ebooks vs paper books

Many paper publishers seem to be in a kind of crisis at the moment. It can be debated as to what the causes are, but the end result is that many are cutting back on titles, and the titles they are publishing seem to be more of the tried and tested old reliables. This doesn't mean no publishers take gambles on new authors anymore (thank goodness that isn't so yet), but broadly speaking they are cutting back.

There are more writers now, and more excellent writers, than ever before. We are living in what I'm convinced will be seen as the early part of a renaissance. Not only are there more writers, but reading is incredibly popular now too. Despite the fear-inspiring doom-cries of certain politicians, the new generations seem to be the most literate in history. They consume vast amounts of verbal, visual, and textual culture, largely on the internet. And we of the older generations continue to relax with books too.

As fuel costs continue to rise (some projections expect it to rise to $300 to fill the family car in a few years -- not so surprising when I consider that my first car cost a tenth to fill that my current one does) and as raping the wild forests gives way to more expensive, but sustainable paper plantations, we can expect paper books to rise in price and decline in volume.

Many of the large software companies gleefully expected to make vast profits from ebooks, but were dismayed when these didn't materialise. Of course it isn't hard to see why, if you look with a clear eye at the ebook scene. There is massive consumption of free, unencumbered ebooks, but commercial ebooks with all their paranoid locks are hardly moving. I have bought a number of ebooks and have had the infuriating experience of being locked out of them. The locks are extremely difficult to negotiate in the first place, and then are tied to a particular computer. If your computer crashes and your operating system needs to be re-installed (all too common an experience) or if you simply upgrade your operating system or hardware then you become locked out of your commercial ebook. When this happens once it is very annoying. When it happens twice there is great reluctance to ever submit to that indignity again.

Most authors, musicians, and artists I've spoken to on this subject believe the line they've been fed, that in order for their work to be safe it has to be locked up, but this is wrong for a number of reasons.

  1. Think of your favorite writers. Did you initially buy them brand new, perhaps after liking the book covers or reading reviews? Or did a friend hand you a book and insist that you must read it? Or did you borrow it from a library first? Or did you begin by buying their works in second hand bookshops? If you borrow from a friend or library, or buy from a secondhand shop then the author receives no direct benefit, but of course the indirect benefit is undeniable. Free and cheap secondhand books are a terrific way to propagate works. Word of mouth is the best advertising. Baen Books publish a number of their books for free downloading. They find that it reinvigorates sales of other works by an author when one of their works is published free.

  2. The internet makes it possible to distribute books for effectively zero cost. This means that for the first time we creators can cut out the middlemen and go direct to the public. The locked books argument uses fear to convince creators that we still need the middlemen, and uses fear of readers... who are actually the writers' greatest allies. Publishers, if they adapt to the new environment, will still provide editing and promotional services, but I think -- I hope -- the shift in power might favor the small publishers who already have closer relationships with their writers.

  3. With such a large reading public now (and bearing in mind that many of the poorer parts of the world are about to enter the middle classes) the potential audience is exploding. We can make use of monetary return from just a fraction of the readers. It sounds counterintuitive, but it has worked in a number of cases. The people who can afford to, pay what they want, and those who can't afford, don't. You would think this would never work, but LiveJournal has exactly this system and it earns a very tidy income. The proliferation of websites sites that provide free content accompanied by a donation button is an interesting development along that line.

  4. With the world about to become awash in writers, those who make their voices heard by utilising the most efficient medium are the ones who will be remembered most.

  5. Locked ebooks are readable only within particular, circumscribed, often pathetically impractical viewer programs. Often (e.g. Microsoft Reader and Adobe pdf) they attempt to emulate paper books... but ebooks are not paper. They have vastly greater potential. Free ebooks (e.g. the tens of thousands available from Project Gutenberg) are not restricted in viewer software and can make use of wonderful viewers that can exploit the great advantages of electronic text.

I am hopelessly addicted to reading. I consume all in my path. If I have a preference I read science fact, science fiction, and romance, but I'll read anything. I have a couple of thousand paper books (they took up most of the back of the truck when I moved house last) and I've now been trying to replace as many as possible with electronic books. Currently I have about 3,000 electronic books (they can fit in my pocket on an ordinary DVD). Everywhere I go I take my little handheld Palm computer. It is my preferred reading medium, and every night I curl up in bed to read (and sometimes write) on my Palm computer. Modern, inexpensive handheld computers are neat little devices; smaller than a paperback, they can hold hundreds, or even thousands of books. Paper has become an annoyance for me that I avoid if possible.


Miriam English   2006