"I don't want an e-reader," I've groused. "I like reading real books." But am I right to object to e-books ... and does it matter that I do? Last week, CNET reported that Amazon is now selling more e-books for its Kindle reader than it is selling traditional paperback books. When e-books outsold hardcovers, this was no real shock, given the high prices hardcovers command. The paperback, by contrast, is the standard by which leisure reading is judged. For most of the years of my teenage and adult lives, a stack of paperbacks was my constant companion. Paperbacks went with me in my briefcase, my shoulder bag and my jacket pocket, entertaining me in waiting rooms, coffee shops and at home. For the venerable paperback to be replaced by virtual books read on devices costing more than 20 or 30 of those paperbacks, a truly major shift must be occurring – both in consumer preference and in producer offering.
Interestingly, Amazon won't say exactly how many Kindles it sells, although its website proclaims the device their best-selling item. This is impressive given the traditional hurdles e-books must overcome in supplanting printed, paper books.
As I have previously discussed in Technocracy, a major criticism of e-books is that such books are treated as software and sold under what could be construed as a software licensing model. We naturally resist this. Whether we put it on a shelf or level the coffee table with it, we figure a paper book is wholly ours, forever. What we forget is that licensing limitations constrain what we may or may not do with the paper books we purchase. You cannot take your new paperback, run photocopies and sell those copies on eBay. You can't scan it and put the resulting PDF file on Scribd for all the world to enjoy. You are, therefore, as limited as you are when "renting" or otherwise licensing a piece of software. You just aren't aware of it.
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Early missteps involving the yanking of electronic books, unannounced, from users' readers – appropriately enough, over issues of licensing – did not help build confidence in this new model of literature sales, distribution and enjoyment. As we adjust to the idea that software is ephemeral and impermanent, that books are not fixed in space and time so much as they are read, archived and either backed up or lost, we step closer to a world in which "book" means an arrangement of data rather than a physical object that happens to convey the same. The e-book focuses the reader on the reading, not on the delivery system.
Books, after all, can be a terrible burden. Many a bibliophile has experienced the hardship that is moving – for most avid readers own more books than they do anything else, by weight. The last time I moved, I had countless boxes full of books – boxes that used to hold reams of paper – and these were by far the single largest category of items to transport. During one move years ago, those boxes so overloaded the U-Haul truck I rented that it was probably dangerously heavy and slow to stop. In reading the reflections of other bibliophiles, I have seen time and time again the dread and regret such individuals face when they must either winnow their collections to save space or relocate the entire library.
Resistance to the e-book, as those famous science-fiction antagonists say, is futile. It is not coming; it is already here. The pressures on printers and publishers of a soft economy and ever-greater desire, among consumers, for storability and portability of data are only hastening the decline of paper books. Philip Ruppel, president of publisher McGraw Hill, wrote in late December that "the e-book is practically the biggest thing that's hit the publishing industry since the invention of movable type. Publishers and e-book resellers are reporting astronomical growth."
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Ruppel identified several trends that emphasize the changing way we do and will read. The Internet and instant access to information – on our computers, on our smartphones, all around us – have created increased demand for interactivity and cross-platform support of "enhanced" e-book features. A paper book can provide you with ancillary data support. (In ancient times, we called these "footnotes" and "endnotes.") An enhanced e-book, however, can link you to up-to-the-second definitions, data, profiles, external webpages, audio and video. It's the difference between rolling downhill on a toboggan and driving uphill on a snowmobile – while, as you drive, making a phone call on your bluetooth headset connected to a phone that is also an mp3 player.
Ruppel also proclaims the "device war" nearly over. Just as standardization on VHS over Beta or Blu-Ray over HD DVD paved the way for explosions in content development and purchasing (because producers and consumers alike no longer needed to trouble themselves with which device to serve or buy), standardization of e-book file format and reader compatibility will put the focus on the content, not on the selection of equipment. Already, as Ruppel points out, Kindle e-books can be read on Kindle readers, on computers, on iPads and on iPhones. Once the choice is not, "which reader will I buy" but rather, "which books and under what licensing arrangements will I purchase," the new publishing model won't be "new." It will simply be how we do things now.
In that way, the new boss will be the same as the old boss. Publishing used to mean something – specifically, it used to mean that the published book contained, in Ruppel's words, "high-quality vetted, edited content." The proliferation of publish-on-demand and self-publishing paper and e-book resources has empowered the individual at the cost of inflicting much incompetent garbage on the world of writing. Under the new model of e-book publishing and sales, the mechanism that has bloated the reading market will help consumers sift through that excess.
The e-book is the future. Publishers, to remain relevant, are evolving. Readers, for good or ill, must do the same.