not converging into a single model, and relatively few sensible observers even suggest that ebooks will replace all (or most) print books. They’re not converging into a single model, and that’s no surprise.
Why include a seven-year-old article? Because “ebook” continues to be a muddled name for a complex set of possibilities. I’ll end this Perspective with notes on a few other ebook-related items that have appeared since April 2007—leaving out a lot of interesting discussions because this is already too long and the discussions seem dated or simplistic.
Mary Beth Sancomb-Moran posted this on April 27, 2007 at Impromptu librarian (impromptu.wordpress.com), referring to Mike Elgan’s Computerworld article “Why e-books are bound to fail.” Elgan lists some of the ebook readers available in April 2007, notes that there will be niche markets for ebooks and notes the belief of ebook makers and “millions of gadget fans, technology pundits, bookworms and journalists” that “e-books will soon become a popular alternative to real, paper books for reading novels, nonfiction bestsellers and kiss-and-tell political memoirs”—that “we’ll all start buying these things, and downloading our books.” Elgan’s conclusion:
Not gonna happen.
Reasons? They’re expensive—the readers cost hundreds of dollars and “books tend not to be highly discounted in electronic form.” (Score one for Kindle on the second point.)
Another huge barrier to the growth of the e-book market is that everyone already has alternatives. You can read written content on your PC—in fact, you’re doing it right now—on tablet PCs, laptops, cell phones and PDAs.
Note that this is not a barrier to growth of the ebook market—only to the sale of dedicated ebook readers. In any case, Elgan regards those as “minor” issues. More excerpts:
There is one unavoidable and fatal fact that will kill the nascent e-book market in its cradle: People love paper books…
So many predictions about the future have failed because futurists tend to overemphasize the possible over the desirable. They give too much weight to technology and not enough to human nature…
Do people want to ‘curl up’ with a battery-operated plastic screen?
The obvious answer is no.
I’ll take exception here: “People” is almost always too broad a category. Some book readers love paper books; some would be happy enough to have alternatives. Are the “millions” in that category? If so, it’s hard to understand why ebook devices never seem to sell enough to state sales figures—but maybe Kindle’s different. Still, wholesale negatives are as unlikely as wholesale positives. I would have to respond, “Yes, some people might be delighted to curl up with a Kindle or Sony Reader…depending on who they are and the circumstances.”
As the basis for arguing that dedicated ebook readers have no real potential to sweep away print books, I think Elgan’s right. As the basis for dismissing the category entirely, not so much.
Sancomb-Moran is a book lover. “We have books in almost every room of the house… I buy books like some women buy shoes.” She quotes Elgan’s comment on technology and human nature, adding the codicil “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” She agrees with Mike Elgan that “e-books will never even come close to replacing paper books.” So do I. But that doesn’t inherently mean they’ll fail or that “doomed” is the right prediction.
T. Scott Plutchak (tscott.typepad.com) posted this on his eponymous blog on August 27, 2007, referring back to a 20,000-word commentary by William Powers, Hamlet’s Blackberry: Why Paper is Eternal. Without going back to that long paper (I tried, but…), here’s a little of what Plutchak says:
Media are more than just containers—the experience of reading a paper newspaper and a digital newspaper with the same content are qualitatively different.
Much of the discussion about print books vs. e-books ignores that fact. There is an assumption that the advantages of digital are such that, once the technology gets just a little better, people won’t want to bother with print books anymore. But Powers reminds us that print has its own advantages and that, in some cases, those advantages are, in fact, superior. He talks about “supersession”—what Paul Duguid refers to as “the idea that each new technological type vanquishes or subsumes its predecessors.” But, in fact, this very rarely actually happens. New technologies create new opportunities; but the older technologies don’t disappear, they find different niches.
It’s never a case of either/or. We’re still in the very beginning stages of understanding what can be done with digital media. With e-books, we’re still at the stage that Gutenberg was when he tried to make a printed Bible adhere as closely as possible to a manuscript Bible. Eventually, we will learn to discard those features that paper will always do better and focus on the features that are unique to digital…
As we get better at understanding what digital media can do, we’ll create amazing things. And for many of the purposes that we now use print, we’ll find those media to be superior. But we’ll always continue to use paper, because for certain purposes, it will always be the best thing.
“It’s never a case of either/or.” With a slight change to “rarely,” I’ll just add that I’ve been trying to make that point for at least 15 years and probably longer. I think most people get that now—but it’s in the DNA of some pundits and journalists to view things as either/or, no matter how artificial and improbable that view may be.
John Miedema’s Slow reading post of November 1, 2007 (johnmiedema.ca/) begins as a response to a commentary by Jeff Scott (not discussed here) that seems to suggest people prefer print books to ebooks for nostalgic reasons. Miedema doesn’t buy that. Some of his points on what he thinks is happening with ebooks and print books:
Is it just a matter of time before better e-Books come along? Probably. Books certainly have superior physical reading qualities. One of the common complaints about e-Books is eyestrain. Personally, I stare at a computer screen all day for work and school, and have no problem with eyestrain. I still prefer books for reading… There is a lot of exciting technology happening with e-Books. One that particularly fascinates me is electronic paper. This technology promises to make computers more like books, instead of the reverse. Brilliant…
Why do books stick around? What is the hard edge? Books are nicer to read, it’s true, but nicer quality things often get replaced by cheaper ones. Look at clothes and furniture… So will books stick around? Yes. Books have something that e-Books cannot have—the quality of fixity or unchangingness. Our life is accelerating more all the time. We will increasingly need moments when we can stop and think, turn off all the constantly updated screens, and really think through a challenging work of non-fiction, or relax with a well-written piece of fiction. It’s a matter of balance…
Miedema does think young people are more likely to prefer ebooks (but that they’ll eventually come to like print books for longer forms). I’m still waiting for signs of mass adoption of ebooks by “young people,” but he could be right. Otherwise, no argument.
It’s worth noting an earlier post, “The persistence of the book” (September 14, 2007). In that post, Miedema notes that it’s been more than a generation since it was first predicted that ebooks would replace print books. “The prediction was in error.” Noting practical reasons why that was true, he also notes that he was “among those who bemoaned the passing of the books as a regrettable but inevitable event, if not in my generation, then sometime soon. I was wrong.” Miedema now asserts (as do I) that “books and libraries will persist” and suggests one existential basis for that persistence: “We are physical beings and require a physical relationship with our information.” Not always, to be sure—and some print books have already (for the most part) been replaced with digital resources.
There is no separate digital domain that is taking over; there is instead a continuum of information modes, both digital and traditional, meeting different needs… The change we are witnessing is books fitting into a much larger spectrum of information resources. Books used to be the only source, now they are just the final and best source. I for one am quite happy with this new arrangement.
To my mind, the primary role of books as “the final and best source” is for narrative resources rather than information resources. Otherwise, no argument.
Let’s close with a January 28, 2008 laundry list from Epublishers weekly (epublishersweekly.blogspot.com/) with that title minus the bracketed words, and Mark Lindner’s commentary on February 9, 2008 at Off the Mark (marklindner.info/blog/), with that full title (minus the brackets themselves).
The list is by Michael Pastore, and it’s odd right from the start:
1. Ebooks promote reading. People are spending more time more time in front of screens and less time in front of printed books.
As Lindner says, “Uh, how does this follow?” First, “less time” is simply not proven (Cory Doctorow’s aphorism does not constitute empirical evidence); second, as Lindner says, time spent in front of screens may be looking at photos or videos—or whatever. And most on-screen reading isn’t book-form reading.
I won’t go through the whole list. I see one asserted advantage listed three times with slightly varied descriptions (the claim that ebooks can broaden publishing—which both ignores the profusion of small presses and the fact that print-on-demand does just as much to broaden publishing, maybe more). There’s the claim that faster production means ebooks “allow readers to read books about current issues and events”—but it takes much longer to write a coherent book than it does to print it. “Ebooks can be printable,” at which point they’re no longer ebooks.
Then there are some that Lindner does comment on (skipping others):
3. Ebooks preserve books. … Ebooks are ageless: they do not burn, mildew, crumble, rot, or fall apart. Ebooks ensure that literature will endure.
[Lindner] Ha ha ha ha ha. This is one of the funniest, utterly stupid comments I have ever heard. Digital preservation issues anymore? Format migration?
7. Ebooks are portable…
[Lindner] So those books I carry with me pretty much everywhere are not portable? Certainly ebooks are more portable in quantity is the point but make it more clearly then!
14. Ebooks are free. The magnificent work of Project Gutenberg, and other online public libraries, allow readers to read the classics at no cost.
[Lindner] “Right!” said with a proper Bill Cosby accent, ‘cause my public library charges me $5 just to walk in the door. Not!
27. Ebooks defeat attempts at censorship [followed by a list of “banned” books]. Ebooks guarantee that readers maintain their right to read.
[Lindner] I bet I can find every one of those at both my public and academic library. And censorship certainly exists on the internet.
Just for interest, I checked the eleven banned books at Worldcat.org. As far as I can tell, the original list misspelled one title (Ars Amatoria by Ovid is held by several hundred libraries; I can find no listings for Ars Amorata or evidence that Ovid wrote such a work). Otherwise, with a couple of exceptions held by dozens or hundreds of libraries, the books on the list are held by thousands of American libraries.
Is the list all bad? No—but, as Lindner notes, “the ones I did highlight seem egregiously spurious to me.” Lindner isn’t against ebooks. He is opposed to spurious marketing.
Let’s assume Amazon decides to scrap DRM, adopt whatever open ebook standard exists, open its platform up for everyone to use, and fix the current problems. Let’s say Kindle2 is “the perfect ebook reader.”
Since I haven’t used a Kindle, I’m willing to stipulate that it might be “ideal enough” for me. If I had occasion to use it, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I became immersed in the text of good books as readily as I do with a print book. (Frankly, I’d be surprised if I didn’t.) Much as I love elegant typography, I rarely worry about its lack in mass-market paperbacks if the content makes up for it. I suspect I’d get along just fine with whatever Kindle offered.
Let’s assume further that almost everyone would feel the same way about Kindle2—and that it would cost, say, $250 (free with a two-year commitment to buy at least two books a month—let’s use the cell-phone pricing model!).
Would that increase the market for ebooks (defined in this case as “booklength etexts sold for individual or library use”)? Yes, I think it would.
If textbook makers played along, Kindle2 or SonyReader2 could be an enormous boon to schoolchildren and, with saner pricing, a significant boon to college students—and you’d have a multi-billion dollar market, probably at least 10 and possibly 100 times the size of the current ebook market (depending on your definition of that market). This would, by and large, be A Very Good Thing.
There would be other markets, to be sure, including some of those where ebooks already play a role.
Would Kindle2/SonyReader2 and the increased availability of mechanisms to make ebooks work on existing devices (PDAs, smart phones, etc.) mean the end of print books? No, I don’t believe it would. Would it mean the end of physical libraries? That’s even less likely.
There’s room for both. For most of us—who don’t travel a lot, who usually read one book at a time, especially who get most of our books from libraries—ebooks continue to be a solution in search of a problem. Technological perfection isn’t the issue. Preference is.
It’s rarely either/or. It’s usually and. Print books aren’t going away. The questions, in this case, are whether Kindle will be a major success and whether ebooks in general will become a mass market, let’s say reaching a retail presence of 10% of print books. Those questions are tougher to answer.
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