Jun 9, 2010 by

This comes from a discussion on Librarything in the Ancient History group, of all places. The question poised was as follows:

So what do you think? Is there another dark age coming? Should we fight ebooks out of long-term social consciousness? Or should we just insure that enough paper books exist somewhere?

And, well, those are interesting questions. Digital media doesn’t last as long as physical. Even putting format issues aside, an eBook you buy today may not be readable in ten years time because the data will degrade (whether on a CD, hard drive or flash drive), whereas I own paper books from over 70 years ago that still stand up to a good read today. With the looming energy crisis it’s not unreasonable to worry about another dark age, or at least a very different age, in the none to distant future.

So, should we fight ebooks? Or should we accept the transience of knowledge? Or are we tilting at windmills?

I… e-vangelised.

Firstly, I don’t think digital will ever entirely replace hard copies. It hasn’t for music or film, so why should it for books? In fact, books already have the advantage of coming in multiple formats. Hardback, paperback, eback… It’s (a) a wider choice for consumers and (b) a new market for writers.

For consumers, well. eBooks are usually cheaper (if you avoid the Agency model). You don’t have to worry about storage. You can take as many books as you like on holiday, or on your daily commute. You can change the font size so your choices don’t become more limited if your eyesight starts to go. You can annotate them, and edit those annotations. Depending on what you use to read them, you may find links embedded for you to research additional info if you so wish, and you’ll always have a dictionary on hand. If you have a dedicated eReader, rather than a laptop, computer or smartphone, there’s no backlight so there’s no eyestrain. Geographical restrictions are being forced out, so you don’t have to wait as long for new books.

For publishers, the initial outlay is smaller than print books (how much smaller is hotly debated, particularly by print publishers) and the cost per book diminishes with every sales, unlike print. This allows ePublishers to take risks print publishers can’t; to fill niches and explore new avenues. In some genres, such as romance, it’s pretty much acknowledged now that ePublishing is finding the new trends first. A lot of ePublishers make most of their sales from their own website, which saves massive amounts of money in distributor costs. They don’t have to worry so much about returns, or warehousing, or the cost of pulping millions of books a year. And hey, though paperbooks usually come from sustainable forests, the amount of bleach used to whiten those pages will never be eco-friendly. eBooks are much more so (especially if you have an eReader so you’re only using electricity when you’re actually turning the page).

For authors, royalties are higher. Much higher (for example, 35% gross compared with 7% net), though this is balanced by the lack of an advance. You’re not constrained to 100k books – novellas are actually financially viable again. Your market is worldwide. Publishers are willing to take a chance on unusual genres or themes.

I don’t think the market’s there yet, though. It’s too young. There’s too many formats. There’s print publishers fighting to save their old business models* and strongarming Amazon and Apple into playing along. Amazon and Apple are strongarming publishers to play it their way, massively biasing towards the big publishers and almost killing the small presses. If you go for a ‘cloud’ based device, like Amazon’s Kindle, they can yank books from it**. If you go for a device with storage, lose it and you’ve lost your books. DRM is just a pain, and doesn’t stop piracy. eInk can’t manage colour very well, so textbooks are out for most subjects. Some formats are becoming obsolete so quickly you don’t know what to buy. There’s a lot of authormills and scams out there that give ePublishing a bad name, making it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In terms of survival, that’s much trickier. I dislike the idea of ‘The Cloud’, and it’s a mixed blessing in terms of back-ups. In theory it’s safer, because it’s not all on one server, but at the same time you don’t know where it is and all it takes is one botched upgrade and thousands of gigs are lost. The internet is surprisingly well backed up, both by governments (hello, Clegg and Cameron! Have you archived this yet? (pdf link)) and by companies like Google and the Wayback Machine. You can never delete something, not really. However, digitial media isn’t as robust as analog, and books will survive much longer than hard disks. On the one hand, the other hand, and on the final third hand… Greater availability could be the saving of it. The more people have a copy of a work the more likely it is to survive. That’s why the classics are classic, because no one bothered to keep the dross. Maybe that”ll work out too, especially as devices such as the espresso book machine become more popular. Like a certain eBook ever so much? Get it printed as a keepsake.

I think, in ten years time, we’ll see eBooks available in bookshops. I do. Along with espresso book machines. If the shop hasn’t got a book you want on the shelves, you’ll still be able to get it. Maybe eBooks will come free to download with hardcover releases like MP3s sometimes do with CDs. I think the A4 sized eReaders will be in the hand of every newspaper-reading and magazine-loving commuter. I think students will have eReaders so they no longer have to spend hundreds of pounds on books and do their backs in carrying them, but will be able to rent them from the library even if the library is currently closed (my local library’s has promised us eBooks now it’s turned into an ‘Explore Center’, and though I can’t work out how to actually rent them I’m still thrilled).

And I think, in ten years time, you’ll still be able to buy hardbacks and paperbacks and enjoy the smell of books and the feel of books and the knowledge that you’ll still have someething to read even if you run out of battery. Choice is a wonderful thing. eBooks are a threat to print books in the same way paperbacks were a threat to hardbacks. The industry survived, quality of writing didn’t suffer (no, seriously – have you seen some of what the Victorians put out?), and a lot of people could afford books that they hadn’t been able to before.

And I’m in no way biased that I have a book being published in August by an ePub, a book that due to genre and length a print publisher wouldn’t never have touched. 😛

*most of their profits come from hardback books. I don’t know about you guys, but I almost never buy hardback anyway. Even if I wasn’t an e-convert, apparently I’m already responsible for the death of publishing. Whoops.

** Orwell’s 1984, no less. Because apparently Amazon are blind to irony.


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